The Manhattan Contrarian Stands Up For President Obama -- Sort Of

On Monday, December 18, Politico published a rather important piece by reporter Josh Meyer titled "The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook."   The thoroughly sourced (mostly not anonymous!) and lengthy (some 14,000 words) piece tells the story of Project Cassandra, a Justice Department effort that ran from about 2008 to 2015, and investigated criminal activity of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization.  In Meyer's telling, Project Cassandra uncovered criminal activity (mostly drug dealing) in the range of about $500 million, but was systematically shut down by the Obama administrations via directives "from the top," in connection with Obama's efforts to reach the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that was a hallmark of his foreign policy.

A few choice quotes from Meyer's introduction will give you a sense of the scope of his findings:

In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States, according to a POLITICO investigation.  The campaign, dubbed Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 after the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed evidence that Hezbollah had transformed itself from a Middle East-focused military and political organization into an international crime syndicate that some investigators believed was collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities. . . .  

[A]s Project Cassandra reached higher into the hierarchy of the conspiracy, Obama administration officials threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way, according to interviews with dozens of participants who in many cases spoke for the first time about events shrouded in secrecy, and a review of government documents and court records. . . .  “This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” said David Asher, who helped establish and oversee Project Cassandra as a Defense Department illicit finance analyst.  “They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”

That sounds rather damning!  So how could the Manhattan Contrarian possibly be standing up for President Obama?

The issue is that a number of right-wing sources have jumped on Obama's shutting down of Project Cassandra as an example of presidential "obstruction."  Admittedly, it's not a large number of sources, at least as far as I can find.  But consider these examples:

  • New York Post, headline of a December 19 column by Jonathan Tobin:  "Now, this is presidential obstruction."
  • Conservative author and radio host Mark Levin on Facebook, December 19:  "Barack Obama actually DID obstruct criminal investigations involving Hezbollah and Iran. But most of the media either downplay it or ignore it."  
  • Carteret County News-Times, December 20 (OK, not a major source):  "It’s . . . no surprise that the leftist media doesn’t mention the Obama administration’s decision to kill Project Cassandra, a federal investigation into international drug smuggling, money laundering and terrorism by Hezbollah, the terrorism arm of Iran.  That would be obstruction of justice."

The use of the term "obstruction" by these sources may well be in reaction to the use by dozens of progressive or "mainstream" sources of the same term to describe some actions of President Trump (such as asking then-FBI Director Comey to "go easy" on Michael Flynn, and/or then firing Comey), and even to support calls for impeachment of Trump.  Certainly, if you find Trump's conduct in those instances to be objectionable, let alone a basis for impeachment, it's hard to understand how you would not find Obama's conduct as to Project Cassandra (as described by Meyer) to be far more objectionable.

But the problem is, none of this conduct, by either Trump or Obama, is "obstruction" -- at least as the term "obstruction" is used in the context of "obstruction of justice," which is a federal crime, and thus a potential subject for a criminal prosecution and/or impeachment of a President.  As I have pointed out in multiple posts, for example this one,  "the prosecutorial discretion function of the government belongs to the President."   Under the Constitution , the Justice Department, including all the prosecutors, reports to the President, and the President has the right, if he wants, to direct who will and who will not be investigated and prosecuted.  The fact that the President rarely exercises this right does not mean that he does not have it.  Thus Obama was completely entitled to let Hezbollah off the hook, just as Trump was completely entitled to let Flynn off the hook.  (Of course, in fact, Trump did not let Flynn off the hook, at least not yet.  Trump does still have the ability to pardon Flynn.)  

Now, it's a completely different question whether it's a good idea to let all of Hezbollah off the hook on a massive criminal conspiracy involving hundreds of millions of dollars as well as associated terrorist activity.  That seems like a major political issue going to the heart of whether U.S. foreign policy was being competently conducted and whether the safety of the American people was being properly protected.  No, I am not standing up for President Obama on those questions.  Why the Meyer/Politico revelations have not yet caused a firestorm of coverage in the progressive press, I cannot explain.  I guess these revelations just don't fit the preferred narrative of the moment.