How the US Treasury Department Promotes Israel’s Propaganda Lines

The United States Department of the Treasury, Washington, DC.The US Department of the Treasury, Washington, DC. (Photo: Florian Hirzinger)

In February, a US Department of the Treasury press release announced sanctions on three Lebanese in Africa it said were linked to a “Hezbollah terrorist cell.”

But behind that press release is a story of how the portrayal of the Lebanese by the Treasury Department was based entirely on a case constructed by Israel’s foreign intelligence agency Mossad through its Nigerian clients, and how that Treasury release suppressed publicly available facts, which made it apparent that those claims were false.

It was not the first time the Treasury Department had used its “designations” of foreign individuals and organizations to put out false and misleading information reflecting an Israeli propaganda line. In 2011, Treasury claimed that Iran had reached a “secret deal” with al-Qaeda to allow the terrorist organization to use Iranian territory for its operations, despite clear evidence that the only agreement that had been reached was to facilitate the release of an Iranian hostage held by al-Qaeda in return for the release of al-Qaeda prisoners.

The office directly responsible for the Treasury Department taking on the role of adjunct to Israeli propaganda on terrorism is the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Created by the George W. Bush administration in 2004 in response to lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel organizations, the office has a history of staffing and advocacy that reflects the Israeli lobby’s views.

The press release issued by the Treasury Department on February 26 asserted as fact that Fouzi Fawaz, co-owner with his brother Mustapha of a popular amusement park and a supermarket in Abuja, Nigeria, had kept a secret stash of “heavy weapons.” It said Fouzi was a member of a “Hezbollah terrorist cell” and that Mustapha was alleged to be involved in “terrorism-related activities.”

Mustapha Fawaz had “reportedly confessed to the details of Hezbollah activities in Nigeria,” according to the release, and had even identified a “specific property … used to support terrorism.” The release said Abdallah Thahini, the third Lebanese person sanctioned by the Treasury Department, had been “arrested for being a member of the Hezbollah terrorist cell in Nigeria….”

The Treasury Department story of the Hezbollah terrorist cell in Nigeria reflected the dominant theme of Israeli propaganda on Hezbollah – that the Lebanese Shiite organization has a worldwide network of terrorists that is constantly hatching plans for terrorist strikes. But it was all based on a case that had been trumped up by Mossad, working through the Nigerian State Security Service (SSS).

Every claim cited in the press release about the three Lebanese men proved to be without any foundation.

Mossad’s dominant role in Nigeria’s handling of anything having to do with Hezbollah had been defined by a secret security agreement between Israel and Nigeria. The right-wing website World Tribune reported on August 14, 2013, that “diplomatic sources” said Nigeria’s security services had given Mossad “nearly total access” in monitoring Hezbollah in Nigeria, in return for Israeli training of Nigerian security forces and protection of Nigeria’s energy infrastructure.

The story included no byline, but the Middle East editor of the publication was Steve Rodan, a veteran Israel-based journalist with excellent official Israeli sources.

Mossad’s case against the Fawaz brothers was based on the claim that a cache of weapons had been found in a bunker under a house in Kano, Nigeria, said to have been owned by one of them. SSS immediately declared that the weapons belonged to a Hezbollah terrorist cell and that it was intended for use against “Israeli and Western interests.”

But the pictures of weapons shown to reporters showed that many of them were corroded and covered with rust. More importantly, the idea that those weapons had anything to do with Hezbollah was extremely dubious. Hezbollah had never been known to have any presence in Nigeria (An SSS accusation earlier in 2013 that a Shiite cleric was the head of an Iranian terror cell planning attacks against Western and Israeli targets had been dismissed within a few weeks). Importing weapons into Nigeria would have contradicted the interests of Iran and Hezbollah.

The judge who dismissed the charges of importing weapons against Talal Ahmad Roda, the Lebanese person living in the house in Kano, observed that no evidence had been produced of “any understanding between [Roda] and the others in Abuja [i.e. Fawaz and Thahini] or any link between the storage of firearms at Kano and those in Abuja.”

The spurious SSS claim that the Fawaz brothers and Thahini were somehow linked to the arms cache allowed the Israelis and their Nigerian clients to do three things: It gave Mossad the opportunity to carry out harsh interrogations of Fawaz and Thahini. Both Mustapha Fawaz and Tahini testified in court that they had been interrogated by Mossad agents for 14 days without the presence of any Nigerian official and deprived of sleep for several days. When asked about the Lebanese charges that Mossad agents had interrogated them, the spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry did not deny it.

The charges also represented another opportunity to promote the Israeli line about a Hezbollah terrorist threat. And it was aimed at stripping the Fawaz brothers of their supermarket, Amigo, and their Wonderland amusement park.

Within days of the arrest of the three Lebanese men, the Abuja daily newspaper Premium Times reported that SSS officials had sealed both the supermarket and amusement park and had tried unsuccessfully to get President Goodluck Jonathan to approve the bulldozing of the supermarket on the grounds that it was suspected of being used for stockpiling weapons. The prosecution claimed publicly that it had found weapons in the supermarket.

At the trial in July 2013, a masked SSS agent testified that he had conducted a search of both properties and had found arms and ammunition at the Amigo supermarket – which had been the rationale for that agency’s proposal to destroy the supermarket. Under cross-examination, however, the agent read the list of items he had found, which revealed that the “arms and ammunition” were actually air rifles and pellets.

The evidence cited by the prosecution to link the defendants to terrorism was that Mustapha Fawaz had taken a video of Abuja from the top of the Sheraton Hotel, that the Amigo supermarket had surveillance cameras and that the two brothers had undergone Hezbollah military training in Lebanon 25 years earlier.

The Treasury Department press release failed to inform its readers that Mustapha Fawaz and Thahini had been acquitted of all the charges against them in November 2013, because the judge found the prosecution had “failed to provide concrete evidence linking them to terrorism.”

In a more highly publicized accusation involving alleged Iranian collaboration with al-Qaeda, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen used the official designation of an al-Qaeda official named Yasin al-Suri as a terrorist subject to financial sanctions to announce on July 28, 2011, that the department was “exposing Iran’s secret deal with Al-Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory.”

But that claim turned out to be a tortured interpretation of an agreement Iran had reached with al-Qaeda to release an Iranian diplomat who had been detained by al-Qaeda in return for the release of several al-Qaeda prisoners who were allowed to leave the country.

The text of the “designation” of Yasin al-Suri indicated that al-Suri was an al-Qaeda facilitator “living and operating in Iran under agreement between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Iranian authorities, it said, “maintain a relationship with [al-Suri] and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005.”

It did not mention the fact that al-Suri had served as the Iranian contact with al-Qaeda in order to negotiate the release of al-Qaeda detainees in return for the release of an Iranian diplomat kidnapped by Pakistani allies of al-Qaeda in Peshawar, Pakistan, in November 2008. One of the documents found in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound after US Special Forces killed him in a May 2011 raid, confirmed that the “kidnapping” of the commercial counselor in the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar had forced Iran to negotiate the release of al-Qaeda prisoners.

When Truthout sought clarification of the “secret agreement” claim, a spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence declined to answer any questions on the subject or to allow an interview with Eytan Fisch, the assistant director of the Terrorism and Financial Intelligence office. Fisch had cited the alleged “secret agreement” while briefing the press in February 2012.

Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia regions, called the allegation of such a “secret deal” a “highly misleading characterization of interaction between Iran and al-Qaeda.” A second former intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, told Truthout the “secret deal” claim “doesn’t pass the BS test.”

In December 2012, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), an organization devoted to supporting the interests of Israel and funded by wealthy Zionist donors, presented its first George P. Shultz Award “for distinguished service” to the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (OTFI) at the US Treasury Department. (Shultz was known as the most pro-Israel secretary of state in US history.) In accepting the award for the OTFI, Under Secretary Cohen, paid tribute to FDD’s work, which he said had been useful to the OTFI.

The first deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis in 2005 was Matthew Levitt. He had come from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), where he had founded and directed that organization’s terrorism research program. WINEP had been established by key figures associated with AIPAC to publish longer studies aimed at convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are indistinguishable.

Before moving to the OTFI, Levitt completed a book on Hamas that relied on purported Hamas documents given to him by the Israel Defense Forces in English translation. Levitt, who speaks no Arabic, was unable to check on the authenticity of the documents or the accuracy of the translations. Reviewing the book, New York Times correspondent Steven Erlanger observed that Levitt had relied “so heavily and uncritically on Israeli sources” that his readers “might easily see it as ‘fronting’ for the Mossad.”

But such uncritical reliance on information supplied by the Israelis was evidently considered a plus by the leadership of the Treasury Department’s OTFI.