The State Department is defending a controversial and some say inaccurate report that claimed the influence of Iran in Latin America and the Caribbean is decreasing.
Lawmakers and experts had harsh words for the State Department earlier this year after it released a mostly classified report that downplayed the threat Iran poses in the Western hemisphere. The Iranian regime is reported to have built a large network of spies, agents, and terrorist allies in the region.
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The State Department’s assessment led one prominent terrorism expert to quip that the report had likely been "written by an intern."
Despite congressional criticism and mounting evidence of a growing Iranian terror network in Latin America, the State Department has stood by its assessment that Tehran’s power in the region has declined.
"The final classified report you received reflects the view of the entire Administration," State Department Assistant Secretary Thomas Gibbons wrote in a Sept. 5 letter to Rep. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), who released the letter publicly late Friday.
The administration claims this view is held throughout the U.S. government.
"Our characterization of the Iranian threat in the Western Hemisphere is shared by all relevant agencies within the executive branch, including the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies," Gibbons wrote.
"The Departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury," among others, were all consulted on the report, according to the letter.
"We assure you that we are constantly reviewing information about Iranian presence in the Western Hemisphere to ensure we have the most up-to-date and accurate picture, including classified information from our defense, intelligence, and law enforcement colleagues," Gibbons wrote.
"Iran’s involvement in the Western Hemisphere is a matter for concern," the letter stated.
Duncan called this response troubling and criticized the State Department for stonewalling congressional investigators.
"The State Department has chosen to obstruct congressional oversight of Iran’s deepening relations with countries in Latin America by sending a letter that did not answer even a single question," Duncan said in a statement.
"The State Department owes the American people answers to these questions on whether they still believe Iran’s influence is ‘waning' in the Western Hemisphere," he said.
"Recent congressional hearings on this issue uncovered disturbing evidence of Iran’s ability to recruit over a thousand students from Latin America to travel to Iran for training, obtain fraudulent passport documentation, exploit free trade zones and loose border security measures, and cooperate with drug cartels and criminal networks," he said.
Iran’s efforts to support embattled Syrian President Bashar al Assad make the State Department’s assessment all the more concerning, Duncan said.
"In light of the events in Syria with ramifications for U.S. homeland security, the administration should prioritize this issue of Iran’s deepening penetration within the Western Hemisphere and stop putting up road blocks to congressional oversight," he said.
Iran has boosted its diplomatic and trade ties with Argentina and other socialist countries in recent months.
A growing number of Iranian agents in Latin America have built a "pipeline to move illicit products all across the region," Joseph M. Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society, testified to Congress earlier this year.
Evidence indicates that Iran has the ability to launder money and move people, military hardware, and other products throughout the region.
The State Department’s minority view of Iran is reflective of a bureaucratic culture that downplays serious threats, said Roger Noriega, a former State Department official and U.S. ambassador to the Organization for American States.
"I have not read the classified report, but the unclassified document is a joke," said Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "Even after Benghazi, the culture of the State Department is one of willful neglect."
Iran’s proxy group Hezbollah has a foothold in the region and plans attack nearly "every day," Noriega said.
"Based on documents and information that my team has obtained from sources in the region, which we have shared with numerous U.S. Agencies, I am convinced that Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist are plotting every day to launch an attack against U.S. Interests in Latin America, aided and abetted by Venezuela and other hostile regimes in the region," he said.
The department’s response to Duncan only "doubles down on the administration's failure to comprehend let alone confront this threat," Noriega said. "I assume that it will be quoted at length by Members of Congress and the media when our enemies attack."