President Joe Biden and others who seem to believe it's appropriate to consider releasing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout from prison in exchange for any American citizen wrongfully detained by Russia as a political bargaining chip – whether Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan or someone else – are misguided and naive.
We must not negotiate with terrorists. That includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, the greatest terrorist known today.
Bout, who is known as the "Merchant of Death," provided the fuel for conflicts across the globe. He was a critical player in the global illicit arms trade not because he could obtain weapons but because he could deliver his destructive cargo anywhere in the world through his control of a private fleet of military aircraft. And he did just that.
A tremendous amount of resources and political capital were spent on the critical national security investigation into Bout's actions. Lives were placed at risk, and tireless efforts were made. Now many voices are not being adequately considered in these deliberations over whether to free Bout in exchange for an American. Those voices include an entire generation of maimed and orphaned inhabitants of war-torn countries throughout the world, especially in Africa.
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Most of the articles and interviews that argue for Bout's release in exchange for Griner and others completely mischaracterize the national security implications of such an undertaking. They say Bout, arrested in 2008, is soon to be released and is no longer a threat, as he is unlikely to be a continued force in the global illicit arms trade.
To be clear, Bout has served less than 15 years, or 60%, of his 25-year mandatory sentence. The evidence against Bout was extensive and damning. In a recorded undercover meeting, he declared to persons he believed to be terrorist facilitators that the United States was his sworn enemy. He offered them, as part of an extensive arsenal of heavy weapons, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles to be used against U.S. military advisers and the Colombian military.
Swap would send terrible message to enemies and allies
Bout's potential reengagement in the arms trade is not the primary national security implication to be considered. Rather, it is the negative and resounding message that such a capitulation would send.
Negotiating for Bout’s release is a feckless and shortsighted foreign policy. Such actions merely encourage our adversaries to engage in the kidnapping, illegal detention and ransoming of American citizens throughout the world. Organizations such as Hezbollah, drug cartels and the Russian Federal Security Service are emboldened when their criminal actions are rewarded. We must make abundantly clear that there is nothing to be gained by engaging in these criminal actions.
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Negotiating the release of Bout would erode the rule of law. The Drug Enforcement Administration does not engage in politically motivated investigations. The case on Bout was made solely on the basis of his criminal actions. If we cave to political deal-making, we reduce the righteousness of our legal system and, in effect, belittle our rule of law to the political stunts of Putin and his kangaroo courts.
In conducting major international criminal investigations, the DEA and other arms of U.S. law enforcement work closely with a cadre of global partners. These partnerships require a great deal of trust and sacrifice.
Countless foreign participants in the Bout investigation literally put their lives and well-being on the line. They paid a hefty political and diplomatic price to aid in the cause of justice. They did this with assurances that the crimes committed were so severe and destabilizing that they carried a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence – a sentence codified by U.S. law.
We would be turning our backs on these partners and commitments if we made a deal to free Bout. Our word would be rendered meaningless. This would negatively impact our national security interests moving forward.
Help public see hostile state dangers
We also must find ways to discourage our citizens from needlessly placing themselves in harm's way – whether missionaries looking to spread goodwill, adventure seekers chasing a unique experience or the vulnerable succumbing to criminal scams. I speak from experience, as I dedicated nearly three years to seeking the successful release of an innocent American citizen jailed overseas.
Griner, Whelan and Trevor Reed each decided to travel to Russia for profit and/or personal pleasure. Russia has been a hostile state since long before the invasion of Ukraine. That said, I have nothing but prayers and well wishes for each of them and their families. We should not abandon our citizens in their time of need and should make tireless efforts to get them safely home to their loved ones – but these efforts should not be centered around an ill-advised trade.
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Some have asked whether swapping Bout for one of the Americans held in Russia would be a "fair" trade. I reject such calculations. There is no value to be placed on a human life. Nobody can judge the value of one person against another. My arguments are based on the logic of national security and sound decision-making – and, again, I pray for the safe return of those held and wish peace to their families.
The deliberations at hand appear aimed at garnering votes and rehabilitating a badly failing agenda. Ironically, I have spoken with a great number of moderate, thoughtful, logical friends on both sides of the political aisle, and there is near universal agreement against this bargaining as ill-fated. I urge Biden to take stock of this and be steadfast in refusing to negotiate with a terrorist.
Rob "Zach" Zachariasiewicz was one of the Drug Enforcement Administration agents behind the operation that led to Viktor Bout's 2008 arrest in Thailand. Zachariasiewicz retired from the DEA at the end of 2019 after 22 years and now runs his own consulting business.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner released in prisoner swap: Who is Viktor Bout?