The Barack Obama administration thwarted a covert operation against the Iran-backed terror organization Hezbollah in order to avoid hurting what was then a delicate emerging nuclear agreement with Iran, Politico reported on Monday.
Lebanon-based Hezbollah is officially designated by the U.S. State Department as terrorist group.
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The operation against Hezbollah, dubbed "Project Cassandra," began in 2008 after the DEA received ample evidence of Hezbollah's evolution from a military and political organization in the Middle East into a full-fledged international crime organization that smuggles ammunitions and drugs -among other illegal activities.
The Politico report says the agency operatives tracked Hezbollah's criminal activity for eight years, witnessing the terror group laundering money and smuggling cocaine through regular shipments. Evidence attested to the fact that Hezbollah insiders as well as the group's supporters in Iran were in on the covert, criminal actions.
But the Oval Office during Obama's tenure allegedly posed multiple hurdles along the DEA's path to fighting Hezbollah, with the Department of Treasury and the Department of Justice both preventing the program's managers from taking action and withholding approval for requests.
Politico reported that federal agents involved in "Project Cassandra" told the publication that they wanted to put a Hezbollah operative on trial but were refused by the administration. The suspect, nicknamed "Ghost," is known by the DEA to be one of the biggest cocaine smugglers in the world. "This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision," David Asher, who helped found the program and oversaw it as a Defense Department finance analyst, told Politico. "They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down," he charged.
The DEA was not the only entity the White House held back from acting against the terror group. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was also forced to take more measured steps, an ex-CIA official told Politico.
The White House demanded that the CIA refrain from taking actions against the group, the unnamed official said. He explained that during an early stage in the negotiations of the nuclear accord, the Iranians complained to the U.S. and asked that it lessen the pressure it was applying on Hezbollah. The official said that the Obama administration agreed to it, because it "really, really, really wanted the deal."
As a result, the former senior CIA officer said, the agency was "making concessions that had never been made before, which is outrageous to anyone in the agency." Orders from Washington were especially aggravating to CIA officers in the field who he asserted knew that Hezbollah "was still doing assassinations and other terrorist activities."
He added that this was a directive by the administration that was meant to "show good faith toward the Iranians in terms of reaching an agreement."
Nonetheless, some of the interviewees in the report did not agree with the harsh claims against the Obama administration.
A former senior member of the national security establishment who participated in talks with Iran cast doubts on the charge that cases that were managed as part of the "Cassandra Project" were closed for political reasons. According to him, there were other reasons that seem more logical, such as a substantial lack of evidence or the administration's concern of interfering with intelligence activities.
"What if the CIA or the Mossad had an intelligence operation ongoing inside Hezbollah and they were trying to pursue someone against whom we had impeccable [intelligence] collection and the DEA is not going to know that?" the official said.
"The world," he went on to say, "is a lot more complicated than viewed through the narrow lens of drug trafficking. So 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."
The Iran nuclear deal, which reportedly was the main reason behind the Obama's administration wariness in regards to cracking down on Tehran's ally Hezbollah, is known also at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It was signed on July 14, 2015, between Iran, China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany, the European Union and the U.S.
Hezbollah and Iran are known to be close proxies, with Iran providing the terror group with ammunition, military training and funding. Ex-President Barack Obama was an avid supporter of the deal, and lauded it as the only means to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.