Politico Reporter Says Obama Administration 'Derailed' Hezbollah Investigation
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to a story about a team of U.S. federal agents who were tracking the moves of Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and military group closely aligned with Iran.
JOSH MEYER: For many, many decades, Lebanese diaspora people in West Africa, Latin America and elsewhere have been using the black market to traffic in any number of things that are legitimate things - frozen chicken, electronics parts - but a lot of it is illegitimate, and it's been done to help Iran evade sanctions that the U.S. has imposed.
MARTIN: That's the voice of Josh Meyer of Politico. He says these federal agents were following the money, money they say Hezbollah was using to traffic weapons and drugs. These agents spent years investigating under a code name, Project Cassandra. Now, even though former Obama administration officials say Hezbollah was the subject of numerous law enforcement actions, these agents allege that their work was interrupted because the Obama White House put a higher premium on getting the Iran nuclear deal through.
MEYER: I became aware of their allegations very early in the process and then spent months and dozens and dozens of interviews interviewing people looking at court records, thousands of pages of documents, reports, internal emails and so forth to try to see if that was true. And the picture that emerges is that, in some cases, things were done deliberately. In many other cases, things were done not on purpose but had the desired effect of derailing this investigative process. And, in other cases, it was just a matter of not doing things. I mean, it was not supporting investigations, not approving requests for prosecutions or extraditions. They shut down Project Cassandra's efforts to mount a racketeering case against the Hezbollah criminal enterprise...
MARTIN: Because the assumption would be if they let these things happen that it would anger Iran, and then the nuclear deal would be off.
MEYER: Right. And, again, you have to remember that Hezbollah is essentially an Iranian proxy. So by alienating or angering Hezbollah or cracking down on it, arresting the wrong people, they were afraid that it wouldn't show good faith in the negotiations over the Iran deal and that that might, you know, scare them away from the negotiating table. But, you know, I think one thing that's important to note is that these investigators, first of all, they're fairly apolitical people. You know, they don't - I don't think that they they thought, you know, whether the Iran deal is good or bad. But I think that their takeaway is that whatever we were negotiating with Iran that we should be able to go after Hezbollah, you know, aggressively as well, that it shouldn't be an either or but that, you know, letting Hezbollah continue its criminal activities, even at a time when it was expanding, using the money from these criminal proceeds to bankroll terrorist and military operations around the world, some of them undermining U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria for instance, that that was something that couldn't be pushed aside and shouldn't have been, and that that should have been part of the equation when they were negotiating.
MARTIN: What did the Obama administration say in response to your reporting? You reached out to to get their reaction to what you had found.
MEYER: I mean, you know, these are very explosive allegations. So I've spent months, you know, talking to people, getting some on the record comments, some background comment from people at every level of the government. And nobody will say, yes, we did this on purpose. But I think that there's a lot of acknowledgement among people at the higher levels of the Obama administration that there are various equities that they have to keep in mind. One of them is law enforcement operations. Others are military, diplomatic efforts, financial sanctions, and that, you know, just because federal law enforcement agents, you know, had their cases denied or delayed or even derailed, that doesn't mean that it's, you know, done particularly, you know, with any malice. It's done because they believe that the political equities and the bigger picture requires a focus on something else.
MARTIN: So this was obviously a historic deal, the Iran nuclear deal. America's allies, especially in Europe, were all very pleased with it. It has become a central part of Barack Obama's presidential legacy. And the premise was all about making the world safer. The takeaway from your piece and your reporting seems to be that there were just more tradeoffs involved in this deal than the public knew about.
MEYER: Right. It is somewhat ironic, I think, you know, that in their efforts to make the world a safer place - and I have no doubt that they had the best of intentions going forward with this - they did allow a group that was a regionally focused militia-slash-political organization with a terrorist wing to become a much more wealthy global criminal organization that has a lot of money that can now be used to bankroll terrorist and military actions around the world.
MARTIN: Josh Meyer, a senior investigative reporter for Politico. His story is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.