A banned Iranian terrorist group has been lobbying Congress and winning support from politicians even though there is a government investigation into it’s legality.
Former heads of the CIA, FBI, homeland security, the US military and members of Congress of both major parties are backing the removal of the People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran, known as the MEK, from the US list of terrorist organizations.
The lobbying campaign and the large amounts of money backing it, including donations to congressional campaigns and cash payments for speeches in support of the MEK, are under investigation for potential breaches of laws against financial dealings with banned organizations and possible material support for terrorism.
Among those under investigation are the former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Hugh Shelton, the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Michael Mukasey, who, as attorney-general, oversaw the prosecution of terrorism cases.
MEK has a past that includes the killing of Americans. The group was a supporter of the Islamic revolution in Iran and later allied itself with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The group was banned in 1997.
The MEK has also been described as a “cult” by a leading US thinktank for practices such as forcing members to give up their children in order to dedicate more time to the cause.
The group is now presenting itself to Capitol Hill as a democratic alternative to the present Iranian government.
Among the group’s strongest supporters is Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a member of the House of Representative foreign affairs committee and chairman of its oversight and investigations subcommittee.
“These guys have got one of the best PR campaigns and political campaigns that I’ve seen on Capitol Hill for a long time,” he told the Guardian. “They’re a very efficient and effective lobbying effort. People on both sides here have been recruited by these people who know how to work the system here in Washington.”
The group won a court order requiring the state department to review the case and make a decision on its application to be removed. The state department said that it cannot make a decision until the MEK clears out of Camp Ashraf in Iraq, where the group was once an armed military force.
Rohrabacher and others say that the state department fears that removing the MEK from the banned list would outrage Tehran during delicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
“What we’ve got here is yet an escalation of a fundamentally dishonorable bargain that was made in the past, which should never have been made with the mullahs, and every step now they’re having to protect that mistake. Now they’re taking another step that is inconsistent with democratic government and agreeing that people can disagree,” he said. “This attempt to silence people so that the rotten deal with the mullahs won’t be disclosed somewhere along the line should indicate to the American people that somebody has done something wrong.”
Nearly 100 members of Congress have signed a resolution of support for MEK.
Reza Marashi, a former official on the US state department’s Iran desk was part of the team that reviewed evidence against the MEK. He believes the that terrorism designation is appropriate, and said he is astonished that the group is able to operate so openly.
“My former government colleagues are bewildered by the freedom of movement that a designated terrorist organization enjoys on Capitol Hill. They’re disgusted by former US government officials willing to make a quick buck by shilling for the MEK,” said Marashi, who is now research director for the National Iranian American Council. “Do we really want to open the door to other terrorist organizations to spend millions of dollars lobbying to get off the terrorist list?”
The MEK says that regardless of its past, it has not done anything that fits the US definition of terrorism for at least a decade.
Among those campaigning for the MEK to be legitimized are former CIA director James Woolsey; former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani; ex-homeland security chief Tom Ridge; and Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, James Jones.
Former Democratic presidential candidate, Howard Dean, called on the US government to recognize one of the MEK’s founders, Maryam Rajavi, as the legitimate president of Iran.
Military supporters of MEK include General George Casey, former chief of staff of the US army and commander in Iraq and former Brigadier-General David Phillips, who commanded the US military police in Iraq and came into contact with the MEK as commander of Camp Ashraf. They say they only receive expenses for speaking on behalf of the group.
The US treasury department has issued subpoenas to gather information on fees paid out to those who have lent their voices to support of the terror group. It has also seized records from the former Pennsylvania governor, Edward Rendell, who has received $160,000 for attending conferences in support of the MEK in the US, France, Switzerland and Belgium.
“I’ve been in politics 34 years, and I can tell you right now that I would not jeopardize my reputation for any amount of money,” Rendell told the Washington Times. “If you indict me, I hope you know, you have to indict 67 other Americans who did the same thing, including seven generals.”
Other critics say that Congress and former officials are applying a double standard in having passed anti-terrorism laws that have sent people to prison for far less direct support of a banned group than that now being given to the MEK.
David Cole unsuccessfully challenged the Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, after members of a US humanitarian group gave advice on conflict resolution to two banned organizations, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
Cole argued that the project was promoting peace and was protected by a constitutional right to free speech. The court said even speech can amount to support for terrorism.
Cole said he believes that Americans should be free to speak in favor of the MEK, but it’s hypocritical for officials to criminalize similar actions by others.
“The MEK has demonstrated through very, very generous contracts that if you can get a lot of powerful people to speak up for you, you might succeed in getting yourself off the list,” he said. “You need only compare this to the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation in Dallas, Texas, which was the largest Muslim charity in the United States prior to 9/11. By basically giving aid to build schools and provide healthcare to organizations that were not designated as terrorist, these individuals had committed the crime of supporting terrorism and are spending 65 years in prison.
“There are plenty of people sitting in jail today who were initially investigated by treasury but ultimately prosecuted by the justice department. That said, the people sitting in jail are not people with the power and the connections that Michael Mukasey, Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, Louis Freeh and Rudi Giuliani have. The reality is that people like that are very unlikely to be criminally prosecuted, whereas people without that power and without those connections will be prosecuted and have been. There’s clearly a double standard.”