A week after Josh Meyer’s Politico expose,“The Secret Backstory Of How Obama Let Hezbollah Off the Hook,” former Obama officials are still berating Meyer for his 13,000-word article detailing how the Obama administration killed a nearly decade-long DEA effort to stem a global Hezbollah cocaine-smuggling-and-organized-crime ring to help secure its nuclear deal with Iran. “This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” former Defense Department analyst David Asher explained in the article. “They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”
Asher helped establish and oversee the project, codenamed Cassandra, that looked into Hezbollah’s wide-range of illicit activities across the globe, including weapons procurement, drug trafficking, and money laundering. Senior Obama officials, according to Asher, ignored the legal and financial instruments that he and others had provided to target a terrorist organization with American blood on its hands and was still plotting against the United States.
In response, a Twitter mob of mid-level bureaucrats and former intelligence officers orchestrated in the usual fashion attacked Asher in tandem with the media echo chamber used to sell the Iran Deal, with former political operatives from the Obama White House supplying the usual talking points to their hatchet-men. Meyer’s “on the record sources have undisclosed anti-Iran deal bias,” tweeted former Obama speechwriter Tommy Vietor, who has remade himself as a podcast host. Meyer’s “entire piece,” tweeted Obama lieutenant and former CIA officer Ned Price, “is based on pure speculation by these ‘1 or 2 sources’ w undisclosed anti-Iran deal bias.”
The catchphrase, “undisclosed anti-Iran deal bias,” is an extended replay version of the catchy slogans Team Obama used to market the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Opponents and critics of the nuclear deal were “warmongers” beholden to “donors” with “agendas” whose concerns were shaped by their loyalties not to America but rather to the Jewish state. Now, the echo chamber insisted, Meyer’s sources aren’t to be trusted because they were against the Iran deal, or have associated with think tanks that opposed the Iran Deal—which means that they are secret neocon slaves of Israel, of course.
Twitter mob attacks by a name-calling scrum of mid-level bureaucrats, “security correspondents” for instant news outfits like Buzzfeed, interns at various NGOs and their self-credentialed “expert” bosses, partisan bot herders, and their Lord of the Flies puppet-masters are part of the price of doing journalism these days. Write something negative, and you’ll get dirtied up—and maybe some of the dirt will stick, who knows. These attacks are intended to be punitive. Brave or foolhardy reporters who deviate from the party line—the party in question being the Democrats, of course, since the representation of conservatives in newsrooms is generally reported to be somewhere in the single digits—and especially their colleagues watching from the sidelines, are meant to absorb a simple but all-important lesson: Get on the team, or else shut up. Watching even seasoned pros succumb to this kind of adolescent pressure game and publicly suck up to bullying flacks while throwing shade on members of their own profession is a depressingly normal occurrence, which shows that the two once-separate professions—partisan flackery, and reporting the news—have merged into a single, mindless borg.
It therefore seems redundant to point out that, by definition, none of the herd of independent minds attacking Meyer on Twitter have even the slightest idea of whether what he is saying is true, because none of them were in the rooms where decisions he writes about were made.
However, some who’ve been ripping into Meyer in other places may have been privy to the discussions around some of those decisions, like David Cohen, Obama’s deputy director of the CIA from February 2015-January 2017. In a statement published by Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, whose beat seems to consist of seasoning echo chamber takes from Twitter with carefully-calibrated press releases from ex-government types and their flacks, Cohen wrote, “In all that time, I never once heard anyone suggest we should back off on Hezbollah or anyone associated with Hezbollah.”
Yet the documentary evidence shows that Cohen knows better, because very high-level officials did precisely that—not in secret files, or classified transmissions seen only by top spies, but in public. On December 18, 2015, for example, President Obama held a press conference in which he discussed the war in Syria and a “political transition that allows those who are allied with Assad,” said Obama, “allows the Russians, allows the Iranians to ensure that their equities are respected.”
“Equities” is Washington bureaucracy-speak. It means interests. Iran’s primary interest in Syria, dating back decades, is its supply line sending weapons to Hezbollah, via Syria. Preservation of this supply line is why Iran entered the Syrian war to begin with. The supply line was Iran’s “equity” in Syria. Conversely, the supply line is why Israel has repeatedly struck arms convoys on their way from Syria to Lebanon, and why it has destroyed numerous arms depots in Syria—to prevent Iran from transferring arms to Hezbollah.
When the president of the United States states that American policy was based on “respecting” an Iranian “equity” that endangered the national security of a key US ally, that’s pretty clear evidence that the Obama administration saw that papering over Hezbollah’s activities was a way to woo its Iranian negotiating partners.
Obama’s press conference came with other pieces of evidence that the administration was trying to warm relations with Iran via its Lebanese cutout. For instance, White House officials repeatedly leaked to the press reports that Israel was striking Iranian arms convoys destined for Hezbollah. The administration’s purpose was not only to show Iran its bona fides as a partner determined to protect its “equities,” but also to restrain Israel from harming those “equities”–even if they endangered Israel. The administration also shared intelligence with the Lebanese Armed Forces’ military intelligence, a unit controlled by Hezbollah. The ostensible purpose of this intelligence-sharing was to prevent ISIS attacks on Lebanon and secure the country’s “stability.” The reality, however, was that the Obama administration was helping to secure the flank of a terrorist organization that was busy committing genocide in Syria. That’s a pretty high price–but again, America was willing to pay it, in order to protect Iran’s “equities,” as Cohen well knows.
The case against Meyer’s article is preposterous on the face of it. Obama made reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, his top second-term priority. To make this happen, Obama paid the Iranians hundreds of millions a month to stay in negotiations, provided them with billions in sanctions relief after the deal was struck, shipped $1.3 billion in cash to the IRGC on wooden pallets, and as Meyer reported in a previous article, freed Iranian agents who tried to ship weapons and other banned items from the US to Iran. Yet we are supposed to believe that, at the very same time, these same people, with these views, serving a president with these priorities, would allow the DEA to arrest major Hezbollah assets who were funding Iran’s “equities” in Syria, at a moment in which the Iran Deal hung in the balance? Why on earth would they do that–while continuing to service Iran and Hezbollah in every other way possible?
Not to take anything away from Meyer’s excellent reporting, and the work and time it took to build his 13,000-word expose, but perhaps the most shocking thing about his piece is that it took so long for a single journalist in Washington—and judging by Twitter, there are apparently thousands of them, tweeting the exact same approved takes in unison—to report and write it. Meyer’s sources have all offered copious public testimony before. Meyer’s larger thesis—Obama went easy on Hezbollah in pursuit of his nuclear deal with Iran—has been an established fact for several years. What Meyer’s article does is fill in the big picture with important details, like the names of the Hezbollah operatives the Obama White House let off, and what crimes they plotted against American citizens, allies, and interests before the administration let them walk.
Is the idea that Obama went easy on Hezbollah—or Iran—in pursuit of the Iran Deal actually controversial? It is not. Obama understood very early on that targeting Hezbollah would alienate Iran. If he didn’t support Iranian protestors who took to the streets peacefully in June 2009 to protest the regime, why would he zero in on one of the regime’s core “equities”—an institution tasked with defending and exporting the Islamic revolution? The question has to do not with Obama’s intent, which is entirely clear, but with the letter of the law—namely, that the President couldn’t very well say that he was going to ignore the activities of a US-designated terrorist organization.
But what if Hezbollah wasn’t a terrorist group at all? Or what if it wasn’t entirely a terrorist group? To exploit this necessary semantic wiggle-room, Obama tapped John Brennan, first his counterterrorism adviser in the White House and then later as CIA director. As Meyer explained in his piece, Brennan wrote a 2008 article outlining how the United States should deal with Hezbollah—like the Europeans do, by distinguishing between the organization’s “political” and “military” wings.
Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanese politics, Brennan argued, “is a far cry from Hezbollah’s genesis as solely a terrorist organization dedicated to murder, kidnapping, and violence. Not coincidentally, the evolution of Hezbollah into a fully vested player in the Lebanese political system has been accompanied by a marked reduction in terrorist attacks carried out by the organization. The best hope for maintaining this trend and for reducing the influence of violent extremists within the organization—as well as the influence of extremist Iranian officials who view Hezbollah primarily as a pawn of Tehran—is to increase Hezbollah’s stake in Lebanon’s struggling democratic processes.”
In 2010, Brennan returned to this theme in a talk in Washington. “There (are) certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us,” said Brennan. “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.”
The idea that Hezbollah had become part of Lebanon’s political process and was therefore moving away from terrorism was standard academic thinking about the organization at the time–whether in the service of political calculation or sheer ignorance, it is hard to say. Either way, the division of Hezbollah into “political” and “military” wings was a Western fantasy. Hezbollah itself argued that it was incorrect to see a more “moderate” political segment and an “extremist” military component. In a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, dismissed the idea that there are two distinct wings. “All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership,” said Qassem. “The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions.”
Yet even after Hezbollah’s campaign in a war in Syria that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, Brennan still subscribes to the myth of Hezbollah moderates. As his spokesman told the Washington Post last week in response to the Meyer piece,
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.
Yet this is the very definition of giving Hezbollah “a pass.” If your policy is to imagine a split in a terrorist organization between good guys and bad guys for the purpose of further moderating the former, then you have to let the good guys walk–which is why it’s important to only strangle the bad guys into “near oblivion,” rather than, you know, oblivion. Killing their friends might make the “good guys” mad.
Why did the Obama administration refrain from targeting the Hezbollah drug lords, assassins, and procurers of chemical weapons that plotted against American citizens, allies, and interests? Because they were John Brennan’s moderates.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).