Bout trade reportage cites “Merchant of Death” details and authors

As American and Russian diplomats stoke intrigue over the prospect of trading Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for basketball star Brittney Griner and businessman Paul Whelan, a flurry of media reports are citing details from “Merchant of Death” and interviews with the book’s authors.

A new account in the Los Angeles Times by veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent Tracy Wilkinson draws on the 2007 profile of Bout and comments from co-author Stephen Braun. Wilkinson cites the LA Times’ own 2002 investigative profile of Bout — which Braun helped report and write — quoting a U.S. government official that Bout is “the Donald Trump or Bill Gates” of arms trafficking.

At the end of Wilkinson’s incisive report, Braun says the deal appears inevitable, adding that he is “no fan of letting this guy go, but there is a history that when agendas converge, they do it.” Braun’s co-author, Douglas Farah, recently urged a Bout-Griner trade in an essay in Politico, describing Bout as a “spent force” whose aviation empire has withered and whose former dictator and warlord clients — among them Libya’s Muammar Qaddadfi and Taliban mullahs in 1990s Afghanistan — are now deceased.

Farah also talks in his former newspaper, the Washington Post, about Bout’s early reliance for weapons from Eastern European arms factories based in countries that now mostly oppose Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Bout “was moving out weapons for a decade, from places like Ukraine,” said Farah, now president of the national security firm IBI Consultants.

A separate Post article from last week also cites the 2002 LA Times investigation into the Bout organization’s plane and weapons sales to the Taliban in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda. The terror group’s operatives trained in Afghan camps and, according to US officials, shared arms stockpiles with Taliban militants.

UPDATE Aug. 5, 2022 : The upsurge in interest in “Merchant of Death” comes as Griner was convicted on August 4 by a Russian judge in Moscow and sentenced to more than nine years imprisonment, likely in a Russian work camp.

Griner’s conviction and sentence were seen as the prelude to serious negotiations between American and Russian diplomats that could lead to Viktor Bout’s freedom and delivery to Moscow. And by Friday, senior American and Russian diplomats said openly that critical negotiations over whether to free Griner and Whelan — and perhaps Bout as well — would begin.

As those talks started, “Merchant of Death” and its authors have also been cited in recent days in reports in Reuters, National Public Radio, Britain’s BBC news network and Yahoo News.

More recently, Braun was interviewed about “Merchant of Death” and Viktor Bout by Canadian CTV News international security expert Jeanne Meserve on her “Spytalk” podcast and by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And Farah joined Slate’s “What Next?” podcast to discuss the pending diplomatic talks.