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The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook

After Obama won reelection in November 2012, the administration’s pushback on Hezbollah drug cases became more overt, and now seemed to be emanating directly from the White House, according to task force members, some former U.S. officials and other observers.

One reason, they said, was Obama’s choice of a new national security team. The appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state was widely viewed as a sign of a redoubled effort to engage with Iran. Obama’s appointment of Brennan — the public supporter of cultivating Hezbollah moderates — as CIA director, and the president’s choice of the Justice Department’s top national security lawyer, Lisa MonacoLisa MonacoLisa Monaco replaced John Brennan as the White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser.×, as Brennan’s replacement as White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, put two more strong proponents of diplomatic engagement with Iran in key positions.

Another factor was the victory of reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran that summer, which pushed the talks over a possible nuclear deal into high gear.

The administration’s eagerness for an Iran deal was broadcast through so many channels, task force members say, that political appointees and career officials at key agencies like Justice, State and the National Security Council felt unspoken pressure to view the task force’s efforts with skepticism. One former senior Justice Department official confirmed to POLITICO that some adverse decisions might have been influenced by an informal multi-agency Iran working group that “assessed the potential impact” of criminal investigations and prosecutions on the nuclear negotiations.

Monaco was a particularly influential roadblock at the intersection of law enforcement and politics, in part due to her sense of caution, her close relationship with Obama and her frequent contact with her former colleagues at the Justice Department’s National Security Division, according to several task force members and other current and former officials familiar with its efforts.

Some Obama officials warned that further crackdowns against Hezbollah would destabilize Lebanon. Others warned that such actions would alienate Iran at a critical early stage of the serious Iran deal talks. And some officials, including MonacoLisa MonacoLisa Monaco replaced John Brennan as the White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser.×, said the administration was concerned about retaliatory terrorist or military actions by Hezbollah, task force members said.

“That was the established policy of the Obama administration internally,” one former senior Obama national security official said, in describing the reluctance to go after Hezbollah for fear of reprisal. He said he criticized it at the time as being misguided and hypocritical.

“We’re obviously doing those actions against al Qaeda and ISIS all the time,” the Obama official said. “I thought it was bad policy [to refrain from such actions on Hezbollah] that limited the range of options we had,” including criminal prosecutions.

Monaco declined repeated requests for comment, including detailed questions sent by email and text, though a former White House subordinate of hers rejected the task force members’ description of her motives and actions.

The White House was driven by a broader set of concerns than the fate of the nuclear talks, the former White House official said, including the fear of reprisals by Hezbollah against the United States and Israel, and the need to maintain peace and stability in the Middle East.

Brennan also told POLITICO he was not commenting on any aspect of his CIA tenure. His former associates, however, said that he remained committed to preventing Hezbollah from committing terrorist acts, and that his decisions were based on an overall concern for U.S. security.

For their part, task force agents said they tried to work around the obstacles presented by the Justice and State Departments and the White House. Often, they chose to build relatively simple drug and weapons cases against suspects rather than the ambitious narcoterrorism prosecutions that required the approval of senior Justice Department lawyers, interviews and records show.

At the same time, though, they redoubled efforts to build a RICORICO caseThe Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act increases the severity of penalties for crimes committed in as part of organized crime.× case and gain Justice Department support for it.

Their ace in the hole, Kelly and Asher said they told Justice officials, wasn’t some dramatic drug bust, but thousands of individual financial transactions, each of which constituted an overt criminal act under RICO. Much of this evidence grew out of the Lebanese Canadian Bank investigation, including details of how an army of couriers for years had been transporting billions of dollars in dirty U.S. cash from West African car dealerships to friendly banks in Beirut.

The couriers would begin their journeys at a four-star hotel in Lome, Togo, lugging suitcases stuffed with as much as $ 2 million each, Kelly said. And the task force was on the tail of every one of them, he said, thanks to an enterprising DEA agent who had found a way to get all of their cellphone numbers. “They had no idea what we were doing,” Kelly said. “But that alone gave us all the slam-dunk evidence we needed” for a RICO case against everyone involved in the conspiracy, including Hezbollah.

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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