WASHINGTON — In order to help solidify the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, the Obama administration covertly derailed a campaign by the US Drug Enforcement Administration that targeted the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group, according to an investigative report by Politico.
The specific campaign, called Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 to monitor Hezbollah’s weapons and drug trafficking practices, which included funneling cocaine into the United States.
Along with drug-trafficking, the Lebanon-based terrorist group was also engaging in money laundering and other criminal activities — from which it made some $1 billion annually.
When investigators — after amassing substantial evidence — sought approval for prosecution from the US Department of Justice and US Department of Treasury, those two agencies were unresponsive, the Politico report said.
“This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” said David Asher, an analyst for the US Department of Defense specializing 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 added that Obama officials obstructed efforts to apprehend top Hezbollah operatives, including one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s foremost weapons suppliers.
Ex-Obama officials, for their part, said they sought to improve relations with Iran as part of a broad strategy to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal, but did not try to derail Project Cassandra because of any political motive.
“The world is a lot more complicated than viewed through the narrow lens of drug trafficking,” one former Obama-era national security official said. “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.”
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 [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing 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” not only into Hezbollah’s drug trafficking operation, but also other aspects of its vast criminal operations worldwide.