The House Republican who leads a task force targeting terrorism financing lauded the Justice Department's move on Thursday to assemble a team to investigate drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group.
Rep. Robert Pittenger (R., N.C.) has been a vocal critic of former President Barack Obama following a Politico report that the Obama administration quietly dismantled a Drug Enforcement Administration operation targeting Hezbollah's cocaine trafficking for fear of rattling Iran as the president pursued a nuclear deal with the country.
Pittenger said Thursday the Trump administration is right to revive the DEA program, called Project Cassandra, but heeded that the networks and individuals identified years ago by intelligence officials as central to Hezbollah's money laundering scheme have likely changed.
"There's no question we've lost an enormous amount of momentum and success capability by the Obama administration clearly impeding this process," Pittenger said in a phone interview.
The newly created Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team will bring together a group of prosecutors and investigators whose first task will be to assess evidence collected under Project Cassandra and ensure all pending investigations are completed.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the team will initiate prosecutions intended to restrict the flow of money to terrorist groups and to disrupt international drug trafficking operations. He said the Justice Department will ensure Project Cassandra and related investigations are adequately resourced.
"The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis," Sessions said in a statement.
Derek Maltz, who supervised Project Cassandra as head of the DEA's Special Operations Division for nearly a decade until retiring in 2014, praised Sessions for pursuing efforts to combat the nexus between terrorism and the criminal network that bankrolls it.
He encouraged the Justice Department to closely examine the successes and failures of Project Cassandra, which he said fell apart in part because of competing interests among the country's intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
"Let me make this clear, the fact that [the Trump administration] engaged on this immediately is a step in the right direction," Maltz said Thursday. "But unless they are going to put the right leadership together and not try to reinvent the wheel, it has the potential to become another turf battle."
"We have a track record of taking down the biggest, baddest threats to our country. We're not starting from ground zero," he continued. "Now, we just need more support, more resources, and better interagency cooperation."
Sessions’s announcement arrives as President Donald Trump again weighs whether to waive nuclear sanctions against Iran.