The Obama White House systematically dismantled a top-secret government initiative called Project Cassandra, which was designed to target Hezbollah's $1 billion in annual drug proceeds. The gripping story, by Politico's Josh Meyer, lays bare the details of the Lebanese terrorist group's cocaine and crime schemes, and suggests Obama allowed the activities to continue so as to not upset Iran, Hezbollah's patron, amidst nuclear negotiations.
Put aside for a moment that Obama may have provided a glide path to a terror group's drug activities so he could pursue a deeply flawed nuclear deal that only paused Iran's march to the bomb, yet yielded this state sponsor of terrorism some $150 billion. We're now faced with the urgent challenge of trying to rebuild a government bureaucracy that was gutted.
Here's what needs to happen.
First, President Trump has yet to choose a new chief for the Drug Enforcement Administration. This is an urgent need. And as my colleague Emanuele Ottolenghi noted last month in The Hill, the new pick must appreciate "the growing convergence between transnational organized crime and terrorist groups like Hezbollah."
Once the right person is in place, we need to revitalize the agency. Yes, that means more money and jumpstarting the interagency task force that fights narco-terrorism abroad.
But perhaps more important, we need to clarify the DEA's mission. This crucial component of the bureaucracy needs to focus less on domestic gangs (let law enforcement do that) and get back to the business of fighting our drug wars abroad — where they can actually be won.
From there, the Treasury Department needs to swing into action. Hezbollah is already sanctioned under our terrorism program. But it must be named as a Transnational Criminal Organization and slapped with a Kingpin Act designation. This will give our economic-warfare fighters additional tools to target the group for its drug and other criminal enterprises.
There's also a role for the State Department. For years, our diplomats have ignored the severity of the problem of Hezbollah's global drug smuggling for fear of upsetting our Latin American allies, such as Brazil and Paraguay. State needs to get these and other countries on board to tackle their homegrown narco-terrorism problem.
Foggy Bottom also needs to lean on our European partners to stop perpetuating the fiction that there's a "political arm" of Hezbollah distinct from its "military arm."
We've long known that the leadership of Hezbollah is an integrated one. And that leadership has chosen to pursue narcotics as a means to fund its terrorist operations, as well as its political activities in Lebanon. And now, as Meyer's piece makes clear, Hezbollah's cocaine trafficking extends into Europe. This should be a wake-up call.
Congress can also get involved. The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act, which passed the Senate and House, is bipartisan legislation that could enable the United States to target Hezbollah front companies and assets in ways that could more effectively target the terror group's drug trade. The two chambers must reconcile the bills and pass the final version in 2018.
Congress is also mulling legislation that would unmask the owners of shell companies (also known as beneficial ownership). This could help to target Hezbollah's narco network, as well.
Finally, Congress needs to hold hearings. For the better part of a decade, the US government played down the size and scope of Hezbollah's drug trade (it could be $4 billion or $5 billion annually according to some estimates). This was either due to gross incompetence or deliberate obfuscation. Congress needs to know which. Congress also needs to know who exactly undermined Project Cassandra, and to have them explain why.
If this was all designed to pave the way for the nuclear deal, there must be ramifications. Exposing Americans to Hezbollah's cocaine traffic hardly seems like a good tradeoff.
But our first priority is getting the DEA back into the game. The popular Netflix series "Narcos" showed America what our drug fighters and hard-working bureaucrats can do with the backing of the federal government. A future season that depicts the agency's successful battle against Hezbollah's drug cartel sounds binge-worthy to me.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies