Viktor Bout documents released under Mandatory Declassification Review by the Clinton Library

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In 2015 IPIS vzw asked for a Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) of selected documents in relation to Viktor Bout, produced by the Clinton administration between 1999 and 2001, and held in the Clinton Library. MDR “is a means by which any individual or entity can request any Federal agency to review classified information for declassification, regardless of its age or origin, subject to certain limitations”.(1) The Clinton Library was legally required to provide a decision after one year, but failed. Thus, an appeal was lodged with the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), which reached a decision on 2 March 2022. On 21 September 2022 approx. 300 pages were declassified. Some 50+ documents requested remain classified.

The selected documents do not reveal exactly when or why Viktor Bout came onto the radar of the United States Government. What is certain is that by early 2000 for the US Government “the body of evidence indicating Butt’s involvement in sanctions-busting and arms-running across Africa had become so overwhelming that the USG had come to the conclusion that it was time to take steps to shut down his operation”. Various US government agencies – whether from Department of State, intelligence or enforcement – were involved in trying to stop Viktor Bout. 

A “draft strategy” was developed in second half of 2000 with the aim of achieving “the destruction of the Butt organization, resulting in incarceration of Victor Butt and his brother Sergei and seizure of the organization’s assets”. Three possible scenarios were proposed of which two were considered viable. Scenarios 1 and 3 became the “Endgame Scenarios”.

1. A “cooperative state (presumably African) issues a warrant based on domestic laws (possibly including domestic laws that mandate enforcement of international sanctions) and the brothers are extradited (if necessary), tried, and incarcerated.” The country considered most likely to issue a warrant was South Africa. Other countries considered were Central African Republic (CAR), Nigeria, Mali, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Witney A. Schneidman and a small team of U.S. officials visited South Africa in October and November 2000 to debrief and share intelligence.

2. “A state not directly involved in Butt’s network issues a warrant based on international sanctions and the brothers are extradited (if necessary), tried, and incarcerated.” This was deemed an unlikely scenario.

3. “Apprehension of the Butt brothers is deemed unachievable and focus turns to hampering organization and seizing assets.” The questions became where and how to seize assets.

In the November meeting with South African Foreign Affairs officials Schneidman expressed the hope “that South Africa could issue a warrant for Butt’s arrest based on his past activities here, which we could then utilize to get the UAE to expel him, and we (the USG) would help to get him down to South Africa for prosecution”. The South Africans pointed out that “whether they actually might be able to do so in the end would depend on the evidence available and the timing of any offenses”. 

The South Africans expressed the need to have “as much information as possible concerning Butt, including about activities outside of South Africa” to build a case against Bout. Schneidman replied that “unfortunately, the information provided in the briefing represents for the most part all that we have on Butt’s operation and activities at this time”.

What is interesting about the USG released documents is that they show just how difficult it was, not only to find sufficient evidence, but also to find a relevant law to bring a criminal prosecution in national courts, and how much of a political obstacle that would be. Schneidman was told “while South Africa does have legislation dealing with individuals who have committed offenses related to sanctions-busting, again the key question will be one involving jurisdiction since the laws are not retroactive and have very limited extra-territoriality”. The USG was well aware that their plan was reliant on the possibility to gather hard evidence on violations of international sanction regimes and domestic law violations which could withstand a court of law. The lack of hard evidence might have been the reason why the Drug Enforcement Agency decided instead to launch a sting operation against Bout.

2016-0167-M: Declassified Documents Regarding Victor Butt/Bout in the Files of NSC Transnational Threats Director Lee Wolosky

2016-0166-M: Declassified Documents Regarding Victor Butt/Bout in the Files of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Witney A. Schneidman

2016-0165-M: Declassified Documents Regarding Victor Butt/Bout

Picture: Viktor Bout’s extradition to the US, ©US Drug Enforcement Administration