Republican Hawks Continue to Fan the Flames of War With Iran

Given that this holiday week will likely be slow in terms of news, it is a good opportunity to revisit a story that has fallen by the wayside. If you remember, back in October Trump refused to certify the deal reached by the Obama administration and other world powers with Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. But instead of ending the agreement, the president sent the issue to Congress, which had 60 days to decide whether to (1) reimpose sanctions, (2) attempt to re-negotiate the agreement, or (3) do nothing.

Amidst all of the focus on the Republican tax cuts, that 60 days expired at the end of November with Congress doing nothing. But that doesn’t mean that the Republican hawks who seem determined to start a war with Iran are done trying.

Last week, Josh Meyer published an explosive piece in Politico titled, “The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook.” It’s a long read that resembles a movie plot about the good guys attempting to go after that bad guys who are involved in narco-terrorism, only to be thwarted by the bureaucrats. But Meyer does us the favor of getting to the point of it all in the first paragraph.

In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States, according to a POLITICO investigation.

Meyer identifies two main sources who previously worked with the DEA on an effort called “Project Cassandra”: Katherine Bauer and David Asher. Much of the push-back on what he wrote focuses on the fact that both of them now work for organizations that spoke out repeatedly against the Iran deal.

It is helpful to keep in mind that Meyer’s piece is mostly a deeper dive into a subject that was covered at The Washington Free Beacon (which is funded by Paul Singer, who also funds the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where David Asher currently works) six months ago. Back in August 2015, John Judis described FDD as “a relatively small Washington think tank that is devoting itself to defeating the Iran deal.”

…it has conducted its research from a particular vantage point and with a relatively narrow focus. Its research and advocacy have centered on the Middle East and in particular on conflicts and issues that impinge on Israel. And its positions have closely tracked those of the Likud party and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—not just on the Iran deal, but on the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the desirability of a two-state solution. Understanding the think tank’s ideological affinity with the Israeli government, and the roots of that affinity, helps explain the special role that FDD has played in opposing the Iran deal and may shed light on what FDD hopes to accomplish by derailing President Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment.

None of that makes what Meyer has written false, but it provides the kind of background for his sources that he failed to mention anywhere in the article. But if you dive deep enough into Meyer’s piece, you get a good sense of another factor that might have hampered Project Cassandra, other than the Iran deal.

Much of the early turbulence stemmed from an escalating turf battle between federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies over which ones had primacy in the global war on terrorism, especially over a so-called hybrid target like Hezbollah, which was both a criminal enterprise and a national security threat.

The “cops” from the FBI and DEA wanted to build criminal cases, throw Hezbollah operatives in prison and get them to turn on each other. That stoked resentment among the “spooks” at the CIA and National Security Agency, who for 25 years had gathered intelligence, sometimes through the painstaking process of having agents infiltrate Hezbollah, and then occasionally launching assassinations and cyberattacks to block imminent threats.

Further complicating the picture was the role of the State Department, which often wanted to quash both law-enforcement actions and covert operations due to the political backlash they created. Hezbollah, after all, was a leading political force in Lebanon and a provider of human services, with a sincere grass-roots following that wasn’t necessarily aware of its unsavory actions. Nowhere was the tension between law enforcement and diplomacy more acute than in dealings with Hezbollah, which was fast becoming a key part of the Lebanese government…

Some current and former diplomats and CIA officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, portrayed DEA Special Operations agents as undisciplined and overly aggressive cowboys with little regard for 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.

While the people involved with Project Cassandra, like Bauer and Asher, want to portray the roadblocks they faced in pursuit of Hezbollah as being tied to the Obama administration’s negotiations on the Iran deal, it becomes clear from reading Meyer’s piece that DEA’s activities are viewed by other government agencies as reckless and over-zealous. Delving into that conflict would have made for a very interesting story about the whole “cops” vs “spooks” story that has been played out differently over this country’s history.

As an example of a different view, John Brennan was the CIA director during this time. His former deputy chief of staff, Nick Shapiro, had this to say about his views on Hezbollah.

Brennan’s argument was and remains that terrorist elements within such organizations —PLO, IRA, Hezbollah — need to be marginalized and ultimately eliminated by a combination of U.S.-led international pressure and the actions of the nonviolent and more politically motivated parts of the groups that see terrorism as counterproductive to their broader geo-strategic interests. He never advocated giving Hezbollah terrorists a pass. Rather, he believes they need to be strangled into near oblivion.

It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with scenarios where reckless DEA agents could thwart attempts to empower the more politically motivated parts of Hezbollah to reign in the outliers in an effort to meet their broader geo-strategic interests. One administration official even described how the conflicts might have played out.

A former senior national security official of the Obama administration, who played a role in the Iran nuclear negotiations, suggested that Project Cassandra members were merely speculating that their cases were being blocked for political reasons. Other factors, including a lack of evidence or concerns about interfering with intelligence operations could have been in play.

“What if the CIA or the Mossad had an intelligence operation ongoing inside Hezbollah and they were trying to pursue someone . . . against whom we had impeccable [intelligence] collection and the DEA is not going to know that?” the official said. “I get the feeling people who don’t know what’s going on in the broader universe are grasping at straws.”

As I suggested, all of that would have been a fascinating story. But Meyer’s sources dismiss it in favor of the argument that the Obama administration thwarted their efforts in order to pacify Iran during their negotiations.

Turf battles, especially the institutional conflict between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, contributed to the demise of Project Cassandra, Maltz said. But many Project Cassandra agents insist the main reason was a political choice to prioritize the Iranian nuclear agreement over efforts to crack down on Hezbollah.

It all amounts to a gigantic public relations statement against the Iran nuclear agreement by those who have opposed it all along.

The result of the refocus on this story is that Attorney General Sessions has ordered a review of of the allegations made by these agents. Unleashing reckless attempts to go after Hezbollah could have an impact, not only on the Iran nuclear agreement, but on potential terrorist threats.

Hezbollah continues to scout potential U.S. targets for attack if it decides Washington has crossed some red line against it or Iran. On June 1, federal authorities arrested two alleged Hezbollah operatives who were conducting “pre-operational surveillance” on possible targets for attack, including the FBI headquarters in New York and the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Panama.

That certainly doesn’t mean that the U.S. should back down. But it does raise concerns about whether this administration has any idea that they are playing with fire in their provocations against Iran. Those who seem determined to take us to war with that country are doing all they can to fan the flames.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.