Who is Tom Pasquarello? Ex-DEA agent says US may have to pay a heavy price for Viktor Bout's prisoner swap

Who is Tom Pasquarello? Ex-DEA agent says US may have to pay a heavy price for Viktor Bout's prisoner swap
Tom Pasquarello played a pivotal role in bringing former Russian military officer Viktor Bout to justice more than a decade ago (Tom Pasquarello/LinkedIn, Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC: A former DEA agent believes that the US might have to pay a heavy price for repatriating a notorious Russian arms dealer as part of a prisoner exchange that freed United States basketball star Brittney Griner from prison in Russia. Tom Pasquarello played a pivotal role in bringing former Russian military officer Viktor Bout to justice more than a decade ago. Bout was convicted of illegal arms trafficking in US courts in 2012 and was serving a 25-year prison sentence. 

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“I’m kind of in disbelief that someone with the potential to orchestrate arms deals that can kill Americans anywhere in the world would be traded for a prisoner,” Tom Pasquarello told Yahoo! Sports just hours after Bout was exchanged for Griner in Abu Dhabi. Bout, 56, who is also known as the "Merchant of Death", sold tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons that were to be used to kill Americans. 

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The Biden administration secured the release of the 32-year-old WNBA star in return who spent almost a year in a Russian prison for a drug conviction. Biden's critics slammed the high-profile swap, some even arguing that the agreement was a major win for Russia, especially given that it failed to win freedom for ex-Marine Paul Whelan, who has been jailed since 2018. 

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“We couldn’t even get two people for the world’s most notorious weapons trafficker, for a man who has been responsible for more carnage and blood diamonds and insurrections and threats to democracy than anyone else in the world,” said Pasquarello, who now serves as business security director for General Electric. “How is that a negotiation? That’s like a free deal.”

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Pasquarello managed the sting operation as a regional director of the Drug Enforcement Administration in the mid-2000s that netted Bout in Thailand in 2008. The DEA agents were posed as members of FARC, the Colombian narco-terror group, looking to buy missiles to shoot down US planes and guns to kill American soldiers. Bout came out of hiding seeing the prospect of the lucrative arms deal and it brought him to Bangkok, where he was cornered by Pasquarello, telling Bout, “The game’s over.”

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The Russian government took several measures in order to bring Bout back to his country reportedly because of his suspected ties to the country’s military intelligence, a claim he denies. Pasquarello warned that the arms dealer should not be underestimated at any cost even though it’s unclear at this time whether Bout would be able or inclined to resume his arms-trafficking business. 

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“I’ve heard that Viktor’s not a threat, that he can’t travel anymore, that he’s going to be isolated,” the veteran law enforcement official said. “He was like that for 10 years before we arrested him. He knew he couldn’t go anywhere and he still operated from his safe spots.”

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Brittney Griner #42 and Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury reacts to a foul call in the second half during the game against the Chicago Sky at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,  by downloading and or using this photograph,  User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
Brittney Griner #42 and Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury reacts to a foul call in the second half during the game against the Chicago Sky at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Mike Mattina/Getty Images)

After more than 28 years in the agency, Pasquarello retired from the DEA in 2011 and has since spent the better part of the last decade in the private sector. “I think this sends a terrible message that the US will negotiate, that the US will make concessions, and that, if an American is held overseas, there’s always the potential that the US will acquiesce to the demands of people like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and bail them out,” he predicted, according to New York Post. On Friday, December 9, the White House said that the United States will work with Russia in an attempt to gain Whelan’s release.

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