WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Justice has assembled a team of prosecutors to investigate allegations of drug trafficking and money laundering by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah. The allegations were reportedly not pursued by the previous administration because of Iranian sensitivities.
The new Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team of federal prosecutors will examine all cases stemming from Project Cassandra, an Obama-era Drug Enforcement Administration task force that targeted Hezbollah's money laundering and drug trafficking in the United States, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Thursday.
"The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis," Sessions said in a statement.
Launched in 2008, Project Cassandra revealed that the Lebanon-based Hezbollah was involved in shipping cocaine to the U.S. and laundering money by buying used cars in America and exporting them to Africa. The scheme evolved into a billion-dollar criminal network, Politico Magazine reported last month.
But, according to Politico, the Obama White House blocked the DEA's requests for further investigations and prosecutions while it was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. The report led Sessions to order a review of the handling of Project Cassandra.
"While I am hopeful that there were no barriers constructed by the last administration to allowing DEA agents to fully bring all appropriate cases under Project Cassandra, this is a significant issue for the protection of Americans," Sessions said when he ordered the review in December.
The new team of prosecutors specializing in international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and money laundering will ensure that "all Project Cassandra investigations as well as other related investigations, whether past or present, are given the needed resources and attention to come to their proper resolution," said the attorney general.
The initiative comes as the Trump Administration ratchets up its rhetoric against Iran, accusing it of supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and fomenting instability in the Middle East.
President Trump also faces a Friday deadline to decide if he will continue to suspend sanctions on Iran under the Iran nuclear agreement - a pact he has vowed to end.
The president must sign a series of waivers every few months to maintain the suspension of sanctions on Iran and to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal fully intact.
Trump has called the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement "the worst deal ever." In October, he refused to certify that Iran was in compliance with the agreement, saying it wasn't in U.S. national security interests.
The new team of investigators will be led by Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan of the criminal division and will coordinate with investigators from DEA, FBI, Homeland Security and other organizations.
The U.S. State Department designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group in 1997.