The Obama administration intentionally derailed investigations into the terrorist group Hezbollah's drug trafficking operation to secure the Iran nuclear deal, according to a new bombshell report.
Politico spoke with several members of Project Cassandra, a joint effort between the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Pentagon that was founded in 2008 under the Bush administration to identify and prosecute a drug trafficking, money laundering, and smuggling operation run by the Iranian-backed militants.
Over the next eight years, agents working out of a top-secret DEA facility in Chantilly, Virginia, used wiretaps, undercover operations, and informants to map Hezbollah's illicit networks, with the help of 30 U.S. and foreign security agencies.
They followed cocaine shipments, some from Latin America to West Africa and on to Europe and the Middle East, and others through Venezuela and Mexico to the United States. They tracked the river of dirty cash as it was laundered by, among other tactics, buying American used cars and shipping them to Africa. And with the help of some key cooperating witnesses, the agents traced the conspiracy, they believed, to the innermost circle of Hezbollah and its state sponsors in Iran.
Project Cassandra discovered Hezbollah was laundering $200 million of dirty money a month in the United States and smuggling 85 tons of cocaine into the country in "the largest material support scheme for terrorism operations" of all time.
But when the investigators got close to making a case against Hezbollah's highest tier, Obama administration officials "threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way," according to interviews Politico conducted with dozens of participants.
Former Project Cassandra agent David Asher said the decision to hinder the investigation's progress was "a policy decision, it was a systematic decision. They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down."
Another project higher-up, Jack Kelly, remembered how criminal prosecutions were continually stymied by officials in the White House.
"Right now, we have 50 FBI agents not doing anything because they know their Iran cases aren't going anywhere," Kelly remembered a prosecutor telling him.
The Obama administration's pushback against cracking down on the terrorist organization came in response to new administration appointments and the desire to push for a nuclear deal with Iran, Politico reported.
One reason, they said, was Obama's choice of a new national security team. The appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state was widely viewed as a sign of a redoubled effort to engage with Iran. Obama's appointment of Brennan—the public supporter of cultivating Hezbollah moderates—as CIA director, and the president's choice of the Justice Department's top national security lawyer, Lisa Monaco as Brennan's replacement as White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, put two more strong proponents of diplomatic engagement with Iran in key positions.
Another factor was the victory of reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran that summer, which pushed the talks over a possible nuclear deal into high gear.
The administration's eagerness for an Iran deal was broadcast through so many channels, task force members say, that political appointees and career officials at key agencies like Justice, State, and the National Security Council felt unspoken pressure to view the task force's efforts with skepticism. One former senior Justice Department official confirmed to Politico that some adverse decisions might have been influenced by an informal multi-agency Iran working group that "assessed the potential impact" of criminal investigations and prosecutions on the nuclear negotiations.
One former senior Obama administration national security official confirmed it was policy to avoid cracking down on Hezbollah.
"That was the established policy of the Obama administration internally," he said, describing the reluctance to go after Hezbollah for fear of reprisal.
"We're obviously doing those actions against al Qaeda and ISIS all the time," the Obama official added. "I thought it was bad policy [to refrain from such actions on Hezbollah] that limited the range of options we had," including criminal prosecutions.