In a potentially politically explosive special report published by POLITICO this weekend about terrorist group Hizbollah, there are several threads worth exploring. For our readers, we’ll hone in on a favorite topic for our readers and of this blog, the Latin America connections.
If even half of what POLITICO reports is correct, Obama administration officials should have a lot of explaining to do. In “The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook,” POLITICO’s Josh Meyers paints a clearer public picture of something that Congressional policymakers in both political parties have rallied against for many years, Iranian and Hizbollah adventurism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
That is not news, however, the scope of activities by Hizbollah in places such as Colombia and Venezuela should alarm the politically tone-deaf in this town who look the other way when someone argues that the U.S. must do more to combat radical Islamic terrorists in the Americas. According to POLITICO’s Meyer:
U.S. government lost insight into not only drug trafficking and other criminal activity worldwide, but also into Hezbollah’s illicit conspiracies with top officials in the Iranian, Syrian, Venezuelan and Russian governments — all the way up to presidents Nicolas Maduro, Assad and Putin …
… [t]he derailment of Project Cassandra also has undermined U.S. efforts to determine how much cocaine from the various Hezbollah-affiliated networks is coming into the United States, especially from Venezuela, where dozens of top civilian and military officials have been under investigation for more than a decade. Recently, the Trump administration designated the country’s vice president, a close ally of Hezbollah and of Lebanese-Syrian descent, as a global narcotics kingpin.
… [b]ut Project Cassandra’s agents were most alarmed, by far, by the havoc Hezbollah and Iran were wreaking in Latin America.
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.
At a minimum, U.S. officials should assess whether Venezuela should be placed on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. While they are it, they should also check Cuba’s role in all this because Venezuela does not act without the express approval of their Havana minders. There have been several Congressional hearings, particularly in the House of Representatives, that have done an excellent job exposing some of these complex relationships, particularly a 2014 subcommittee hearing.
Several Members of Congress have also been pressing this year for stronger sanctions and other measures against Iranian proxies such as Hizbollah. While most of the information discussed in the POLITICO piece is likely known to most policymakers, its public outlining in this three-part and interestingly timed POLITICO story could ignite a political firestorm with D.C. policymakers as well as political leaders in Lebanon and several Latin American nations.
There are a few things about POLITICO piece that could use additional research. For starters, the article has a pro-law enforcement bias as if that were the only way to deal with terrorists is hauling them into a court of law. There are situations where other equities are at play and other, more direct means of justice better deployed. Not all terrorists should be tried by a court of law; but blowing off credible law enforcement leads, as it appears that the Obama administration did, is not good either. In some cases, it appears that the DEA was kicked to the curb and NSC officials trying to side rail credible, well-thought-out FBI and DEA investigations. That, too, is wasteful, unprofessional, and weakens U.S. security. If America has a reasonable shot of taking out Hizbollah via financial means then we sure as hell should make it so. There is no Lebanese-wing of Hizbollah, or a kindler, gentler Hizbollah.
Then there are the D.C. Beltway inter-agency intrigues peppered throughout the piece that is somewhat annoying. The interagency squabbles discussed in the story make for compelling copy, but that is not new. Our system of government is designed this way for good reason: competition of ideas and redundancy, among others. Most of the time it works well. Ultimately the political leaders must decide what to do with the information provided by professionals throughout the government.
Overall though the article makes for interesting reading. They put a lot of effort into it and if you follow these issues is worth a few minutes of your day. It is about time that the American people knew the extent of Iranian adventurism throughout the Western Hemisphere as well as those who support them in places such as Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, and Bolivia and likely many more countries where the Iranians have fellow travelers to turn to for all sort of assistance.