Former president Barack Obama on Dec. 5 in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
Media critic

Want to know all there is to know about the efforts of Drug Enforcement Administration officials to counter Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group? Well, Politico on Monday dedicated about 13,000 words to the topic.

Under the headline “The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook,” Josh Meyer recounts the DEA’s painstaking efforts to pursue Hezbollah’s international web of shady business schemes that finances its terrorism operations. As Meyer contends, it’s a tale of frustration: Top officials in the Obama administration, he reports, repeatedly blocked these efforts — under so-called Project Cassandra — for fear of upsetting Iran, a country with which President Barack Obama was determined to reach a groundbreaking nuclear deal.

“As Project Cassandra reached higher into the hierarchy of the conspiracy, Obama administration officials threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way, according to interviews with dozens of participants who in many cases spoke for the first time about events shrouded in secrecy, and a review of government documents and court records,” writes Meyer. “When Project Cassandra leaders sought approval for some significant investigations, prosecutions, arrests and financial sanctions, officials at the Justice and Treasury departments delayed, hindered or rejected their requests.”

The story quotes Jack Kelly, who oversaw Hezbollah cases at the DEA, as saying, “If they are violating U.S. statutes, why can’t we bring them to justice?” Hezbollah carries out its work with the assistance of Iranian intelligence and the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, as Meyer notes in his story. The Obama administration’s approach to the group stemmed in part from the thinking of John Brennan, who served as the president’s top counterterrorism aide and later CIA director. He had opined that Hezbollah had various elements — as a political force with representation in the Lebanese parliament and as a terrorist group and militia — and the key was to reinforce the moderate ones.

“There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing,” Brennan said, in a quote cited by Meyer. “And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”

Within that framework, Meyer inventories the dead ends of Project Cassandra. And there are many: Top Obama officials, Meyer reports, declined to assert “serious pressure” on Czech officials to extradite Ali Fayad, a “suspected top Hezbollah operative” who’d been indicted in the United States for various crimes; Obama officials also “blocked or undermined” initiatives by Project Cassandra “to go after other top Hezbollah operatives including one nicknamed the ‘Ghost,’ ” reports Meyer; the Justice Department “refused” to allow the investigation and prosecution of Hezbollah envoy to Iran Abdallah Safieddine, a fellow that Project Cassandra officials considered critical to the organization’s criminal activities. That’s not a complete list.

The story does include response from Obama and Co.:

“There has been a consistent pattern of actions taken against Hezbollah, both through tough sanctions and law enforcement actions before and after the Iran deal,” said Kevin Lewis, an Obama spokesman who worked at both the White House and Justice Department in the administration.

Lewis, speaking for the Obama administration, provided a list of eight arrests and prosecutions as proof. He made special note of a February 2016 operation in which European authorities arrested an undisclosed number of alleged members of a special Hezbollah business affairs unit that the DEA says oversees its drug trafficking and other criminal money-making enterprises.

Meyer also cites the pushback of an unnamed former Obama administration official who attributed the concerns over Project Cassandra to speculation 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.”

Since the story hit the Internet this week and has gained traction on other outlets, including NPR, more officials are coming forward with their own thoughts on the piece. The pushback doesn’t cite any factual errors involving the story’s claims about shut-down investigations and the like.

Here’s Nick Shapiro, John Brennan’s former deputy chief of staff at the CIA:

Former CIA director Brennan categorically rejects any suggestion that the Obama administration did not aggressively pursue and seek to thwart Hezbollah terrorist and criminal activity. The allegations in the Politico story are so ludicrous and the sourcing so nebulous that one can only conclude that the reporter was misled by those who clearly had a political agenda in getting him to write this story.

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.

Former National Security Council spokesman Ned Price:

The narrative presented in this report in no way resembles reality. The Obama administration said time and again that the nuclear negotiations with Iran were confined exclusively to that narrow issue. We did not make concessions in other arenas, and we most certainly did not curtail or attempt to influence any active investigations, including by the Drug Enforcement Administration. To the contrary, we aggressively countered Hezbollah’s terrorist plotting and other malign activities before and after the Iran deal came to fruition and while it was being negotiated. Any allegations to the contrary are false, and those reflected in the story appear to be from former low-level officials who have since gone on to work for organizations ideologically opposed to the Iran deal, something Politico failed to disclose. Politico, despite repeated offerings, also failed to avail itself to input from former senior Obama administration officials, suggesting the reporter had an agenda and narrative from the start.

To illuminate the sourcing issues that Price identifies: David Asher, who worked on Project Cassandra and is quoted in the story, serves on a board for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposed the Obama Iran deal. Katherine Bauer, whose testimony is cited in the Politico story, is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which took an early, skeptical view of the Iran deal.

Former Treasury and CIA official David Cohen:

When I was at Treasury from March 2009 through the end of January 2015, I was personally involved in and responsible for Treasury’s counter-terrorist financing work, including our work against Hezbollah. Working with others throughout the U.S. government and partners overseas, we took numerous actions to combat Hezbollah financing. I then served as the deputy director of the CIA from February 2015 through January 2017. In all that time, I never once heard anyone suggest we should back off on Hezbollah or anyone associated with Hezbollah. To the contrary, at both Treasury and the CIA we were working actively against Hezbollah. I can’t speak, of course, for the entire [U.S. government], including DEA, but again, I think I would have heard if there was anything approaching a stand-down order because it would have affected things on which I was working and/or supervising.

A former Treasury official also blasted the story in a Twitter thread.

A spokesman for Lisa Monaco: “Former Homeland Security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco disagrees with any suggestion that the Obama administration did not seek to aggressively counter Hezbollah’s terrorist and criminal activity, and she categorically rejects the claims by anonymous sources made about her in the article.”

Those claims include the suggestion that Monaco served as an “influential roadblock at the intersection of law enforcement and politics” and that she “expressed concerns about using RICO laws against top Hezbollah leaders and about the possibility of reprisals, according to several people familiar with the summit.”

Bolding inserted to flag an instructive moment. As her biography attests, Monaco spent 15 years at the Justice Department, mostly as a career federal prosecutor. She also worked at the FBI. “Expressing concerns” about certain law enforcement strategies may have been Monaco’s way of, like, using her governmental experience to sharpen U.S. policy, rather than working as the cog in an alleged plot to take it easy on Hezbollah. A possibility, anyway.

There are other moments in the story that fall far short of conclusive. For example: “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.” Bolding added to highlight another possibility: that those decisions might not have been influenced by the working group.

Also: Meyer notes that agents had worked hard to gather evidence against an Iranian Quds Force network operating in the United States. Asher, who was sent to the project from the Defense Department, tells Meyer that they’d “crashed” to indict the malefactors. “While some operatives were eventually prosecuted, other critically important indictments ‘were rejected despite the fact that we had excellent evidence and testifying witnesses,’ said Asher, who helped lead the investigation.” Bolding added to raise a question: If there was really a soft-pedal policy toward Iran, why prosecute anyone?

Politico musters a forceful response to the objections:

Josh Meyer’s groundbreaking investigation was rigorously reported, deeply sourced, thoroughly vetted and is of significant public interest given the national security implications. POLITICO is proud of this story and believe it captures the complexity of the decision making by the Obama administration in pursuit of a deal with Iran that it viewed as a major foreign policy achievement. It’s hardly surprising that Obama loyalists have pushed back on the overall thrust of the article.

In his months of reporting the piece, Josh conducted an exhaustive review of government documents and court records and spoke with dozens of key participants at all levels of government. It’s worth noting that the principals mentioned in the piece were given the opportunity to comment and when they declined, POLITICO interviewed numerous sources who could speak on their behalf.

Also, Josh responded himself on television [Tuesday], specifically responding to the false claim that the article is based on uncorroborated complaints from disgruntled low-level officials. “I also talked to many, many dozens of other people to get a sort of ground truth and see what their allegations were when held up to the light of day. So this is not a story in 14,000 words where I was just taking spin from some people,” he said.

Obama administration law enforcement policy toward Hezbollah is a tough topic for a media critic to adjudicate. These are highly complicated matters — the very weeds of interagency law enforcement and national security. The story is deeply reported and contains valuable insight into how a modern-day crime-and-terror group operates; the Hezbollah used-car business is fascinating, for example. Yet the piece lacks a smoking gun, relying instead on the statements and suspicions of Project Cassandra officials, culminating in assertions like this one: “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,” reads the story.

That’s a tough proposition to prove and to disprove — and that’s the gray area in which this clash happens to rest.