THE UNITED STATES seems to be missing some guns in Iraq. Somehow, the U.S. military has lost track of 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 80,000 pistols that were supposedly delivered from our caches to Iraqi security forces.
It was classic bureaucratic bungling, the Government Accountability Office concluded last month in a report criticizing the Pentagon’s failure to keep proper records
and track weapons flows. But there may have been another factor — the government’s dangerous and bumbling use of bad guys.
Consider the case of one particular bad guy, Viktor Bout — a stout, canny Russian air transporter who also happens to be the world’s most notorious arms dealer.
When the U.S. government needed to fly four planeloads of seized weapons from an American base in Bosnia to Iraqi security forces in Baghdad in August 2004, they used a Moldovan air cargo firm tied to Bout’s aviation empire. The problem is that the planes apparently never arrived. When Amnesty International investigators tried two years later to trace the shipment of more than 99 tons of AK-47s and other weapons, U.S. officials admitted they had no record of the flights landing in Baghdad.
The missing Bosnian weapons could simply be a paperwork problem (and it’s not certain that they are among the missing weapons the GAO discovered; they may be an additional loss). But Bout’s involvement as the transporter raises bleak possibilities far beyond bureaucratic error — including the possibility that the arms were diverted to another country or to Iraqi insurgents killing American troops.
That’s because Bout is about as bad as bad guys get. For more than a decade before he landed on U.S. payrolls, Bout’s air cargo operations delivered tons of contraband weapons — ranging from rifles to helicopter gunships — to some of the world’s most dangerous misfits.
He stoked wars across Africa, supplying Charles Taylor, the deposed Liberian president now on trial for war crimes. He ferried $50 million in guns and other cargo, and he even sold air freighters to the Taliban, whose mullahs shared their lethal inventories with Al Qaeda’s terrorists in Afghanistan.
Bout also has a well-known record for working both sides of the fence. His planes armed both the Angolan government in Africa and rebel forces arrayed against it. He cut weapons deals with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance government before betraying it by arming the Taliban.
By the late 1990s, much of this was known to U.S. intelligence, which had targeted him for an early form of rendition in the hopes of putting him out of business. But then, just two years after the 9/11 attacks, Bout turned up as a linchpin in the U.S. supply line to Iraq. Air Force records obtained by The Times show that his planes flew hundreds of runs into the high-security zone at Baghdad International Airport, delivering everything from guns to drilling equipment to frozen food for customers from the U.S. Army to mega-contractor KBR Inc. The military officials who oversaw his flights knew nothing about the war-stoking background of the Bout network.
How did Bout go from being persona non grata to a valued U.S. contractor? Some European intelligence officials believe that Bout made a deal with the U.S., secretly using his talents to aid the invasion of Afghanistan and getting a payday as an Iraq contractor. But there is also ample evidence that U.S. officials simply dropped the ball when it came to checking contractor bona fides as they rushed to set up supply lines into Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Bout’s planes were used as what former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz described as “second-tier contractors.” The Army or the Army Corps of Engineers would hire KBR or other prime contractors to fly in supplies, and the firms would then hire Bout planes, either directly or through air charter services.
One problem was that although the companies had nominal responsibility to know the background of their hires, no one at the Pentagon seemed to share in that role. Department of Defense officials should have known about him — even if U.S. intelligence didn’t share its knowledge, there was plenty of public information available that should have soured the military on allowing him into Iraq under U.S. auspices. Defense officials could have circulated an informal “no fly” list to make sure that gunrunners like Bout were not hired. But “it was ‘do it now, the fewer questions asked the better,’ ” said Air Force National Guard Lt. Col. Christopher Walker, who oversaw the air operations in Baghdad in 2004.
Once Bout’s firms were hired, there also was no follow-up effort to learn more about their background and performance. There should have been spot-checks to scrutinize him, but oversight was nonexistent.
By the fall of 2004, however, Bout had been targeted by a Treasury Department freeze in assets, prompted by a United Nations’ effort to use economic sanctions against Liberian dictator Taylor and his inner circle — which included Bout. But weeding out Bout’s contracts was not a pressing problem to the Defense Department — even after he had become an official enemy of the U.S. government. (“We’re talking about tens of thousands of contracts,” said one Army official.)
Worse, as late as 2005, after Bout’s nefarious background and his role in Iraq were publicly exposed, military officials pressured Treasury Department officials to hold off on sanctions against his business empire until he had finished a final run of supply flights to Iraq.
Defense officials now say they have tightened up procedures, but other government veterans who dealt with the Pentagon on the Bout affair remain dubious.
The Pentagon has provided few specifics about how it will scrutinize air transporters in the future. And without any congressional or public government inquiry into Bout’s hiring, there is no pressure for it to do so.
One thing about the Bout affair is certain. As of mid-2006, his firms were no longer flying for the U.S. in Iraq. But now he poses a new problem: “blowback,” the blunt term espionage writers like to use for the deadly consequences of poor spycraft.
When the U.S. turned to the Bout network to mount its Iraq supply flights, it was already clear that Bout’s network had aided the Taliban’s extremist mullahs. How could the U.S. be absolutely certain he wouldn’t fly for our enemies once he had left the payroll?
We couldn’t and, apparently, he is.
Last summer, a jumbo Il-76 flying the Khazakh flag swooped down to a landing in Mogadishu to unload arms for radical Islamic leaders who briefly seized control of Somalia. It was one of Bout’s planes, concluded U.S. military intelligence officials.
Another bullet-point in a bad guy’s resume.
Stephen Braun is a national correspondent for The Times and co-author with Douglas Farah of “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible.” Los Angeles Times