Hunting the lord of war - Page 8

SF-based investigator Kathi Austin helped expose a notorious arms dealer and awaken the world to a key human rights struggle
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The intrepid Kathi Austin
Photo by Brandon Joseph Baker

In the past, once it became an interagency issue or problem, bureaucratic inertia and turf wars entered in and always raised some obstacle to the actual pursuit of Bout."

Eventually, that bureaucratic inertia began to look like something far more shameful.

On April 26, 2005, several state and federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI, IRS, and Dallas Police Department, raided two homes and an office in Richardson, Texas, looking for evidence that Bout's tentacles had reached the United States.

The properties belonged to a Syrian-born American citizen named Richard Chichakli, who had served in an aviation regiment of the US Army during the first Gulf War. After being discharged in 1993, Chichakli helped create a free trade zone in the United Arab Emirates.

That's where Chichakli likely first met Bout. Chichakli later returned to the US and became licensed as an accountant and an expert in military contracting. Officials found records showing that the 49-year-old Chichakli had created American companies connected to Bout.

Also discovered during the raid were wire transfer statements showing hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time moving from Bout-connected companies in the UAE to Chichakli in Texas, and credit card invoices managed by Chichakli listing Bout's lavish purchases at businesses serving the nouveau riche of Moscow.

The raids were the result of a July 2004 executive order signed by President Bush — who, facing pressure from the UN, authorized the raids and prohibited Americans from doing business with Bout due to his connections to Taylor in Liberia.

The White House's action came years after Austin and other investigators compiled their own research on Bout's role in arming African warlords. Thirty companies and four individuals were added to a blocking order as a result. Federal court records from the case include extensive references to UN reports on Bout, including some Austin worked on, like one citing witnesses who saw a Bout-connected plane transporting large volumes of arms and ammunition through a Congolese airport between February and May 2004. Something was finally being done, or so it seemed.

But Austin and her colleagues were furious to learn that the US Defense Department hired Bout's vast air armada with taxpayer money nearly 200 times in 2004 alone to ferry supplies and construction materials into Baghdad after the start of the Iraq war.

Merchant of Death co-author Braun, a Los Angeles Times national correspondent, reported for the paper in December 2004 that two well-established Bout companies, Air Bas and Irbis, had contracted with the US Air Force and Army as well as private companies like FedEx and Kellogg Brown & Root, the much-maligned former Halliburton subsidiary. The State Department had circulated a list of Bout companies warning its officials not to use them, Braun wrote, but the Pentagon made no similar effort.

A fuel purchase agreement included in Chichakli's court file shows that the Defense Department used Air Bas "for official government purposes" just nine days after Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold questioned top defense officials, including then–Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, about such contracts. But Wolfowitz didn't acknowledge what he eventually characterized as the "inadvertent" use of Bout's planes for Feingold until months later.

When Austin delved into the issue in 2005 with fellow Merchant of Death author Farah, a former West African bureau chief for the Washington Post, the pair obtained new information for an article in the New Republic showing that the US military also used Bout-controlled companies during a four-month period in 2005, long after the "inadvertent" contracting had first been publicized.

The discoveries were a major letdown for Austin.

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