The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook - Part 2
Josh Meyer | Politico | Friday, June 8, 2018 -- 4:39 PM EDT
***Uploaded by CitizensDawn and Last updated on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 -- 8:47 PM EDT***
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Cash for clunkers was suspicious, the Arab spring and 'Fast and Furious' gun running was questionable, the ignoring of intelligence about the rise of ISIS was alarming, but how the Obama administration created the Iran deal was the icing on the cake: Obama was openly facilitating the rise of the Islamic caliphate.

***Article first published by 'Politico'***

You can find 'Part 1' of this series by Clicking here.

PART II: Everywhere and Nowhere

From its headquarters in the Middle East, Hezbollah extends its criminal reach to Latin America, Africa and the United States.

On Feb. 12, 2008, CIA and Israeli intelligence detonated a bomb in Mughniyeh's car as he was leaving a celebration of the 29th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in Damascus, Syria. He was killed instantly. It was a major blow to Hezbollah, but soon after, wiretapped phone lines and other U.S. evidence showed that his criminal operation was busier than ever, and overseen by two trusted associates, according to interviews with former Project Cassandra officials and DEA documents.

One was financier Adham Tabaja. The other, the interviews and documents reveal, was Safieddine, the key link between Hezbollah — which was run by his cousin, Hassan Nasrallah and his own brother Hashem — and Iran, Hezbollah’s state sponsor, which saw the group as its strategic ally in defending Shiite Muslims in the largely Sunni Muslim states that surrounded it.

Investigators were also homing in on several dozen key players underneath them who acted as “superfacilitators” for the various criminal operations benefitting Hezbollah, Iran and, at times, their allies in Iraq, Syria, Venezuela and Russia.

But it was Safieddine, a low-key, bespectacled man with a diplomatic bearing, who was their key point of connection from his base in Tehran, investigators believed.

The Colombia and Venezuela investigations linked him to numerous international drug smuggling and money laundering networks, and especially to one of the biggest the DEA had ever seen, led by Medellin-based Lebanese businessman Ayman Joumaa.

Joumaa’s network rang alarm bells in Washington when agents discovered he was working with Mexico’s brutal Los Zetas cartel to move multi-ton loads of cocaine directly into the United States, and washing $200 million a month in criminal proceeds with the help of 300 or so used car dealerships. The network would funnel huge amounts of money to the dealerships to purchase used cars, which would then be shipped to Benin, on Africa’s west coast.

As the task force investigators intensified their focus on Safieddine, they were contacted out of the blue by Asher, the Defense Department official, who was at Special Operations Command tracking the money used to provide ragtag Iraqi Shiite militias with sophisticated weapons for use against U.S. troops, including the new and lethal IED known as the “Explosively Formed Penetrator.” The armor-piercing charges were so powerful that they were ripping M1 Abrams tanks in half.

“Nobody had seen weapons like these,” Asher told POLITICO. “They could blow the side off a building.”

Asher’s curiosity had been piqued by evidence linking the IED network to phone numbers intercepted in the Colombia investigation. Before long, he traced the unusual alliance to a number allegedly used by Safieddine in Iran.

“I had no clue who he was,” Asher recalled. “But this guy was sending money into Iraq, to kill American soldiers.”

“I had no clue who he was. But this guy was sending money into Iraq, to kill American soldiers.”

— David Asher on Abdallah Safieddine.

Thanks to that chance connection, the Pentagon’s then-head of counternarcotics, William Wechsler, lent Asher and a few other Defense Department experts in tracking illicit money to the DEA to see what they might find.

It was a fruitful partnership. Asher was accustomed to toiling in the financial shadows. During his 20-plus years of U.S. government work, his core expertise was in exposing money laundering and schemes to avoid financial sanctions by rogue nation states, terrorist groups, organized-crime cartels and weapons proliferation networks.

Usually, his work was strictly classified. For Project Cassandra, however, he got special dispensation from the Pentagon to build networks of unclassified information so it could be used in criminal prosecutions.

Asher and his team quickly integrated cutting-edge financial intelligence tools into the various DEA investigations. With the U.S. military’s help, agents translated thousands of hours of intercepted phone conversations from Colombia in Arabic that no one had considered relevant until the Hezbollah links appeared.

When the translations were complete, investigators said, they painted a picture of Safieddine as a human hub of a criminal enterprise with spokes emanating from Tehran outward into Latin America, Africa, Europe and the United States via hundreds of legitimate businesses and front companies.

Safieddine did not respond to requests for comment through various intermediaries including Hezbollah’s media arm. A Hezbollah official, however, denied that the organization was involved in drug dealing.

“Sheik Nasrallah has confirmed lots of times that it is not permitted religiously for Hezbollah members to be trafficking drugs,” the official said. “It is something that is preventable, in that we in Islam have things like halal [permitted] and haram [prohibited]. For us, this is haram. So in no way is it possible to be done.”

The accusation that Hezbollah is involved in drug trafficking, the representative said, “is part of the campaign to distort the image of Hezbollah as a resistance movement against the Israelis. Of course, it is possible to have Lebanese people involved in drugs, but it is not possible for them to be members of Hezbollah. This is absolutely not possible.”

Asked about Safieddine’s role in the organization, the official said, “We don’t usually expose the roles everyone plays because it is a jihadi organization. So it is a little bit secret.”

Safieddine’s cousin Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, has publicly rejected the idea that Hezbollah needs to raise money at all, through drugs or any other criminal activity, because Iran provides whatever funds it needs.

Safieddine himself, however, suggested otherwise in 2005, when he defiantly refuted the Bush administration’s accusations that Iran and Syria supplied Hezbollah with weapons. Those countries provided “political and moral” support only, he told Agence France-Presse. “We don’t need to arm ourselves from Tehran. Why bring weapons from Iran via Syria when we can procure them anywhere in the world?”

“We don't need to arm ourselves from Tehran. Why bring weapons from Iran via Syria when we can procure them anywhere in the world?”

— Abdallah Safieddine to Agence France-Presse in 2005.

Safieddine may have been right. Agents found evidence that weapons were flowing to Hezbollah from many channels, including networks that trafficked in both drugs and weapons. And using the same trafficking networks that hummed with drugs, cash and commercial products, agents concluded, Safieddine was overseeing Hezbollah efforts to help Iran procure parts and technology for its clandestine nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“Hezbollah operates like the Gambino crime family on steroids, and he is its John Gotti,” said Kelly, referring to the infamous “Teflon Don” crime boss who for decades eluded justice. “Whatever Iran needs, Safieddine is in charge of getting it for them.”

“Hezbollah operates like the Gambino crime family on steroids, and he is its John Gotti.”

— Jack Kelly on Abdallah Safieddine

The Bush administration had made disrupting the networks through which Iran obtained parts for its weapons of mass destruction programs a top priority, with then-Deputy National Security Adviser Juan Zarate personally overseeing an interagency effort to map out the procurement channels. A former Justice Department prosecutor, Zarate understood the value of international law enforcement operations, and put DEA’s Special Operations Division at the center of it.

But even then, other agencies were chafing at the DEA’s role.

A SERIES OF ROADBLOCKS

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.

Distrust among U.S. agencies exploded after two incidents brought the cops-spooks divide into clear relief.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, a DEA agent’s cover was blown just as he was about to become a Colombian cartel’s main cocaine supplier to the Middle East — and to Hezbollah operatives.

A year later, under Obama, the State Department blocked an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force from luring a key eyewitness from Beirut to Philadelphia so he could be arrested and turned against Safieddine and other Hezbollah operatives in a scheme to procure 1,200 Colt M4 military-grade assault rifles.

In both cases, law enforcement agents suspected that Middle East-based spies in the CIA had torpedoed their investigations to protect their politically sensitive and complicated relationship with Hezbollah.

The CIA declined to comment on the allegation that it intentionally blew the cover of a DEA agent or any other aspect of its relationship with Project Cassandra. The Obama State Department and Justice Department also declined to comment in response to detailed requests about their dealings with Hezbollah.

But the tensions between those agencies and the DEA were no secret. 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.

“They’d come in hot to places like Beirut, want to slap handcuffs on people and disrupt operations we’d been cultivating for years.”

— Former CIA case officer on how the DEA operated.

Kelly and other agents embraced their swashbuckling reputation, claiming that more aggressive tactics were needed because the CIA had long turned a blind eye to Hezbollah’s criminal networks, and even cultivated informants within them, in a misguided and myopic focus on preventing terrorist attacks.

The unyielding posture of Kelly, Asher and their team also rankled some of their fellow law-enforcement agents within the FBI, the Justice Department and even the DEA itself. The more Kelly and Asher insisted that everyone else was missing the drug-crime-terror nexus, the more others accused them — and their team out at Chantilly — of inflating those connections to expand the task force’s portfolio, get more funding and establish its importance.

After a few years of working together on the Hezbollah cases, Kelly and Asher had become a familiar sight in the never-ending circuit of meetings and briefings in what is known as the “interagency process,” a euphemism for the U.S. national security community’s efforts to bring all elements of power to bear on a particular problem.

From outward appearances, the two made an unusual pair.

Kelly, now 51, was a streetwise agent from small-town New Jersey who cut his teeth investigating the Mafia and drug kingpins. He spent his infrequent downtime lifting weights, watching college football and chilling in cargo shorts.

Asher, 49, speaks fluent Japanese, earned his Ph.D. in international relations from Oxford University and has the pallor of a senior government official who has spent the past three decades in policy meetings, classified military war rooms and diplomatic summits.

Both were described by supporters and detractors alike as having a similarly formidable combination of investigative and analytical skills, and the self-confidence to match it. At times, and especially on Project Cassandra, their intensity worked to the detriment of their careers.

“It got to the point where a lot of people didn’t want to have meetings with them,” said one FBI terrorism task force supervisor who worked often with the two. “They refused to accept no for an answer. And they were often given no for an answer. Even though they were usually right.”

An early flash point was Operation Titan, the DEA initiative in Colombia. After its undercover agent was compromised, DEA and Colombian authorities scrambled to build cases against as many as 130 traffickers, including a Colombian cartel leader and a suspected Safieddine associate named Chekry Harb, nicknamed El Taliban.

For months afterward, the Justice Department rebuffed requests by task force agents, and some of its own prosecutors, to add narcoterrorism charges to the drug and money-laundering counts against Harb, several sources involved in the case said. Agents argued that they had evidence that would easily support the more serious charges. Moreover, Harb’s prosecution was an essential building block in their larger plan for a sustained legal assault against Hezbollah’s criminal network.

Its centerpiece would be a prosecution under the Racketeer Act, a powerful tool used by the Justice Department against sophisticated international conspiracies, including the Mafia, drug cartels and white-collar corporate crimes. A RICO case would give the task force the ability to tie many seemingly unconnected conspiracies together, and prosecute the alleged bosses overseeing them, like Safieddine, participants say.

It would also allow authorities to seize potentially billions in assets, they say, and to use the threat of far longer prison terms to wring more cooperation out of Harb and others already charged or convicted.

After the Justice Department’s final refusal to bring narcoterrorism charges against Harb, Kelly sent an angry email to the DEA leadership warning that Justice’s “obstruction” would have “far reaching implications including threats to our National Security” given Hezbollah’s mushrooming criminal activity.

Of particular concern: A 25–year-old Lebanese man that Kelly described as the network’s “command and control element,” according to the email.

The young man was not only in contact “with Joumaa and some of the other top drug traffickers in the world” but also “leaders of a foreign [country’s] black ops special forces; executive leadership of Hezbollah; and a representative of a company which is most likely facilitating the development of WMDs.”

“We should also not forget,” he added, “about the 100’s of used car companies in the states — some of them owned by Islamic Extremists — which are part of this network.” In interviews, former task force officials identified the young man as Safieddine's son, and said he acted as his father’s liaison in Beirut.

All of that information was shared with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies — and the White House — via the DEA’s Chantilly nerve center. But by early 2009, Obama’s national security team batted down Project Cassandra’s increasingly urgent warnings as being overly alarmist, counterproductive or untrue, or simply ignored them, according to Kelly, Asher, Maltz and other participants in and out of government.

By following the money, though, Asher had become convinced that the task force wasn’t overhyping the threat posed by Hezbollah’s criminal activities, it was significantly underestimating it. Because Hezbollah’s drug trafficking was bankrolling its Islamic Jihad military wing and joint ventures with Iran, as Asher would later testify before Congress, it represented “the largest material support scheme for terrorism operations” the world had ever seen.

As proof, Asher would often bring PowerPoints to interagency drug and crime meetings, showing how cash reserves of U.S currency in Lebanon had doubled, to $16 billion, in just a few years, and how shiny new skyscrapers were popping up around Beirut, just like Miami, Panama City, Panama, and other cities awash in drug money.

Privately, Asher began to tell task force colleagues, the best way to take down the entire criminal enterprise — especially such a politically sensitive one as Hezbollah — was to go after its money, and the financial institutions assisting it. Their first target would be one of the world’s fastest-growing banks, the Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank and its $5 billion in assets.

BLOCKED EFFORTS, MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Asher knew how to successfully implode the financial underpinnings of an illicit, state-sponsored trafficking network because he’d already done it, just a few years earlier, as the Bush administration’s point man on North Korea. In that case, he used the post-9/11 PATRIOT Act to cut off Pyongyang by going after Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based bank that made illicit financial transactions on behalf of the North Korean regime.

In Beirut, Asher and his team worked with an Israeli intelligence operation to penetrate the Lebanese bank’s inner workings and diagram its Byzantine money flows. They gathered evidence showing how Joumaa's network alone was laundering $200 million per month in “bulk proceeds of drug sales” through the bank and various money exchange houses, according to Justice and Treasury department documents.

Much of the freshly laundered cash, the records show, was then wired to about 300 U.S. used-car dealers to buy and ship thousands of vehicles to West Africa.

Task force agents also documented how Safieddine was a financial liaison providing Hezbollah — and, of potentially huge significance, Iran — with VIP services at the bank, including precious access to the international financial system in violation of U.S. sanctions, according to those records.

By then, the task force was working closely with federal prosecutors in a new Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit out of the Justice Department’s Southern District of New York. The Manhattan prosecutors agreed to file criminal charges against the bank and two senior officials that they hoped to turn into cooperating witnesses against Hezbollah and Safieddine, several participants said.

Federal authorities filed a civil action against the bank in February 2011 and later seized $102 million, ultimately forcing it to shut down and sell its assets without admitting wrongdoing. But the Justice Department never filed the criminal charges, and also stymied investigations into other financial institutions and individuals that task force agents targeted as part of the planned RICO case, they say.

The Obama White House said privately that it feared a broader assault on Lebanese financial institutions would destabilize the country. But without the threat of prison time, complicit bank officials clammed up. And without pressure on the many other financial institutions in Lebanon and the region, Hezbollah simply moved its banking business elsewhere.

Soon afterward, Kelly said, he ran into one of the unit’s top prosecutors and asked if there was “something going on with the White House that explains why we can’t get a criminal filing.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” the prosecutor replied, according to Kelly. “Right now, we have 50 FBI agents not doing anything because they know their Iran cases aren’t going anywhere,” including investigations around the U.S. into allegedly complicit used-car dealers.

“Right now, we have 50 FBI agents not doing anything because they know their Iran cases aren’t going anywhere.”

— Jack Kelly on what a Justice Department official told him about the chilling effect of Obama's rapprochement with Iran.

Justice Department officials involved, including then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and other prosecutors, declined requests to discuss the bank case or others involving Hezbollah.

That October, Asher helped uncover a plot by two Iranian agents and a Texas-based Iranian-American to hire Mexican cartel gunmen to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador in a crowded Washington cafe. A month later, prosecutors indicted Joumaa, accusing him of working with Mexico’s Zetas cartel and Colombian and Venezuelan suppliers to smuggle 85 tons of cocaine into the U.S., and laundering $850 million in drug proceeds.

November 3, 2011 Indictment of Ayman Joumaa Joumaa aka "Junior" allegedly coordinated the transport, distribution and sales of multi-ton shipments of cocaine. He's also accused of laundering money in the U.S., Lebanon, Benin, Panama, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Task force agents hoped those cases would win them the political support needed to attack the Hezbollah criminal network and its patrons in Tehran. Instead, the opposite appeared to be happening.

DEA officials weren’t included in the Justice and FBI news conference on the assassination plot, and claim it was because the Obama White House wanted to downplay the drug-terror connection. And Joumaa’s indictment didn’t mention Hezbollah once, despite DEA evidence of his connections to the group dating back to 1997.

By the end of 2012, senior officials at the Justice Department’s National Security and Criminal divisions, and at the State Department and National Security Council, had shut down, derailed or delayed numerous other Hezbollah-related cases with little or no explanation, according to Asher, Kelly, Maltz and other current and former participating officials.

Agents discovered “an entire Quds force network” in the U.S., laundering money, moving drugs and illegally smuggling Bell helicopters, night-vision goggles and other items for Iran, Asher said.

“We crashed to indict” the elite Iranian unit, and 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.

In Philadelphia, the FBI-led task force had spent two years bolstering its case claiming that Safieddine had overseen an effort to purchase 1,200 military-grade assault rifles bound for Lebanon, with the help of Kelly and the special narcoterrorism prosecutors in New York.

Now, they had two key eyewitnesses. One would identify Safieddine as the Hezbollah official sitting behind a smoked-glass barricade who approved the assault weapons deal. And an agent and prosecutor had flown to a remote Asian hotel and spent four days persuading another eyewitness to testify about Safieddine’s role in an even bigger weapons and drugs conspiracy, multiple former law enforcement officials confirmed to POLITICO.

Convinced they had a strong case, the New York prosecutors sent a formal prosecution request to senior Justice Department lawyers in Washington, as required in such high-profile cases. The Justice Department rejected it, and the FBI and DEA agents were never told why, those former officials said.

Justice Department officials declined to comment on the case.

Kelly had been searching for an appropriate DEA code name to give to collaborating agencies so they could access and contribute to task force investigative files. He found it while reading the Erik Larson book “In the Garden of Beasts,” in which the former U.S. ambassador to Germany named his U.S. speaking tour about the growing Nazi menace after the famous mythological figure whose warnings about the future were unheeded.

Now the project had its name: Cassandra.

STANDING DOWN ON HEZBOLLAH

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 Monaco, 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 Monaco, 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 RICO 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.

Internal DEA insignia for Project Cassandra.

The couriers were lugging suitcases stuffed with as much as $2 million each, and the task force was on the tail of every one of them.

Such on-the-ground spadework, combined with its worldwide network of court-approved communications intercepts, gave Project Cassandra agents virtual omniscience over some aspects of the Hezbollah criminal network.

And from their perch in Chantilly, they watched with growing alarm as Hezbollah accelerated its global expansion that the drug money helped finance.

Both Hezbollah and Iran continued to build up their military arsenals and move thousands of soldiers and weapons into Syria. Aided by the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, Iran, with the help of Hezbollah, consolidated its control and influence over wide swaths of the war-ravaged country.

Iran and Hezbollah began making similar moves into Yemen and other Sunni-controlled countries. And their networks in Africa trafficked not just in drugs, weapons and used cars but diamonds, commercial merchandise and even human slaves, according to interviews with former Project Cassandra members and Treasury Department documents. Hezbollah and the Quds force also were moving into China and other new markets.

But Project Cassandra’s agents were most alarmed, by far, by the havoc Hezbollah and Iran were wreaking in Latin America.

A THREAT IN AMERICA’S BACKYARD

In the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Washington’s focus was elsewhere, Hezbollah and Iran cultivated alliances with governments along the “cocaine corridor” from the tip of South America to Mexico, to turn them against the United States.

The strategy worked in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, which evicted the DEA, shuttering strategic bases and partnerships that had been a bulwark in the U.S. counternarcotics campaign.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez was personally working with then-Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hezbollah on drug trafficking and other activities aimed at undermining U.S. influence in the region, according to interviews and documents.

Within a few years, Venezuelan cocaine exports skyrocketed from 50 tons a year to 250, much of it bound for American cities, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime statistics show.

And beginning in 2007, DEA agents watched as a commercial jetliner from Venezuela’s state-run Conviasa airline flew from Caracas to Tehran via Damascus, Syria, every week with a cargo-hold full of drugs and cash. They nicknamed it “Aeroterror,” they said, because the return flight often carried weapons and was packed with Hezbollah and Iranian operatives whom the Venezuelan government would provide with fake identities and travel documents on their arrival.

From there, the operatives spread throughout the subcontinent and set up shop in the many recently opened Iranian consulates, businesses and mosques, former Project Cassandra agents said.

But when the Obama administration had opportunities to secure the extradition of two of the biggest players in that conspiracy, it failed to press hard enough to get them extradited to the United States, where they would face charges, task force officials told POLITICO.

One was Syrian-born Venezuelan businessman Walid Makled, alias the “king of kingpins,” who was arrested in Colombia in 2010 on charges of shipping 10 tons of cocaine a month to the United States. While in custody, Makled claimed to have 40 Venezuelan generals on his payroll and evidence implicating dozens of top Venezuelan officials in drug trafficking and other crimes. He pleaded to be sent to New York as a protected, cooperating witness, but Colombia — a staunch U.S. ally — extradited him to Venezuela instead.

The other, retired Venezuelan general and former chief of intelligence Hugo Carvajal, was arrested in Aruba on U.S. drug charges. Carvajal “was the main man between Venezuela and Iran, the Quds force, Hezbollah and the cocaine trafficking,” Kelly said. “If we had gotten our hands on either of them, we could have taken down the entire network.”

"If we had gotten our hands on either of them, we could have taken down the entire network."

— Kelly on the extradition of a top Venezuelan official and a drug kingpin.

Instead, Venezuela was now the primary pipeline for U.S.-bound cocaine, thanks in part to the DEA’s success in neighboring Colombia. It had also become a strategically invaluable staging area for Hezbollah and Iran in the United States’ backyard, including camps they established to train Shiite militias.

And at the center of much of that activity was the Ghost, another suspected Safieddine associate so elusive that no photos of him were said to exist.

Project Cassandra agents came to regard the Ghost as perhaps the most important on-the-ground operator in the conspiracy because of his suspected role in moving drugs, money and munitions, including multi-ton loads of cocaine, into the United States, and WMD components to the Middle East, according to two former senior U.S. officials.

Now, he and Joumaa were living in Beirut, and Project Cassandra agents were so familiar with their routines that they knew at which cafe the two men gathered every morning to drink espresso and “discuss drug trafficking, money laundering and weapons,” one of the two former officials said.

The Ghost was also in business with another suspected Safieddine associate, Ali Fayad, who had long been instrumental in providing weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq, including through the deadly IED network that had killed so many U.S. troops, the former officials believed.

Now, they had information that Fayad, a joint Lebanese and Ukrainian citizen, and the Ghost were involved in moving conventional and chemical weapons into Syria for Hezbollah, Iran and Russia to help President Assad crush the insurgency against his regime. Adding to the mystery: Fayad served as a Ukrainian defense ministry adviser, worked for the state-owned arms exporter Ukrspecexport and appeared to have taken Bout's place as Putin’s go-to arms merchant, the former officials said.

So when Fayad’s name surfaced in a DEA investigation in West Africa as a senior Hezbollah weapons trafficker, agents scrambled to create a sting operation, with undercover operatives posing as Colombian narcoterrorists plotting to shoot down American government helicopters.

Fayad was happy to offer his expert advice, and after agreeing to provide them with 20 Russian-made shoulder-fired Igla surface-to-air missiles, 400 rocket-propelled grenades and various firearms and rocket launchers for $8.3 million, he was arrested by Czech authorities on a U.S. warrant in April 2014, U.S. court records show.

The Fayad sting — and his unprecedented value as a potential cooperating witness — was just one of many reasons Project Cassandra members had good cause, finally, for optimism.

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