The Obama administration was so eager to sign the nuclear deal with Iran, it killed a promising DEA campaign that targeted the cocaine trafficking network of Iran’s satellite terrorist group Hezbollah into the United States, according to a Politico report (The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook).
The DEA’s Project Cassandra, launched in 2008, was operating on evidence that Hezbollah had become an international crime syndicate that was collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, as well as money laundering. The project, supported by 30 US and foreign security agencies, succeeded in tracing the multi-pronged conspiracy to the innermost circle of Hezbollah and its Iranian state sponsors.
But the higher Project Cassandra reached into the conspiracy, the more roadblocks the Obama administration Justice and Treasury departments dumped in its path, delaying approval and outright rejecting requests for investigations, prosecutions, arrests and financial sanctions. Among those were a Justice Department refusal to indict a Hezbollah banker who was laundering billions in drug profits for Iran, and a US-based leader of a cell of the Iranian paramilitary Quds force. For its part, the State Department refused to lure Hezbollah senior players to countries where they could be arrested and extradited to the US.
David Asher, a veteran illicit finance expert the Pentagon lent to Project Cassandra, told Politico: “This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision. [The Obama administration] serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”
The Politico report points to a July, 2008 policy paper by John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from March 2013 to January 2017, in which he lays down the groundwork for Obama’s Iran policy with a decided bend towards appeasing the Islamic Republic:
“After nearly three decades of antagonistic rhetoric and diplomatic estrangement between the United States and Iran, the next president has the opportunity to set a new course for relations between the two countries.
“When the next president takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Iranian officials will be listening. The president must implement a policy of engagement that encourages moderates in Iran without implying tolerance for Tehran’s historic support of terrorist activities. This strategy will require patience and sensitivity to the complex political realities inside Iran.
“To successfully chart a new course for US-Iranian relations, the next president must
1. Tone down rhetoric
2. Establish a direct dialogue with Tehran, including comprehensive, private discussions and deployment of a special envoy
3. Encourage greater assimilation of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system
4. Offer carrots in addition to sticks, including consideration of legitimate Iranian concerns on regional security issues.
The future CIA chief charted a clear connection between finally reaching a deal with Iran and bringing it back into the fold of the Western world – and empowering Hezbollah whenever and wherever possible.
In 2010, John Brennan, then assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, met with Lebanese leaders and told them, according to Reuters, that “Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” and citing Hezbollah’s “evolution” from “purely a terrorist organization” to a political party with members in parliament and even the cabinet.
Brennan neglected to mention how many Lebanese politicians had been brutalized and even assassinated (including the current PM’s father who was the PM at the time) on Hezbollah’s evolutionary path. Instead, he told his Lebanese guests, who may have been aghast to hear this message, Reuters did not say, that his administration plans to “try to build up the more moderate elements” of Hezbollah.
Even Reuters noted wryly that the Obama senior official “did not spell out how Washington hoped to promote ‘moderate elements’ given that the organization is branded a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ by the United States.”
Having established their clandestine policy of protecting Hezbollah from American and international law enforcement agencies, the Obama administration proceeded to delay efforts to extradite Lebanese arms dealer Ali Fayad, arrested in Prague in the spring of 2014; block and even undermined efforts to go after a top Hezbollah operative nicknamed the “Ghost,” who had been linked to shipments of tons of cocaine around the world, as well as supplying chemical weapons to Syrian President Bashar Assad; and the Obama Justice Department outright refused to investigate and prosecute Abdallah Safieddine, the linchpin of Hezbollah’s criminal network.
The Obama administration also rejected Project Cassandra’s repeated requests to charge Hezbollah under a federal racketeering statute, nor would administration officials agree to designate Hezbollah as a “significant transnational criminal organization,” thus relieving the taskforce of useful legal tools, money and manpower.
A former senior national security official of the Obama administration, who played a role in the Iran nuclear negotiations, told Politico: “The world is a lot more complicated than viewed through the narrow lens of drug trafficking. So you’re not going to let CIA rule the roost, but you’re also certainly not going to let DEA do it either. Your approach to anything as complicated as Hezbollah is going to have to involve the interagency [process], because the State Department has a piece of the pie, the intelligence community does, Treasury does, DOD does.”
Former Treasury official Katherine Bauer in February testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that despite the Obama administration’s commitment to “vigorously press sanctions against Iranian activities outside of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” it “did so only sporadically.”
“However, sanctions remain a viable and powerful tool for Congress and the new administration to confront Iran over human rights abuses, terror support, and ballistic missile tests,” Bauer recommended. Part of her vision of a new, aggressive US approach to Iran, even without actually revoking the nuclear deal, includes going after Hezbollah.
She emphasized that “regional bodies concur with the United States that Hezbollah is a terrorist group—both the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council have designated Hezbollah in part or in full” as such.
She recommended that the Trump administration employ the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act (HIFPA), which came into effect in March 2016, extending to Hezbollah secondary sanctions like those employed against Iran.
“Prior to HIFPA, a series of US actions had already constrained Hezbollah’s financial operations, and the new law has intensified the pressure,” Bauer noted, noting that “the Treasury Department assessed in July 2016 that Hezbollah is in ‘its worst financial shape in decades.’”
“US designations of Hezbollah businessmen and businesses would give Lebanese banks cover to protect the Lebanese financial system from further abuse,” Bauer said, and mentioned Project Cassandra, which she painted in glowing colors, crediting it with the financial decline of Hezbollah.
However, confirming the essential narrative of the Politico report, Bauer said: “Under the Obama administration, however, these investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.”
“Now, the Trump administration should aggressively target Hezbollah’s financial, logistical, and procurement networks, including resurrecting the DEA’s now-defunct Project Cassandra,” Bauer recommended. “The new administration should also pursue Hezbollah’s Business Affairs Component (BAC) operatives with designations and arrests, as well as seek extradition of arrested Hezbollah facilitators in France, Colombia, Lithuania, and elsewhere, and thereafter indict them in US courts.”