Obama 'protected Hizballah from drug-smuggling investigation to appease Iran'
The lengthy report, the first part of which was published on Monday, claimed the previous US administration hindered a major probe into Hizballah's alleged drug and money laundery operations to avoid antagonising Iran ahead of the historical nuclear agreement signed in 2015.
The operation, dubbed Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 to monitor Hizballah's weapons and drug trafficking practices, which allegedly included funneling cocaine into the United States. Hizballah allegedly was racking up revenues of up to $1 billion annually from the illicit activities, to fund its military operations.
Hizballah has previously denied any role in money laundering and drug smuggling activities, despite multiple claims made by the US authorities and international media investigations.
According to Politico, when investigators sought approval for prosecution against Hizballah from the US Department of Justice and US Department of Treasury, those two agencies were unresponsive.
“This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” said David Asher, an analyst for the US Department of Defense specialising in illicit finance who helped set up and run Project Cassandra. “They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”
Asher claimed that Obama officials obstructed efforts to apprehend top Hizballah operatives, including one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged weapons suppliers, nicknamed 'The Ghost'.
Several individuals with alleged links to Hizballah were named in the investigation as possibly involved, including a Lebanese-Ukrainian man named Ali Fayyad.
Fayyad was detained in the Czech republic in 2014 at the request of the US but was not extradited. His associates in Lebanon staged the kidnapping of Czech citizens who were freed in an apparent deal for Fayyad's release months later. Politico's report alleged Fayyad is back into business helping Hizballah's illicit activities.
|The world is a lot more complicated than viewed through the narrow lens of drug trafficking|
Ex-Obama administration officials have denied derailing the probe, saying they sought to improve relations with Iran as part of a broad strategy to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal.
“The world is a lot more complicated than viewed through the narrow lens of drug trafficking,” one former Obama-era national security official told Politico. “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 Hizballah 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.”
Nicholas Noe, expert on Middle East affairs, wrote in a blog post on Monday that Politico's report was one-sided. He suggested it played into the hands of Trump's anti-Iran rhetoric, without taking into account the complex approach to Hizballah in the context of strategic US interests.
"What is useful...is putting these mostly alleged, “shadowy” activities...into a broader context of US interests. When one does that, a key result is that the Hezbollah-Iran [Sic] military plus terror threat to the US is radically different from that posed by ISIS-type groups," he added.
But Politico said in its report that sources independent of Project Cassandra confirmed the allegations made by its team members.
It cited a Treasury official in the Obama administration, Katherine Bauer, who submitted written testimony presented last February to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs acknowledging that “under the Obama administration … these [Hizballah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardising the nuclear deal.”
After the nuclear deal was officially implemented in January 2016, Project Cassandra officials, such as John Kelly, a veteran DEA supervisory agent, said they were transferred to other assignments.
As a consequence, the report said that the US government “lost insight” into not only Hizballah alleged drug trafficking operation, but other aspects of its purported criminal operations worldwide.
In exchange for Tehran rolling back its nuclear programme, the US and other world powers agreed in 2015 to suspend wide-ranging oil, trade and financial sanctions that had choked the Iranian economy.
Since then, US President Donald Trump has decertified the deal, and threatened to re-impose sanctions on Iran over its other non-nuclear activities. Trump has criticised strongly the deal as "one of the worst deals I've ever seen" and insisted that Iran is not abiding by the terms of the accord.