Nobody asked us.

Photographer: Win McNamee

Obama Kept Military Out of the Loop on Cash Payments to Iran

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
Read More.
a | A

One might think President Barack Obama would have asked his top military officials to weigh in on his administration's  decision in January to send $400 million in cash to Iran. After all, Iran is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, and terrorists prefer cash to wire payments because it's so difficult to track. And its armed forces have both directly and indirectly threatened the U.S. military in the Middle East.

But Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry did not consult Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford.

This news came out of a hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In response to a question from Republican Senator Ted Cruz about the cash payment to Iran, Carter made it clear that he had been out of the loop.

"We weren't involved in this," Carter said, adding that it was part of the settlement of a decades-long legal dispute  between Iran and the U.S. over arms sales. "I don't know all the details of it, and the chairman and I were not involved in that. It is a decision that was taken by the law enforcement and diplomatic and I would refer you there."

When Dunford was asked about the cash payments, he responded: "I am not trying to be evasive but I don't know the details of that arrangement and it really was a political decision that was made to provide that money and I don't think it's appropriate that I comment on that."

Christopher Sherwood, a press officer at the Pentagon, later told me pretty much the same thing. "It was worked out through the administration. The Department of Defense had nothing to do with that."

All of this is important for a few reasons. For starters, in response to repeated questions about the cash payment, which coincided with an intricate deal to release Americans detained in Iran, the State Department defended the decision by saying it went through an inter-agency process. At an August 4 briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was asked about whether the payment was a form of ransom. Toner began by saying, "There's always an interagency discussion around any decision like this, and every relevant agency weighs in."

The disclosure that the Pentagon did not participate in the decision-making process also comes after reports that at least some lawmakers were not consulted about other payments to Iran. This week, the Weekly Standard reported that key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including its chairman Senator Bob Corker, were not told about wire payments to Iran, even after Obama last month said the U.S. had to send cash because such wire payments were not possible. Politico reported this week that the U.S. had been wiring cash to Iranian banks long before the cash payments were flown to Iran.

The disclosure is also the latest example of how U.S. military leaders have been distancing themselves from Kerry's Middle East diplomacy. Senior military leaders could barely disguise their opposition to Kerry's latest cease-fire plan for Syria, which would have resulted in the U.S. cooperating with Russia to select bombing targets had a cessation of hostilities held for a week. It didn't. At the hearing Thursday, Dunford said the Pentagon had no plans to share any intelligence with Russia.

Most important in all of this, though, is that the fissures between the military and the White House, which have been growing since Obama's first term, are coming out in the open in his presidency's final months. Since leaving office, all three of Obama's prior defense secretaries have talked publicly about their frustrations with the White House.

Robert Gates, who was Obama's first secretary of defense, wrote a scathing memoir where he complained about being ordered around by senior White House staff. Leon Panetta, who headed the Pentagon between 2011 and 2013, told the New York Times Magazine earlier this year that he never saw the letters Obama sent to Iran's Supreme Leader, when he served as CIA director or secretary of defense. Panetta's successor, Chuck Hagel, told Foreign Policy last December that he believed the White House had set out to destroy him.

We'll have to wait, but if recent public testimony is any indication Ash Carter will write a lively memoir once he leaves office.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net