The Obama Administration diaspora had something of a reunion this week. The occasion, a coordinated effort at damage control, an attempt to tourniquet a wound to President Barack Obama’s legacy inflicted by an exhaustively reported 14,000-word rock-solid piece of investigative journalism by Politico’s Josh Meyer.
Meyer’s article, “The Secret Backstory of How Obama Let Hezbollah Off the Hook,” details the extreme lengths to which the Obama Administration went in pursuit of a dearly sought nuclear deal with Iran.
The story concerns Project Cassandra, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) pursuit of Hezbollah’s international criminal syndicate, which led directly back to the terrorist group’s state-sponsor, Iran.
As the DEA closed on Hezbollah’s billion dollar a year criminal enterprise, which included drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities, the Obama Administration, fearful of rocking the boat with its negotiating partners in Iran, “threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way,” Meyer wrote.
Meyer’s story, supported by dozens of interviews, court documents, and government records, meticulously details the attempts by Obama Administration higher-ups to frustrate Project Cassandra’s efforts to confront Hezbollah. Among other things, Meyer’s story alleges that the Obama Justice Department refused requests to file criminal charges against:
- Hezbollah’s well-connected envoy to Teheran;
- a Lebanese bank that allegedly laundered billions in alleged drug profits, and;
- a central player in a U.S.-based cell of the Iranian paramilitary Quds force.
The Obama State Department refused to assist efforts to arrest high-value Hezbollah targets as well, and it, along with the Justice Department, blocked DEA’s efforts to pursue other Hezbollah targets abroad.
“This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” David Asher, a Defense Department official involved in launching Project Cassandra is quoted by Meyer as saying. “They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”
Judging by the ferocity of the response, the story — to say the least — struck a nerve. Obama-allies came out guns blazing. But mostly, they were firing blanks. Not one of the, mostly mid-level, former Obama officials that attacked the story could point to anything specific that was inaccurate about it. Nor did they offer specific alternative explanations for any of the incidents detailed in the story.
What they provided instead was a tantrum of non-denial denials coupled with hyperbolic attacks on Meyers and his sources that were worthy of a Donald Trump tweet-storm. “The allegations in the Politico story are so ludicrous and the sourcing so nebulous that one can only conclude that the reporter was misled by those who clearly had a political agenda in getting him to write this story,” shouted Nick Shapiro, Deputy Chief of Staff to Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan in a statement to the Washington Post.
“The narrative presented in this report in no way resembles reality,” declared Obama National Security Council spokesman Ned Price, also quoted by the Post, before going on to falsely claim Meyer refused to allow Obama officials to comment in the story, “suggesting,” he said, “the reporter had an agenda and narrative from the start.”
In other words, “fake news,” a reporter with an “agenda,” coupled with non-specific denials. Sound familiar? Obama-world is tearing a page so cleanly out of the Trumpian playbook that Donald Trump should demand they pay royalties for aping his intellectual property.
The Interagency Id
As a spokesman for enforcement and terrorist financing in the U.S. Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, I dealt with many of the same challenges with which the Obama Administration was surely grappling. Every administration must weigh conflicts between law enforcement, diplomatic, and intelligence prerogatives and make some tough calls to reconcile them.
While I forcefully opposed the Iran Deal, I do believe that Team Obama honestly (if naively) thought it a critical national security priority. And, anyone paying attention at all could see how desperately the Obama team wanted a deal with Iran, a prize that they hoped would be the centerpiece of President Obama’s legacy.
What is actually “ludicrous” is the suggestion that there would not be resistance from some quarters of the Obama administration to actions against Hezbollah targets that might rock the boat and threaten one of the Obama Presidency’s most cherished priorities, a nuclear deal with Iran.
The Obama defenders reject the notion that they did not seek to aggressively confront Hezbollah. As Meyer notes in the story, they point to a handful of prosecutions — eight to be exact — as evidence. But, from their point of view, it’s reasonable to assume that Team Obama believes striking a deal with Hezbollah’s state-backers in Tehran counts as part of that “aggressive” approach. Once you accept this premise, the definitions for “aggressive” get colored in many shades of gray. No one says there was an explicit edict to take it easy on Hezbollah, but that was the effect of the way the Obama Administration sorted competing priorities. Something like the DEA’s efforts against Hezbollah, which would push really sensitive buttons with Iran, would surely be weighed against the risks posed to the drive for a deal with Iran.
As one former Senior Obama National Security Official told Meyer, “[y]our 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.”
It was likely death by “interagency process” — a gauntlet filled with bureaucratic rivalries, wonkish navel-gazing, ponderous meetings, and boundless timidity — that sealed the fate of Project Cassandra initiatives. Here, even good ideas — especially when they pose risks to the President’s top priority — can simply get bogged down in bureaucratic inertia.
As Meyer notes in his article, the competing interests of various agencies tugged at Project Cassandra. As DEA and the FBI sought to build criminal cases, intelligence agencies preferred clandestine approaches. The State Department, always hypersensitive to political blowback and diplomatic complications, resisted both criminal and covert approaches.
Obama Administration partisans, including former National Security Council spokesman Ned Price, insisted that the Administration separated efforts to confront Hezbollah from the broader goal of a nuclear deal:
“The Obama administration said time and again that the nuclear negotiations with Iran were confined exclusively to that narrow issue. We did not make concessions in other arenas, and we most certainly did not curtail or attempt to influence any active investigations, including by the Drug Enforcement Administration. To the contrary, we aggressively countered Hezbollah’s terrorist plotting and other malign activities before and after the Iran deal came to fruition and while it was being negotiated,” Price told the Washington Post.
Obama defenders feel justified in asserting that there was no formal stand-down order on Hezbollah — and this may be true. But, none was needed. The bureaucracy has its own way of imposing its will and snuffing out that which is undesirable to the President’s priorities.
In their minds, the death by interagency process suffered by Project Cassandra efforts was merely the consequence of appropriate vetting rather than affirmative decisions to “let Hezbollah off the hook.” Whatever they tell themselves, the outcome is the same. At the end of the day, the interagency process is the collective unconscious of an Administration. And the Obama Administration’s id had a clear orientation towards policies that facilitated engagement with Iran. As Meyer wrote:
“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.”
Perhaps the roadblocks encountered by Project Cassandra weren’t the product of an explicit decision to go easy on Hezbollah, but they were the subconscious expression of where the administration’s priorities lay, played out in a consistent pattern of reluctance to confront Hezbollah as they sought to woo the terror group’s patrons in Tehran.
Katherine Bauer, who served in the Treasury Department during the Obama Administration, confirmed this view in testimony earlier this year to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “[U]nder the Obama administration … these [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal,” she said in her written testimony to the Committee.
It also, in part, reflects a more sanguine view of Hezbollah embraced by Obama Administration officials. Hezbollah has over the years expanded its activities beyond terrorism to include more benign humanitarian relief and political advocacy. This is especially true in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a legitimate political party that doles out aid to the underprivileged alongside its traditional role as Iran’s armed paramilitary and terrorist proxy defending Shiite interests against Sunni rivals. Obama officials, including former CIA Director John Brennan, tended to prefer a glass-half-full view of Hezbollah that stresses its less malignant side.
The softness towards Hezbollah also fits within a pattern of Obama policies sympathetic to Iran, such as the decision to back Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia and Iran’s preference to lead Iraq, over more moderate Sunni elements.
Tommy Vietor, a former Obama National Security Council spokesman tweeted that the Politico story was “so manufactured out of thin air that it’s hard to push back except to say that it’s a figment of the imagination.”
For anyone who has traveled in these precincts, and knows much about where the Obama Administration placed their priorities, it requires no imagination at all.