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Viktor Bout is back in Moscow. Is he still a national security threat to the U.S.?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Brittney Griner is back home. After spending most of this year in a Russian penal colony, the WNBA star arrived in San Antonio early this morning. Griner's first stop was an evaluation at Brooke Army Medical Center and a reunion with her wife, Cherelle.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Meanwhile, in Moscow, another prisoner returned home - Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer who was exchanged for Griner. He's free after more than a decade in a maximum-security U.S. prison, an outcome he prophesied when he told journalist Nick Schmidle back in 2012, quote, "they will try to lock me up for life, but I'll get back to Russia." Well, Schmidle sat down with Bout four times in prison for a profile in The New Yorker, and he joins me now. Welcome.

NICK SCHMIDLE: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Take us to that moment - Viktor Bout swearing to you he was going to make it home. He was going to get back to Russia. Would you paint us a picture of the scene - like, how he said it?

SCHMIDLE: Yeah, well, he was out of his chair, leaning over the table and essentially sort of spitting his words in my face. And it was an abrupt, abrupt, abrupt change from the previous three interviews that I had with him, which were much more cordial and conversational. But in this case, the piece was about to go to print, and we needed to fact-check the story. And I had been recently in Bulgaria, meeting with Viktor's arms supplier who had corroborated and filled in a lot of gaps about Viktor's arms trafficking career. And they were all in the piece, and so we needed to run this by Viktor. And the only way to do that was to get me into the prison to do that fact-checking. And so that moment was me, again, just sort of putting everything out there. And he was irate. And he was really, really, really angry with the direction that he thought the piece was going. And that was him, you know, giving me a piece of his mind.

KELLY: I mean, just to briefly remind people, Viktor Bout was convicted for conspiring to kill Americans, for acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, for providing material support to a terrorist organization. I want to put to you - as someone who looked carefully at all of the evidence that ended up putting him behind bars, I want to put to you a question I put to John Kirby of the National Security Council at the White House yesterday. Are you convinced Viktor Bout, now a free man in Russia, no longer poses a national security threat to the United States?

SCHMIDLE: You know, do I think that Viktor Bout is going to get back into business? Potentially. Do I think that there are people and organizations and networks that have stepped into the role that Viktor Bout previously provided, sort of moving weapons around conflict zones and places, you know, mostly in Africa, but elsewhere? Undoubtedly. I mean, the...

KELLY: His contacts are a couple decades old.

SCHMIDLE: Yeah. His contacts are old. I mean, he - look. He is charismatic. He did have incredible relationships with people. He is someone who does sort of suck you in. But there are friends and allies of Vladimir Putin who have, I think, eclipsed what I think Viktor potentially could sort of, you know, be if he comes back. He clearly has the ability - the personality type to want to sort of resurrect that business, but I just don't - I think the world has moved on and changed in ways that I don't see him as being nearly the threat that he posed in 2006, 2007 and earlier than that, when he was operating in Africa.

KELLY: Given that, how should we understand why the Kremlin seemed to want him back so badly?

SCHMIDLE: Well, there has always been speculation that Viktor was working for Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, and...

KELLY: He has denied that, along with all of the other charges. Is that correct?

SCHMIDLE: Exactly. But over the course of my reporting, I spoke to his Bulgarian arms supplier, Peter Mirchev - told me that Viktor had a relationship with the GRU. A Ukrainian organized crime individual confirmed the same thing, and a former CIA official confirmed the same thing - that all said unquestionably that Viktor had a relationship with the GRU. So was this a little bit of a kind of, you know, leave no man behind kind of situation, where Vladimir Putin felt some loyalty to do everything he could to get him back? I think that's more likely than the fact that Viktor has a head full of kind of actionable intelligence that Vladimir Putin felt threatened by.

KELLY: Hmm. You and I swapped emails before the Viktor Bout/Brittney Griner swap. And you wrote, if that exchange actually happened, quote, "man, it would be quite the crazy ending to an already crazy story." I read that again when the swap was happening and thought, I wonder what's going through Nick Schmidle's head. What was going through your head?

SCHMIDLE: You know, I spent so much time sort of obsessing over Viktor and looking at old pictures and, you know, looking at him face-to-face. And then, you know, a decade went by in which there were no updates. You don't take pictures. You know, people who are in federal prison aren't photographed. And so it was actually - it was very unsettling yesterday to see him having aged 10 years and to see him on that airplane returning to Russia with - you know, with a pep in his step. And, you know, I have gotten to know some of the DEA agents who arrested him and who had spent years of their lives chasing Viktor Bout all over the world. And I know that they understand the diplomatic urgencies of the moment, but they are also just, you know, beside themselves that Viktor has gotten out early.

KELLY: That is the journalist Nick Schmidle, talking about the time he spent reporting on Viktor Bout. Nick Schmidle, thank you.

SCHMIDLE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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