Get tough on Hezbollah, fix Obama's mistake: Revive Project Cassandra

Get tough on Hezbollah, fix Obama's mistake: Revive Project Cassandra
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Until this week, few Americans knew of Project Cassandra, a decade-long operation run by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) through its Special Operations Division. Yet it was one of America’s most successful counter-terrorist campaigns, racking up numerous victories in the war against Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization, and its global crime and drug trafficking networks.

A bombshell investigation published on Sunday by Politico’s Josh Meyer has now revealed that, for the sake of achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed the DEA’s program to combat Hezbollah’s growing collusion with drug cartels, letting this nascent threat become a global menace.

The Trump administration should move swiftly to revive Project Cassandra and make it the centerpiece of a comprehensive effort to take down Hezbollah. To that end, the president should rapidly nominate a new DEA chief who is prepared to lead the fight. The administration should also use the Kingpin Act against Hezbollah as well as designating it as a transnational criminal organization (TCO).

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Likewise, it should target both Latin American banks that move money for Hezbollah as well as corrupt local officials that enable the group to operate with impunity. Meanwhile, the State Department should push hard to get our European allies to designate all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Congress should support this effort by ensuring final passage of an updated law targeting Hezbollah’s finances, as well as strengthening anti-money laundering legislations. This is what it will take to reverse the damage done by eight years of passivity.

Project Cassandra was not only successful operationally. Its discoveries had policy implications. First, it revealed the extent of Hezbollah’s global criminal networks, showing that the group is now on par with the Italian and Russian mafia for size, scope and nastiness. It also proved that Hezbollah’s criminal operations were approved, endorsed and coordinated by the organization’s most senior leaders in Beirut and Tehran. The Obama administration apparently understood that exposure of Tehran’s intimate role in drug trafficking and terrorism would threaten its hopes of finalizing a nuclear deal with Tehran.

According to Politico, during the nuclear negotiations Iran requested that the Obama administration let Hezbollah off the hook and it complied. Thus, the Obama Justice Department refused to pursue Abdallah Safieddine, the leader in charge of coordinating Hezbollah’s global drug trafficking operations, who also serves as Hezbollah’s liaison officer in Tehran and is the maternal cousin of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s first-in-command. Yet the DEA saw Safieddine as the “linchpin of Hezbollah’s criminal network.” This meant that part of the nuclear deal’s price was that Hezbollah’s drug shipments would continue to flood America’s markets.

Politico’s revelations are disconcerting, but they should not be surprising. Obama made a lot of reckless concessions to Iran that might have undermined the nuclear deal if they had become public knowledge at the time. To ensure the deal’s implementation, Obama ransomed U.S. hostages with pallets of cash. The president also blocked all Department of Justice investigations into Iranian illicit procurement and sanctions evasion in the United States – which Meyer first revealed in Politico last April.

More visibly, Obama abandoned his own red line prohibiting the use of chemical weapons by Iran’s client regime in Syria. Torpedoing prosecutions against Hezbollah drug traffickers is consistent with these decisions.

Fixing the train wreck left behind by the Obama administration will require a comprehensive strategy to counter Hezbollah’s criminal networks.

First, the Department of Treasury should designate Hezbollah as a Transnational Crime Organization (TCO) and under the Kingpin Act. A TCO designation would open the path to prosecutions against Hezbollah operatives under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act – a step Project Cassandra sought to pursue and the Obama administration blocked. Kingpin designations would extend sanctions to spouses and children of designated individuals, casting the net of U.S. penalties much wider than any other sanctions’ program.

In both cases, therefore, the U.S. should not just designate Hezbollah as an organization, but also the individual leaders involved in directing, endorsing, religiously justifying, coordinating, and benefiting from the traffic of illicit substances.

TCO and Kingpin designations have real-world impact, especially in countries where Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist organization, which is the case for all countries in Latin America. Local governments are often reluctant to prosecute terror financiers but may respond more positively to U.S. requests to arrest, prosecute, and extradite individuals implicated in drug trafficking and organized crime. Even if designations alone cannot achieve much, they can create the groundwork for successful law enforcement.

To build on its designations, the U.S. must put substantial pressure on foreign governments which are either reluctant to implement U.S. sanctions or actively cooperate with the terrorists. Section 311 of the Patriot Act provides some of the best tools for this job, such as enabling the government to designate financial institutions used by Hezbollah financiers, as well designating the banking sectors of countries that facilitate Hezbollah’s terror finance as zones of primary money laundering concern.

The U.S. can also work through international forums like the Financial Action Task Force to have such countries blacklisted. These tactics worked against the Lebanese Canadian Bank, which Project Cassandra officials targeted in 2011 and ultimately forced out of business.

To put pressure on corrupt officials who protect Hezbollah, the U.S. can employ the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, which enables the government to punish foreign officials’ corrupt practices. In Latin America, a major factor explaining Hezbollah’s success is its ability to buy the silence and complicity of local politicians, law enforcement, judges and prosecutors, airport security, and other officials.

The Department of State can contribute to the campaign against Hezbollah by persuading European allies to sanction Hezbollah in its entirety rather than perpetuating the fiction that Hezbollah has a dangerous military arm and a separate political arm. Even Hezbollah leaders deny that such a distinction exists. U.S. diplomats can also work to renew cooperation with foreign law enforcement agencies to prosecute Hezbollah drug networks.

Congress can support these efforts by ensuring final passage of the Hezbollah International Financing and Prevention Amendments Act (HIFPAA), which the House and Senate have separately approved. By reconciling the two versions of the bill and sending the final result to the president’s desk, Congress would improve the administration’s ability to punish complicit foreign officials and others engaged in similarly corrupt practices.

The new legislation would reduce the threshold for sanctioning those who, while not conclusively proven to be members of Hezbollah, are clearly facilitators of its activities. This measure would permit U.S. authorities to go after companies, financial institutions, accounting and legal firms, virtual office service providers, and others who enable Hezbollah’s terror finance.

Congress should also contemplate changes to anti-money laundering laws within the U.S. to increase the transparency and availability of incorporation data, which would help to expose “beneficial ownership” of front companies by criminal organizations.

Finally, the president should appoint a new DEA administrator and complete the process of appointing U.S. attorneys. He should also ensure that there are sufficient resources for special units and task forces, such as the Cassandra project, which can take down Hezbollah’s networks.

The Iran deal was not worth letting Hezbollah, the A-team of global terrorists, also become the most successful global criminal organization. The Trump administration may not be responsible for this train wreck, but it is now responsible for fixing it. Fortunately, the way ahead is clear.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.