By JOSH MEYER
May 6, 2017 - Citing a POLITICO investigation, Republican leaders of the House oversight committee said Friday they have launched a sweeping investigation into whether the Obama administration, in trying to win support for a nuclear deal and prisoner swap with Tehran last year, undermined an ambitious U.S. counterproliferation effort to thwart Iranian weapons trafficking networks.
Also in response to the POLITICO investigation, 13 Republican senators have demanded answers about whether the Obama administration jeopardized U.S. national security as a result of its protracted top-secret negotiations with Tehran, and then misled the American public when disclosing the terms of the two deals in January 2016.
The House and Senate lawmakers cited various portions of an April 24 report by POLITICO that found that the Obama administration, through actions in some cases and inaction in others, significantly hampered a much-touted federal law enforcement effort known as the National Counterproliferation Initiative at a time when it was making unprecedented headway in thwarting Iran’s illicit weapons proliferation activities.
The POLITICO investigation also reported that during their public rollout of the two deals, Obama and other key administration officials downplayed the threat posed by the Iranian traffickers they were freeing as part of the swap that also freed five Americans held by Iran. The Obama administration officials focused their public comments only on seven Iranian-born men in the U.S. whose convictions or prosecutions were being dropped as part of the swap, and described them as civilians involved in mere sanctions-related offenses but not charged with terrorism or any violent offenses.
In reality, many of the men — and 14 other Iranian fugitives not named publicly by the top Obama officials — had been accused or convicted of charges stemming from their alleged involvement in clandestine networks supplying Iran with parts and technology for its weapons, ballistic missile and nuclear programs, POLITICO reported. The Justice Department itself had characterized many of them as threats to national security, the investigation found.
In their May 5 letter, Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Ron DeSantis asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to produce an exhaustive volume of Justice Department documents that they said would “help the Committee in better understanding these issues.” They sent a nearly identical letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanding all related documents in the State Department’s possession, and gave both officials until May 19 to provide one copy of them to committee Republicans, and another to committee Democrats. A Democratic Committee staffer said the minority side wasn't asked to sign the letter or given an advance copy of it before it went out.
Chaffetz and DeSantis, who were unavailable for comment, also directed Sessions and Tillerson to “please also make your staff available for a briefing on these issues no later than May 25.” They characterized the committee’s interest in following up on the POLITICO report as an investigation in its role as the “principal oversight committee of the House of Representatives.”
The two committee leaders demanded all documents relating to the January 16, 2016, prisoner exchange agreement with Iran, including the negotiations that preceded it. They also asked for any and all information about the 21 Iranian-born men for whom the U.S. dropped convictions or charges and international arrest warrants, and information about whether State and Justice department officials delayed or blocked efforts to lure Iranian suspects to U.S.-friendly countries so they could be arrested, citing details in the POLITICO report.
But the committee leaders also made it clear that their investigation would delve into much broader topics. For instance, they asked for information not only about all individuals and entities whose cases or convictions were dropped, but also any “for whom any enforcement action was modified or cancelled in connection with the [swap], and indicate the action taken and how it was modified or cancelled.”
And they asked for information about “any Iranian national or entity investigated for, charged with, or convicted of engaging in violations of export controls, terrorism, arms sales, nonproliferation, money laundering, or other financial crimes, from January 1, 2013, to the present.”
Chaffetz, (R-Utah) is chairman of the committee, formally titled the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. DeSantis, (R-Fla.) is chairman of its Subcommittee on National Security. A spokesperson for the committee declined to comment on the scope of the investigation, except to confirm that it was underway.
Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for President Obama, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Justice and State department officials also had no immediate comment in response to the letters. But they said last week in response to a separate demand for information from the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that they would comply with the request.
Late Thursday, 13 senators led by Republican David Perdue of Georgia also wrote to Sessions, Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to say they were concerned about issues raised in the POLITICO report, and to ask for a broad array of documents.
“We write to request your assistance in providing Congress with more information regarding the Obama Administration’s decision” to drop the charges or convictions in the 21 cases, the senators wrote, quoting from the POLITICO article. “Based on new reports, we are concerned that President Obama and certain previous administration officials intentionally suppressed the seriousness of the charges against these individuals in order to garner public support for the nuclear deal with Iran, and we fear that these individuals may still pose a threat to the national security of the United States.”
The senators’ letter, released Friday, was co-signed by Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), James Inhofe (R-OK), John Boozman (R-AK), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Tim Scott (R-SC) and Luther Strange (R-Ala.).
The senators, in their letter, included a list of questions they wanted answered, including whether the 21 men whose cases were dropped were “still engaging in illicit activities on behalf of the Iranian government.”
The senators also asked the top Trump officials if they could provide Congress with more information about whether any investigations and prosecutions were derailed by the Obama administration. Also, they asked, “What counter-proliferation activities are we currently pursuing in order to combat Iran’s attempts to illicitly procure sanctioned goods?”
“Given that much of this information was previously kept from the American public, we respectfully request a report or an in-person briefing to Congress on this investigation at your earliest convenience,” the senators wrote.