The Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), or People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, is an Iranian dissident group that has been formally designated for the last 15 years by the US State Department as a "foreign terrorist organization." When the Bush administration sought to justify its attack on Iraq in 2003 by accusing Saddam Hussein of being a sponsor of "international terrorism," one of its prime examples was Iraq's "sheltering" of the MEK. Its inclusion on the terrorist list has meant that it is a felony to provide any "material support" to that group.
Nonetheless, a large group of prominent former US government officials from both political parties has spent the last several years receiving substantial sums of cash to give speeches to the MEK, and have then become vocal, relentless advocates for the group, specifically for removing them from the terrorist list. Last year, the Christian Science Monitor thoroughly described "these former high-ranking US officials -- who represent the full political spectrum -- [who] have been paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak in support of the MEK." They include Democrats Howard Dean, Ed Rendell, Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, and Lee Hamilton, and Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Fran Townsend, Tom Ridge, Michael Mukasey, and Andrew Card. Other prominent voices outside government, such as Alan Dershowitz and Elie Wiesel, have been enlisted to the cause and are steadfast MEK advocates.
Money has also been paid to journalists such as The Washington Post's Carl Bernstein and the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page. Townsend is a CNN contributor and Rendell is an MSNBC contributor, yet those MEK payments are rarely, if ever, disclosed by those media outlets when featuring those contributors (indeed, Townsend can go on CNN to opine on Iran, even urging that its alleged conduct be viewed as "an act for war," with no disclosure whatsoever during the segment of her MEK payments). Quoting a State Department official, CSM detailed how the scheme works:
"'Your speech agent calls, and says you get $20,000 to speak for 20 minutes. They will send a private jet, you get $25,000 more when you are done, and they will send a team to brief you on what to say. . . . The contracts can range up to $100,000 and include several appearances."
On Friday, the Guardian's Washington reporter Chris McGreal added substantial information about the recipients of the funding and, especially, its sources. As he put it, the pro-MEK campaign "has seen large sums of money directed at three principal targets: members of Congress, Washington lobby groups and influential former officials," including the GOP Congressman who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers.
What makes this effort all the more extraordinary are the reports that MEK has actually intensified its terrorist and other military activities over the last couple of years. In February, NBC News reported, citing US officials, that "deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by [MEK]" as it is "financed, trained and armed by Israel's secret service." While the MEK denies involvement, the Iranian government has echoed these US officials in insisting that the group was responsible for those assassinations. NBC also cited "unconfirmed reports in the Israeli press and elsewhere that Israel and the MEK were involved in a Nov. 12 explosion that destroyed the Iranian missile research and development site at Bin Kaneh, 30 miles outside Tehran."
In April, the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh reported that the US itself has for years provided extensive training to MEK operatives, on US soil (in other words, the US government provided exactly the "material support" for a designated terror group which the law criminalizes). Hersh cited numerous officials for the claim that "some American-supported covert operations continue in Iran today." The MEK's prime goal is the removal of Iran's government.
Despite these reports that the MEK has been engaged in terrorism and other military aggression against Iran - or, more accurately: likely because of them - it was announced on Friday the US State Department will remove MEK from its list of terrorist organizations. This event is completely unsurprising. In May, I noted the emergence of reports that the State Department would do so imminently.
Because this MEK scam more vividly illustrates the rot and corruption at the heart of America's DC-based political culture than almost any episode I can recall, I've written numerous times about it. But now that the de-listing is all but official, it is worthwhile to take note of the five clear lessons it teaches:Lesson One: There is a separate justice system in the US for Muslim Americans.
The past decade has seen numerous "material support" prosecutions of US Muslims for the most trivial and incidental contacts with designated terror groups. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that any Muslim who gets with sneezing distance of such a group is subject to prosecution. Indeed, as I documented last week, many of them have been prosecuted even for core First Amendment activities: political advocacy deemed supportive of such groups.
When they're convicted -- and marginalized Muslims, usually poor and powerless, almost always are -- they typically are not only consigned to prison for decades, but are placed in America's most oppressive and restrictive prison units. As a result, many law-abiding Muslim Americans have become petrified of donating money to Muslim charities or even speaking out against perceived injustices out of fear -- the well-grounded fear -- that they will be accused of materially supporting a terror group. This is all part of the pervasive climate of fear in which many American Muslims live.
Yet here we have a glittering, bipartisan cast of former US officials and other prominent Americans who are swimming in cash as they advocate on behalf of a designated terrorist organization. After receiving their cash, Howard Dean and Rudy Giuliani met with MEK leaders, and Dean actually declared that the group's leader should be recognized by the west as President of Iran. That is exactly the type of coordinated messaging with a terrorist group with the supreme court found, in its 2010 Humanitarian Law v. Holder ruling, could, consistent with the First Amendment, lead to prosecution for "material support of terrorism" (ironically, numerous MEK shills, including CNN's Townsend, praised the supreme court for its broad reading of that statute when they thought, correctly, that it was being applied to Muslims).
Yet other than a reported Treasury Department investigation several months ago to determine the source of Ed Rendell's MEK speaking fees -- an investigation that seems to have gone nowhere -- there has been no repercussions whatsoever from this extensive support given by these DC luminaries to this designated terror group. Now that MEK will be removed from the terror list, there almost certainly never will be any consequences (as a legal matter, the de-listing should have no impact on the possible criminality of this MEK support: the fact that a group is subsequently removed from the list does not retroactively legalize the providing of material support when it was on the list).
In sum, there are numerous American Muslims sitting in prison for years for far less substantial interactions with terror groups than this bipartisan group of former officials gave to MEK. This is what New York Times Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal meant when he wrote back in March that the 9/11 attacks have "led to what's essentially a separate justice system for Muslims." The converse is equally true: America's political elites can engage in the most egregious offenses -- torture, illegal eavesdropping, money-driven material support for a terror group -- with complete impunity.Lesson Two: The US government is not opposed to terrorism; it favors it.
The history of the US list of designated terrorist organizations, and its close cousin list of state sponsors of terrorism, is simple: a country or group goes on the list when they use violence to impede US interests, and they are then taken off the list when they start to use exactly the same violence to advance US interests. The terrorist list is not a list of terrorists; it's a list of states and groups which use their power to defy US dictates rather than adhere to them.
The NYU scholar Remi Brulin has exhaustively detailed the rank game-playing that has taken place with this list: Saddam was put on it when he allied with the Soviets in the early 1980s, then was taken off when the US wanted to arm and fund him against Iran in the mid-1980s, then he was put back on in the early 1990s when the US wanted to attack him.