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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Obama administration 'downplayed' federal Hizbollah probe

An investigation by US online magazine Politico says the administration downplayed the findings of the task force in order to avoid derailing negotiations with Iran, which backs Hizbollah, over the country’s nuclear programme

Iran has long provided financial and military support to Hizbollah, which is the only Lebanese political party to still maintain a militia. Mohammad Zaatari / AP
Iran has long provided financial and military support to Hizbollah, which is the only Lebanese political party to still maintain a militia. Mohammad Zaatari / AP

The administration of former US president Barack Obama sought to stymie an investigation by a federal task force into ties between Hizbollah and international drug and weapons trafficking, a news report has alleged.

An investigation by the American online magazine Politico says Mr Obama’s administration downplayed the findings of the task force in order to avoid derailing negotiations with Iran, which backs Hizbollah, over the country’s nuclear programme.

The federal investigation, known as Project Cassandra, began in 2008 and was spearheaded by the US drug enforcement agency. It included investigators from the department of defence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and ended in 2016 when Iran and the United States reached a deal to lift economic sanctions against Iran in return for assurances the country would not pursue nuclear weapons.

“This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” David Asher, who helped establish and oversee Project Cassandra as a defence department illicit 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.”

Iran has long provided financial and military support to Hizbollah, which is the only Lebanese political party to still maintain a militia. In recent years, Hizbollah has become an even more valuable ally to its benefactor, deploying thousands of fighters to Syria in a successful bid to help Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, another Iranian ally, defeat a rebellion against his government.

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A spokeswoman for Hizbollah’s media office in Beirut said the party does not “comment on articles”.

Former federal agents familiar with the investigation told Politico that Project Cassandra had uncovered a global conspiracy that included government officials in Russia, Venezuela, Syria and Iran, potentially going as far as the current and former presidents of those countries, including Mr Al Assad and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The investigation alleged that cocaine shipped from Venezuela and Colombia to the US and Europe with the help of a Venezuelan-based businessman helped fund, among other things, weapons for Iranian-supported militias fighting US troops in Iraq. A vast money-laundering scheme involving used car dealerships and other legitimate businesses was connected to Abdallah Safieddine, a cousin of Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who the agents described as Hizbollah’s envoy to Iran.

In February, the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions against Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissimi, alleging he had ties to Hizbollah members who were helping traffic millions of dollars of cocaine into the US.

US president Donald Trump’s government has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the nuclear agreement struck between US-led world powers and Iran during the Obama administration, accusing Tehran of violating it.

However, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees Iranian compliance with the agreement, says Iran has so far adhered to it.

Over its nearly decade-long course, however, Project Cassandra did lead to US federal court indictments and sanctions against alleged Hizbollah affiliates and shut down the privately-owned Lebanese Canadian Bank over money laundering allegations in 2011.

The Politico article, which was published on Sunday, does not contain any new revelations about alleged Hizbollah ties to money laundering, drug trafficking and other organised crime, but it is the first time former federal officials have suggested that the Obama administration sought to block the Project Cassandra investigation.

The magazine also suggests Obama administration officials were afraid that targeting the alleged criminal network could “destabilise Lebanon” or even lead to Hizbollah conducting a terrorist attack inside the US or against American interests abroad.

Hizbollah has never committed an attack inside the US, though the American government blames it for attacks in the early 1980s against the US's embassy and marine barracks in Beirut that killed hundreds and prompted Washington to end its military intervention in the country.

Other Lebanese political parties contacted by The National declined to comment on the allegations.