Friday, May 24, 2024

How Obama Saved Hezbollah From the DEA

In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious and highly successful campaign led by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to halt large scale drug trafficking and other international organized crime activities by Hezbollah.

The DEA operation, called Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 after federal investigators discovered that Hezbollah had transformed itself into an international crime syndicate that was providing Iran with more than $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities.

Project Cassandra was operated out of the top-secret DEA Special Operations Division in Chantilly, Virginia. It coordinated the efforts of 30 U.S. and foreign security agencies to uncover Hezbollah’s international network using wiretaps, undercover operations and informants. It tracked Hezbollah’s cocaine shipments, from Latin America to West Africa and on to Europe and the Middle East. Another Hezbollah network smuggled drugs through Venezuela and Mexico to the United States. Hezbollah laundered its illegal earnings by purchasing large numbers of American used cars and shipping them to Africa for resale.

Eventually, Project Cassandra was able to trace the activities of the leaders of Hezbollah based in Lebanon and its state sponsors in Iran, as they carried out the merger and expansion of their global terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime networks.
However, as Project Cassandra was about to bring key members of Hezbollah hierarchy to justice by charging them with criminal conspiracy and racketeering, top Obama administration officials blocked their efforts for fear that Iran would retaliate by walking away from its nuclear weapons control agreement or launching a devastating wave of international terrorist attacks on American targets.


Project Cassandra officials encountered deliberate obstruction from officials at the Justice and Treasury departments when they requested permission to go forward with enforcement actions against Hezbollah kingpins.

The Justice Department declined requests to file criminal charges against Hezbollah’s highest-ranking envoy to Iran, a Lebanese bank that laundered billions in Hezbollah drug profits, and the leader of a U.S. cell run by the Iranian Quds force. The State Department also rejected DEA requests to lure high-ranking Hezbollah criminal leaders to countries where they could be arrested and extradited to the U.S. for trial.

A key member of the Project Cassandra team, David Asher, said that hobbling of the enforcement effort was a deliberate “policy decision” at the highest level of the Obama administration. “They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down,” Asher said.


When he campaigned for president in 2008, Obama called George W. Bush’s policy of pressuring Iran to stop its nuclear program a failure, and promised to improve U.S. relations with Iran as part of a broader outreach effort to the Muslim world. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, went even further. In a May 2010 speech, Brennan said that the Obama administration was seeking to build up “moderate elements” within Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” Brennan told a Washington conference, claiming that instead of remaining a “purely a terrorist organization,” it was evolving into a legitimate Lebanese political party. Brennan did admit that, “there is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing, and what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”

The Obama administration was perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to Hezbollah’s terrorist, drug smuggling, weapons trafficking and other criminal activities. Brennan and other administration officials systematically blocked the efforts by the law enforcement agencies working with Project Cassandra because for fear they would interfere with efforts to get Iran to agree to a nuclear control deal.


One example was the case of top Hezbollah arms dealer Ali Fayad. He was a key illegal supplier of weapons to Syria and Iraq who worked closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Fayad was arrested in Prague in the spring of 2014 on a U.S. warrant for selling shoulder-fired surface to air missiles. He has been indicted in U.S. courts on charges of planning the murders of U.S. government employees, but the Obama White House refused repeated requests from Project Cassandra officials to ask the Czech government to extradite him to the U.S. for trial. Instead, Vladimir Putin was allowed to successfully lobby the Czechs to eventually let Fayad go free. He is now believed to be back in business in Beirut, selling Russian heavy weapons to terrorists in Syria.

Another top Hezbollah operative is nicknamed the Ghost. He is one of the world’s biggest cocaine suppliers. He also sold chemical weapons to Syrian President Bashar Assad. His identity is so secret that no photos of his face are believed to exist.

The Ghost operates out of Beirut, and works closely with Ayman Saied Joumaa, whose network of criminals helps Mexico’s Zeta cartel smuggle large quantities of cocaine into the United States. Joumaa also operates a $200 million a month drug money laundering operation with the cooperation of 300 U.S. used car dealers, by shipping thousands of used cars to Benin in west Africa for resale.


Project Cassandra agents have become very familiar with the daily routines of the two men. They are known to meet every morning at the same Beirut café to discuss their drug trafficking, money laundering and weapons sale operations around the world. But without permission from senior administration officials to go after them, the two Hezbollah master criminals cannot be touched by U.S. law enforcement officials.

Hezbollah’s top foreign operative is Abdallah Safieddine. He oversees Hezbollah’s worldwide “Business Affairs Component” network combining its commercial and terrorist activities. He is a cousin of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and has served as Hezbollah’s senior envoy to the Iranian government for the past 25 years. He also directed Hezbollah’s efforts to violate U.N. sanctions by smuggling nuclear and ballistic missile components into Iran.

John “Jack” Kelly, the DEA supervisory agent who initiated Project Cassandra, compares Safieddine to notorious Mafia kingpin John Gotti. “Hezbollah operates like the Gambino crime family on steroids, and he is its John Gotti,” said Kelly. “Whatever Iran needs, Safieddine is in charge of getting it for them.”
Safieddine also played a key role in helping Iran get around the sanctions on its banking transactions, and helped it get access to the international financial system. Yet Project Cassandra agents were repeatedly blocked by high level administration officials when they tried to investigate and prosecute Safieddine for his numerous criminal activities.

The administration also denied permission to Project Cassandra agents to charge Hezbollah’s Revolutionary Guards and the Quds force as ongoing criminal enterprises under the federal RICO anti-racketeering statute. Even though Hezbollah is on the official U.S. terrorist list, Obama administration officials refused to designate Hezbollah as a “significant transnational criminal organization.”


Former Obama administration officials have responded to the criticism from frustrated Project Cassandra officials by saying that the DEA agents had too narrow a focus, and were insensitive to the likely consequences of their proposed moves to jail and prosecute leading Hezbollah operatives. They point out that the arrests of some Hezbollah agents resumed, but only after the nuclear deal with Iran was signed. But during the years when Hezbollah was protected by the administration and was permitted to operate unimpeded, it grew into the most dangerous and powerful criminal/terrorist organization in the world.

Kelly described how Hezbollah changed during that period. “They were a paramilitary organization with strategic importance in the Middle East, and we watched them become an international criminal conglomerate generating billions of dollars for the world’s most dangerous activities, including chemical and nuclear weapons programs and armies that believe America is their sworn enemy,” he said.

Katherine Bauer, an Obama-era Treasury official, in testimony presented last February to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, admitted that “[Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.” As a result, according to Bauer, some Hezbollah terrorist operatives were not pursued, arrested, or indicted.


The big picture of Hezbollah’s interlocking worldwide criminal and terrorist networks was developed slowly, as DEA agents followed the activities of its several dozen key Hezbollah agents, whom they called “superfacilitators,” starting soon after the 9/11 attack and continuing during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency.
One initiative was named Operation Titan. It was a joint investigation by DEA officials and Colombian government authorities into a global money-laundering and drug-trafficking operation involving Latin American and Lebanese operatives.
Another initiative, called Operation Perseus, targeted Venezuelan crime syndicates.

At the same time, DEA agents in West Africa spotted a suspicious flow of thousands of used cars from U.S. dealerships arriving in Benin.

Eventually, DEA agents realized that these Hezbollah international criminal activities were being closely coordinated and centrally directed.


The efficiency of the tracking operation increased significantly when David Asher, a veteran Pentagon financial investigator, joined the group in 2008.

Asher became involved with the work of Project Cassandra as an outgrowth of his efforts to find out who was supplying the money to buy a powerful new class of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that Shiite militias had begun using against U.S. forces in Iraq. The armor-piercing charges, which became known as “Explosively Formed Penetrators,” were powerful enough to destroy the M1 Abrams tank, and were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers.

“Nobody had seen weapons like these,” Asher said. “They could blow the side off a building,” Asher told Politico reporter Josh Meyer, who researched the story.

In following up the sources of the network supplying the new IEDs to Shiite militias in Iraq, Asher came across the same phone numbers of Hezbollah operatives that were uncovered by Operation Titan in Colombia. Further investigation of the phone trail finally led Asher to a number that was being used by Safieddine in Iran.
“I had no clue who he was,” Asher recalled. “But this guy was sending money into Iraq to kill American soldiers.” When Asher reported his findings linking the Columbian drug trade to the IEDs to the Pentagon’s head of counternarcotics, William Wechsler, he assigned Asher and a few other Defense Department financial trackers to the newly named Project Cassandra to see what other connections they might find.

Asher had more than 20 years of experience in tracking all kinds of criminal financial activities for the Pentagon, and quickly applied his cutting-edge financial intelligence tools to the ongoing DEA investigation of Hezbollah. He recruited the Pentagon’s help in translating thousands of hours of intercepted phone conversations from Colombia in Arabic whose significance nobody had understood. Asher linked them to the Hezbollah network.


The translations revealed the huge scope of the operations being run by Abdallah Safieddine, as the head of Hezbollah’s “Business Affairs Component.” The criminal enterprise with its base in Teheran included branches in Latin America, Africa, Europe and the United States, and involved hundreds of businesses and front companies.

Hezbollah was formed in the early 1980s and was always involved in narcoterrorism. It became notorious for its bombing attack on a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983 which killed 241 U.S. servicemen. It was also responsible for dozens more American deaths in two attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Beirut over the next two years. When those attacks forced President Ronald Reagan to withdraw U.S. troops from Lebanon, Hezbollah declared its first major victory over the U.S.


Hezbollah began to collect a tariff from drug dealers and black-market operations in the parts of Lebanon it controlled. To finance its rebuilding efforts after its 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah increased its effort to raise cash, and began to take over many of the criminal operations from which it had been collecting tribute. It operated like an organized crime operation under the direction of the notorious commander of its Islamic Jihad military wing, Imad Mughniyeh. He became the second most wanted terrorist in the world, after Osama bin Laden.
Over a period of 25 years, Mughniyeh directed the steady growth of Hezbollah. It developed an army with tens of thousands of fighters capable of holding the IDF to a draw in southern Lebanon, and amassed an arsenal of 120,000 rockets aimed at northern Israel. At the same time, Hezbollah became a dominating social and political force in war-torn Lebanon, uniting its Shiite population through its recurring attacks on Israel. It funded its growing terrorism and military operations against Israeli and American targets around the world through its extensive international drug trafficking networks.

In response, on February 12, 2008, CIA and Israeli intelligence agents working together assassinated Mughniyeh. He was killed by a car bomb while leaving a celebration of the 29th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in Damascus, Syria. His death was a major setback for Hezbollah, but it rebounded quickly under the leadership of two of his associates, Lebanese financier Adham Tabaja and Hasan Nasrallah’s cousin, Abdallah Safieddine.
By 2008, the Bush administration believed Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad operation had become the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. At this point, the DEA’s Special Operations division, headquartered at the Counter Narco-Terrorism Operations Center in Chatilly, Virginia, and led by Derek Malz, began to take a major role in U.S. efforts to connect the dots and map out Hezbollah’s complex network of international operations, mostly on behalf of Iran.


One of DEA’s early problems was competition with other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Much effort was wasted in turn battles with the FBI, CIA and NSA, which saw the DEA as unwanted competition for their own efforts against Hezbollah’s hybrid criminal and national security threat.

In addition, the State Department often opposed U.S. law enforcement and covert operations against Hezbollah because they were afraid of triggering an anti-American backlash among many Lebanese who saw Hezbollah as a legitimate domestic political party and social welfare agency.

DEA and FBI officials believe that in at least two cases, their operations against Hezbollah were blocked by the CIA and the State Department. These agencies would portray DEA Special Operations agents as undisciplined cowboys who had little understanding of the larger geopolitical picture. “They’d come in hot to places like Beirut, want to slap handcuffs on people and disrupt operations we’d been cultivating for years,” one former CIA case officer said.

The leaders of the DEA operations, Jack Kelly and David Asher, say that the other agencies failed to appreciate the seriousness of the unique threat Hezbollah posed though its combined terrorist, criminal and drug trafficking operations.


Kelly and Asher had complementary skills and worked very effectively together, but they often clashed with the representatives of other U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies at meetings intended to foster inter-agency cooperation against targets such as Hezbollah.

As a result, Project Cassandra began to develop a reputation in the agency community as something of a loose cannon. “It got to the point where a lot of people didn’t want to have meetings with them,” said one FBI terrorism task force supervisor. “They refused to accept no for an answer. And they were often given no for an answer. Even though they were usually right.”

This was even before the leaders of Project Cassandra began to meet determined resistance from the Obama administration in early 2009. Obama’s national security team rejected warnings by Project Cassandra about the threat from Hezbollah as overly alarmist, counterproductive or untrue, even though Kelly, Asher and Maltz were able to show how Hezbollah’s drug trafficking activities were bankrolling its Islamic Jihad terrorist operations and joint ventures with Iran.

Asher would later testify to Congress that Hezbollah had developed “the largest material support scheme for terrorism operations” the world had ever seen. He argued that the best way to attack Hezbollah’s criminal enterprise was to go after the financial institutions which helped it to use its money. Asher’s first target was the Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank, which had $5 billion in assets.

Working with Israeli intelligence operatives and prosecutors from an anti-terrorism unit of the U.S. Department of Justice, Asher’s DEA team was able to penetrate the Lebanese bank’s inner working and identify how it was trying to circumvent U.S. financial sanctions on Hezbollah and Iran. That enabled federal prosecutors to file a civil action against the bank in February 2011, seize $102 million and ultimately force the bank to shut down its operations. However, opposition from senior levels of the Obama administration prevented the Justice Department from filing criminal charges against the bank’s officers, and DEA investigators were unable to pursue the leads in the bank case to the next higher level of Hezbollah’s leadership, which was then able to move its banking business elsewhere.


This resistance caused DEA agent Kelly to ask one of the federal prosecutors he was working with if there was “something going on with the White House that explains why we can’t get a criminal filing.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” the prosecutor responded. “Right now, we have 50 FBI agents not doing anything because they know their Iran cases aren’t going anywhere.”

Nevertheless, the Project Cassandra agents continued their successful efforts to uncover Hezbollah’s criminal and terrorist operations. In October 2011, they uncovered a sensational plot by two Iranian agents who had hired Mexican cartel gunmen to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador in a Washington restaurant. They also produced enough evidence to enable federal prosecutors to indict Hezbollah agent Joumaa for working with Mexico’s Zetas cartel and Colombian and Venezuelan drug suppliers to smuggle 85 tons of cocaine into the U.S., and for laundering $850 million in illicit drug payments.

But the Obama White House, trying to downplay the Hezbollah drug-terror connection, refused to credit DEA for its part in preventing the assassination plot against the Saudi diplomat, and the indictment of Joumaa made no mention of his ties to Hezbollah.

By the end of 2012, White House opposition to Project Cassandra operations became systematic. According to Asher, Kelly, and Maltz, numerous Project Cassandra anti-Hezbollah operations were being shut down or derailed by the Justice Department and other federal agencies with little or no explanation.
This included a plan to shut down an entire Iranian Quds force network which Project Cassandra had found operating in the U.S. It was laundering money, moving drugs and smuggling American-made military equipment into Iran.


The Justice Department also refused to indict senior Hezbollah agent Safieddine on weapons smuggling charges even though the Project Cassandra agents, working with an FBI task force in Philadelphia and federal prosecutors in New York, had located two eyewitnesses who were ready to testify in court that Safieddine had tried to purchase 1200 military assault rifles to send to Lebanon.

After Obama was re-elected in November 2012, securing a nuclear deal with Iran became the top priority of his second term, and the White House became determined to kill any initiative which might threaten the success of those negotiations. Obama’s second term national security team, led by CIA director John Brennan, Secretary of State John Kerry and counterterrorism and homeland security adviser Lisaa Monaco, sent a strong message to stand down to the Project Cassandra agents seeking permission to go after Hezbollah.

The White House was opposed to anything that might threaten its redoubled efforts to engage with Iran. Political appointees and career officials at the Justice and State Departments and at the National Security Council all felt the same pressure from the top to treat any case which might impact the Iran negotiations with kid gloves. The administration set up an informal multi-agency working group whose job was to assess the potential impact of any criminal investigations or prosecutions on the Iran nuclear talks.


At the same time the Obama administration was ramping up its actions against al Qaeda and ISIS, it was taking a hands-off attitude towards Hezbollah’s activities. “That was the established policy of the Obama administration internally,” one former senior Obama national security official said. “I thought it was bad policy that limited the range of options we had,” the official added.
But another former Obama official defended the policy, explaining that in addition to concerns about disrupting the nuclear deal, the White House feared reprisals by Hezbollah against the United States and Israel in response to any serious efforts to shut down its criminal-terror operations.

In response, the Project Cassandra agents scaled back their operations, deciding to concentrate their efforts on relatively simple drug and weapons cases against Hezbollah operatives that they could bring to trial without first having to seek permission from senior administration officials in Washington.

They also increased their efforts to track the flow of illegal cash generated by Hezbollah’s criminal operations which was then used to fund terrorist plots and Iranian military adventures around the world.


Using the leads they developed from their investigation of the Lebanese Canadian Bank, members of the Project Cassandra task force tracked an army of Hezbollah couriers as they transported billions of dollars in U.S. cash from the sale of thousands of used cars in West Africa to Hezbollah-friendly banks in Beirut. The couriers would start their journeys from a hotel in Lome, Togo, carrying suitcases stuffed with as much as $2 million in cash. The money was used to finance the rapid expansion of Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East, and to finance weapons for its proxy armies fighting in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other Sunni-controlled countries.

Project Cassandra officials were even more concerned about the growing influence of Hezbollah and Iran that was fostered by its criminal involvement in the “cocaine corridor,” which stretches from the tip of South America to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Iran and Hezbollah were particularly successful in cultivating a close relationship with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who was South America’s most charismatic anti-American leader. Chavez supported a dramatic expansion of Venezuelan cocaine exports, which increased from 50 tons to 250 tons a year, most of it winding up in American cities. DEA officials could only watch helplessly as a Venezuelan commercial jetliner flew from Caracas to Teheran via Damascus, Syria, every week, filled with drugs and cash.


DEA agents nicknamed the operation “Aeroterror,” because the return flight to Caracas often carried Hezbollah and Iranian terrorists and their weapons. The Chavez government would then give them false papers and dispatch the terrorists to countries throughout South America, where they would operate out of Iranian embassies as well as Shiite Muslim mosques and businesses. Hezbollah also set up operations in South American countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador, which were under Chavez’s influence.

But when the Obama administration had the opportunity to arrest and prosecute two of the leading figures in the Venezuelan-based Hezbollah-Iranian drug smuggling and terror operation, it declined to do so. As a result, Venezuela, now under the despotic rule of Chavez’s protégé and successor, Nicolas Maduro, is part of the primary pipeline for cocaine being smuggled into the United States. The country also serves as a staging area and training ground for Hezbollah and Iranian terrorists in America’s backyard.


Nevertheless, by 2013, the investigations by Project Cassandra, led by Kelly and Asher, had produced a mountain of evidence about Hezbollah’s global operations. A DEA report found that Hezbollah had “leveraged relationships with corrupt foreign government officials and transnational criminal actors … creating a network that can be utilized to move metric ton quantities of cocaine, launder drug proceeds on a global scale, and procure weapons and precursors for explosives.”

After reading the report, senior generals in the U.S. Special Operations and Southern commands warned Congress that Hezbollah’s criminal operations and beachheads in Latin America posed an urgent threat to U.S. security.

In 2014, Project Cassandra task force members were invited to brief a summit meeting of Obama national security officials, but their presentation failed to change White House opposition to any move to crack down on Hezbollah leaders, for fear it might provoke a reaction from Iran, or terrorist reprisals. Instead, White House officials seemed to be alarmed that Project Cassandra had been so successful in uncovering the nefarious activities of Iranian and Hezbollah leaders.

Transnational crime analyst Douglas Farah said the Obama administration ignored his request during that period for permission to check his research against the findings of the Project Cassandra investigations. “When it looked like the [nuclear] agreement might actually happen, it became clear that there was no interest in dealing with anything about Iran or Hezbollah on the ground that it may be negative, that it might scare off the Iranians,” Farah said.


The White House increasingly viewed Project Cassandra as a threat to its efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Iran. It embarked on a subtle campaign to further thwart its operations against Hezbollah, without actually shutting them down.
Kelly and Asher stopped getting invitations to participate in interagency meetings on transnational crime. The Project Cassandra memos on the Hezbollah drug threat never made it into President Obama’s daily threat briefing. Hezbollah was dropped from the White House list of organizations involved in transnational crime. Requests from Project Cassandra for interagency cooperation in arresting, extraditing or trying known Hezbollah leaders within the grasp of the U.S. continued to go unanswered.

In 2013, a frustrated Kelly wrote in an email, “The FBI and other parts of the USG [U.S. government] provide a little or no assistance during our investigations. The USG lack of action on this issue has allowed [Hezbollah] to become one of the biggest transnational organized crime groups in the world.”
Asher was told by administration officials “that this Hezbollah stuff was definitely getting in the way of a successful negotiation [with Iran.]” He recalls being disgusted at one State Department meeting when an Obama national security official boasted that the administration had recruited Hezbollah as a member of its coalition to fight ISIS.


The leaders of Project Cassandra finally got the message. They would no longer be able to accomplish anything significant to thwart the Hezbollah threat.

Project Cassandra was not the only federal agency to have its operations limited by the Obama White House in order to appease the Iranians during this period. A former CIA officer told Politico reporter Josh Meyer who broke this story, “During the negotiations, early on, they [the Iranians] said listen, we need you to lay off Hezbollah, to tamp down the pressure on them, and the Obama administration acquiesced to that request.” As a result, the CIA was forced to declare “a moratorium” on covert operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon. That order from Washington reportedly infuriated CIA officers in the field who knew that Hezbollah “was still doing assassinations and other terrorist activities,” Meyer’s source said.

The nuclear deal with Iran was signed in July 2015, and formally implemented on Jan. 17, 2016. Two weeks later, there was a flurry of arrests of Hezbollah agents in Europe, followed by a DEA press release which announced the existence of Project Cassandra and a brief description of what it had discovered about Hezbollah’s transnational criminal operations.

It was to be Project Cassandra’s last hurrah. Over the next few months, its senior leaders were transferred out of the program and the task force was broken up. According to Asher, who was told he had to return to the Pentagon, the systematic effort by the Obama administration to quietly “defang, defund and undermine the investigations that were involving Iran and Hezbollah,” finally succeeded.

“The closer we got to the [Iran deal], the more these activities went away,” Asher said. “So much of the capability, whether it was special operations, whether it was law enforcement, whether it was [Treasury] designations, even the capacity, the personnel assigned to this mission, it was assiduously drained, almost to the last drop, by the end of the Obama administration.”


The Trump administration and some congressional Republicans have shown interest in reviving Project Cassandra. They have contacted Kelly and Asher to discuss the idea, but at this point, Kelly says, it won’t be easy to put that highly effective team back together.

Even though President Trump recently promised to crack down on Iran and Hezbollah, the government’s most effective tool to do that, Project Cassandra, is now little more than a memory.



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