A senior former federal law enforcement official involved in counter-proliferation efforts agreed, saying the FBI was especially impacted.
“Did some of these other agencies’ actions … undermine what we were trying to accomplish in terms of the Iran network in the US? Yes. But you are treading into waters where people don’t like what you are doing because it affects other things they are trying to do, diplomatically and politically.”
The dysfunction created by the slowdown spread far beyond the enforcement agencies and damaged relationships with partners in private industry and foreign governments, former DHS official MacDonald and others said.
By early Y 2015, the Obama Admini’s oft-publicized desire for securing an Iran deal “was politicizing all of the ongoing investigations,” Mr. Arnold said. He visited his former CPC Iran Unit colleagues that August while briefing Treasury and FBI officials on the Iran deal, reached a month earlier, as a counterproliferation expert at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“There was a fear that as negotiations went on, the White House wouldn’t want to get caught in a flap” created by a high-profile arrest or criminal case, Mr. Arnold said.
For agents and prosecutors, the headlines such an incident would create would antagonize not only their superiors but also a White House intent on proving to Tehran that it was committed to reaching an accord. On the flip side, it could also provide ammunition to the proposed deal’s many critics in Congress and elsewhere, who were claiming that Iran was aggressively continuing its clandestine procurement efforts even as it pledged good behavior.
But agents and prosecutors had an even more powerful reason to throttle back on Iran proliferation cases, according to Arnold and others.
Despite repeated requests, many were not given guidance or reassurances that the nuclear deal being negotiated in secret would not render not prosecutable new and ongoing cases, especially high-priority ones against nuclear traffickers, Arnold said.
So FBI agents had no confidence that their work would bear fruit.
“It was absolutely insane,” Mr. Arnold said. “People didn’t know what to do.”
“From the Summer of 2015 on, there was a serious slowdown” as many counter-proliferation officials shut down prosecutions and investigations voluntarily, Mr. Arnold said. “During that time, CPC wasn’t as aggressive as it should have been.”
The senior Obama Admin official acknowledged that the twin sets of negotiations influenced the overall US counter-proliferation effort against Iran, especially the timing of individual investigations, prosecutions and international efforts to bring suspects to justice.
Such competing equities are unavoidable when high-level matters of diplomacy and geopolitics are under consideration, the official said. At those times, the White House must be guided by broader policy objectives, in this case de-escalating conflict with Iran, curbing its nuclear weapons program and freeing at least four American prisoners.
“The White House wouldn’t be getting involved in saying yea or nay to particular arrests or cases or the like” that are the purview of the Justice Department, the administration official said. “It was not uncommon, though, that before we were going to undertake a law enforcement action that we thought would have foreign policy implications, we would alert folks at the White House so that there could be appropriate notice given to a foreign government. That happens.”
The former official also acknowledged the complaints by agents and prosecutors about cases being derailed but said they were unavoidable, and for the greater good.
“It’s entirely possible that during the pendency of the negotiations, that folks who were doing their jobs, doing the investigations and bringing cases, having no understanding of and insight into the other process, were frustrated because they don’t feel like their stuff is moving forward,” said the Obama official. “Or they were not getting answers, because there are these entirely appropriate discussions happening on the policy side.
“That doesn’t strike me as being, a, unusual or, b, wrong,” the official added. “But I completely understand why it’s frustrating.”
The Justice Department refused repeated requests to make available for interviews anyone related to the counterproliferation effort since the Iran deal, or to provide information about its role in the negotiations.
But in a statement to the press, the US Justice Department said the negotiations “did not affect the Department’s determination to investigate and charge worthy cases” and that it continued to “investigate, charge, and prosecute viable criminal cases … throughout negotiations of the JCPOA,” the formal term for the Iran deal. The Justice Department said it filed federal charges against 90 individuals and entities for violations of export controls and sanctions implicating Iran between Y’s 2014 and 2016, many under seal. It did not provide information about cases under seal for those or other years, making it impossible to place those numbers in the proper context.
Also, some of those cases involve the 21 Iranians let go in the swap.
And because numerous individuals and entities often are charged in a single case, the statistics suggest a slowdown in counterproliferation efforts, according to current and former investigators and a careful review of DOJ cases.
The timing of arrests, prosecutions and other investigative activities “may be informed by a variety of factors, including, especially in the national security context, collateral foreign policy consequences and impacts on American lives,” the Justice Department said. “Once an individual is charged, the Department works to ensure that the defendant, whether located in the U.S. or abroad, is held accountable. In seeking to apprehend defendants located abroad, however, we need assistance from other departments, agencies, and countries, and sometimes we cannot accomplish an arrest without it.”
Senior Obama Admin officials also said the negotiations over the nuclear deal and, even more so the prisoner swap, required such extraordinary secrecy that only a tiny number of people were involved.
But as the nation’s top law enforcement official, and as a participant in the negotiations, so former USAG Loretta Lynch failed in her responsibility as our Attorney General to protect the integrity of the Justice Department’s investigations and prosecutions from any political interference, some current and former officials believe.
Ms. Lynch, through an aide, declined to comment.
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