When is a not-ransom a ransom? When the people paid off understand it to be one — an opinion shared by the top national-security official at the Department of Justice, among several others. The Wall Street Journal reports that John Carlin and several other senior officials objected to the payment of $400 million to Iran at the same time that the Obama administration was trying to win the release of Americans from Tehran. The revelation raises the stakes for the White House as it continues to deny paying the mullahs a ransom:

The head of the national security division at the Justice Department was among the agency’s senior officials who objected to paying Iran hundreds of millions of dollars in cash at the same time that Tehran was releasing American prisoners, according to people familiar with the discussions.

John Carlin, a Senate-confirmed administration appointee, raised concerns when the State Department notified Justice officials of its plan to deliver to Iran a planeful of cash, saying it would be viewed as a ransom payment, these people said. A number of other high-ranking Justice officials voiced similar concerns as the negotiations proceeded, they said. …

The objection of senior Justice Department officials was that Iranian officials were likely to view the $400 million payment as ransom, thereby undercutting a longstanding U.S. policy that the government doesn’t pay ransom for American hostages, these people said. The policy is based on a concern that paying ransom could encourage more Americans to become targets for hostage-takers.

Mr. Carlin, as head of the division in charge of counterterrorism and intelligence, is one of the highest-profile figures at the department. That he and other senior figures raised alarms underscores how much pushback the State Department proposal provoked.

Barack Obama and John Kerry can call the payment anything they want, in other words. Their perspective doesn’t matter. What does matter, as Carlin and others tried to explain at the the time, is how the Iranians perceived the payment. These top Justice nat-sec officials knew the mullahs would see it as a ransom, which undermined the prohibition on payments for hostages.

Perceptions matter with others, too. Now that the US has paid off Iran, the most virulent state sponsor of terrorism in the world, a ransom for its citizens, what’s to stop others from demanding the same? Hamas has played that game for years with Israel; why not pull the US more into the conflict and squeeze a few million from us? Hezbollah actually succeeded in doing this in the 1980s, a scandal that became Iran-Contra, which the national media seemed to grasp a lot better when it threatened Ronald Reagan’s presidency rather than Obama’s. It took a long time for the US to get past that debacle and hold firm on this policy, even as late as 2014 when the Obama administration (rightly) refused to negotiate with ISIS for two American journalists that were later decapitated. (Reportedly they considered paying a ransom for Bowe Bergdahl, but used a ridiculously lopsided “prisoner swap” instead to get him back that same year.)

The most interesting part of the WSJ scoop is that it contradicts repeated assertions by the White House about the unity of the decision to send the $400 million. The DoJ “fully supported the ultimate outcome” of the deal, including the cash payment, according to a statement cited by the WSJ. Sen. Charles Grassley didn’t buy that, and last week demanded an accounting of objections to the “ransom,” to which the DoJ has not yet responded. If this report is accurate, it will be clear that Obama and Kerry overrode the objections of nat-sec professionals to push a bad deal through to its extreme limits and put Americans abroad at further risk. Perhaps Grassley can get these officials to explain why at a Judiciary Committee hearing.