Former U.S. Officials Investigated for Receiving Payments to Promote a Designated Terror Group
Jeremiah Goulka, former RAND expert on the Mujahedin-e Khalq, says war hawks from Bush admin. and some Democrats were paid by the group to advance its interests in DC and are being investigated by US Treasury
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.
Well, what do the following list of former government officials have in common? People like former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, former attorney general Michael Mukasey, former UN ambassador John Bolton, as well as former Republican mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, former Democratic governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and former governor of Vermont Howard Dean, ex-FBI director Louis Freeh, and retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton? What are all these people have in common? Well, they’re all being investigated by the Treasury Department for material aid, receiving money from a terrorist organization, at least an organization that’s on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. What’s the organization? Well, the MEK.
Now joining us to talk about what the MEK is and what this is all about is Jeremiah Goulka. Jeremiah is an independent public policy scholar and writer. From 2007 to 2010 he was an analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he conducted research for the U.S. military and was a lead author of The Mujahedin-e Khalq in Iraq: A Policy Conundrum. Before that, he worked as a lawyer in the Justice Department under the Bush administration. And let me add he has now become a critic of much of the policy he used to work for. Thanks for joining us, Jeremiah.
JEREMIAH GOULKA, PUBLIC POLICY SCHOLAR: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So give us a quick, first of all, rundown just what the MEK is, for those who haven’t followed the story, and then we’ll get into what the heck are all these officials doing taking their money.
GOULKA: Sure. The MEK is an Iranian dissident group. It was founded in 1965 by several graduate students at the University of Tehran. Their goal was to fight against the regime of the Shah, which they saw, accurately, as a puppet of the U.S. government. Soon the Shah’s regime found out about them, suppressed them pretty brutally. And one leader survived prison, whose name is Massoud Rajavi. In the Iranian Revolution there were lots of different dissident groups, not just Ayatollah Khomeini’s group.
And as the leader of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, Rajavi tried to participate in the new government. He
wanted to run for president. Several members of the MEK wanted to run for the Majlis, which is the Iranian parliament, but Ayatollah Khomeini’s government pushed the MEK out of the running. And in response to that, the MEK turned against the new government, and it did so violently. The result was that the new government brutally suppressed the MEK, its leaders went into exile in France, and its members went underground in Iran. So this is 1981.
Fast forward to 1986, and you’re in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. The MEK’s leadership makes a deal with Saddam Hussein, the starter of the Iran-Iraq War, which was an absolutely catastrophe for Iran. The deal was that Saddam would provide weapons, some territory within Iraq, in exchange for the services of the MEK. The services that they would render would be providing some soldiers, particularly providing some intelligence and interrogation of Iranian POWs. In exchange for this, what the MEK was going to get in the bargain was the power of Saddam’s military, in their hope to install themselves as the new government of Iran.
Well, this failed. Historically it was their biggest mistake, because the Iranian people saw the MEK essentially as traitors by signing up with the instigator of that horrible war. The MEK, you know, voluntarily crossed the border into Iran and fought against Iranian soldiers. In fact, they launched an invasion after the ceasefire in that war. So the Iranians basically have no—there’s no support for the MEK, not much support. The MEK claims that there’s a lot, but it’s not true. The government still hates the MEK, but that’s a side matter.
JAY: And why were they put on the terrorist list?
GOULKA: So in 1997, after the creation of the Foreign Terrorist Organization list, MEK was one of the first couple to be put on there. One—well, the factual predicate for them being on there is that they assassinated several Americans in Tehran back during the Shah’s era, specifically three military officers and three civilians who were military contractors. They also did various attacks against American interests and assassination attempts during the time. And the MEK have been violent until just a few years ago, doing lots of attacks against Iranian targets, government targets, mostly in Iran but occasionally in Europe, even in the U.S., with some bystanders as casualties. The MEK also make a point of saying that the MEK was added to the FTO list as a political reason, because the Clinton administration was trying to make nice with the government, at the time, in Iran, which was perceived as being more moderate. And, well, of course, it’s a political list and political actions by governments, so I think that there’s probably some truth to that, but that doesn’t make it not true that the [crosstalk]
JAY: And why did they stay on this list during the whole Bush administration years, when we know that Bush—the Bush administration was actually putting a lot of money into trying to have this sort of terrorist fund subversive types of activity in the border regions of Iran? I mean, there’s lots of stories that the CIA and others were promoting this kind of stuff, so why not take them off the list?
GOULKA: Well, there’s a bit of having your cake and eating it too. The government could—the Bush administration was able to keep—by keeping the group on the list, they have more of a negotiating point with the group. You know, it’s a carrot to offer the group if they’ll kind of play nicely. That’s part of it.
But it also was not like there was a monolithic point of view in the Bush administration about the MEK. When I was at the RAND Corporation and did my interviews for the report that you mentioned in the introduction, I spoke to dozens of U.S. officials, and the points of view varied. The people who were of the strongest on to Tehran type attitude, who wanted to invade Iran, they saw the MEK as a potentially useful ally, in the sense of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And there were several people who were sort of fooled by the MEK’s excellent press relations that it’s been doing since leaving Iran in 1981, where they have this thing called the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is the political arm, which has been selling themselves as a liberal, democratic, human rights respecting organization that could go in and be the new—either be the new government or help create a new democracy in Iran. It’s very much like how Ahmed Chalabi sold himself in the Iraqi National Congress.
JAY: I mean, what evidence is [there] that they’re not liberal, democratic, and so on and wouldn’t play this role?
GOULKA: Well, what we’ve said in the report and has been said by others, such as Human Rights Watch, is that the group actually is a cult. So this is another part of the history. Starting in 1985, Massoud Rajavi, the leader, married Maryam Rajavi, who was the wife of one of his colleagues in the MEK, and the two of them turned the group into something of a cult of personality. This became—started in earnest when they were in the desert in 1986, in the desert of Iraq, fairly isolated, and they had a hard time recruiting any new recruits after their participation with Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War because they had lost their support in Iran.
So the new members who were joining after that time, at least some of them cannot be believed to have been true volunteers. But from a lot of former members I spoke to, it appears that lots of them were actually duped into ending up at MEK camps—promises of jobs, wives, and help of getting asylum or residency rights in other European countries. So you have lots of people who have now been trapped in these Iraqi camps, MEK camps in Iraq, and have been enduring various forms of cult behavior, such as sexual control, thought control, brainwashing, limited access to other media, limited food, limited sleep, make-work projects.
JAY: And there’s supposed to be celibacy and various sorts of things, unless you’re the leading couple, I guess.
GOULKA: Exactly. That’s one of the big parts of it is the mandatory divorce and celibacy,—
JAY: Of course, no one—.
GOULKA: —as well as gender segregation.
JAY: Now, what evidence is there that they have been, over the years, conducting terrorist actions against Iranians, Iranian officials? Is there evidence of assassinations or such?
GOULKA: Well, they took credit for it for years. The difference happened after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that—well, actually, they say that as of 2001 they stopped committing violent attacks, that they’ve decided to basically change course and pursue what they were doing with more of a kind of a democratic approach. Starting in 2003, that became more in earnest, as they were now being—actually taking—. Well, it’s a confusing thing to describe, and I explained it in the RAND Corporation report, that when we invaded Iraq in 2003, the perception of the U.S. government was that the MEK was going to participate with Saddam as, quote, “a wholly owned subsidiary”, end quote, of the Saddam army, when there was a quick ceasefire soon thereafter and the U.S. consolidated the MEK at one of its several camps near the Iranian border. And since then there has been a very focused effort by the MEK to earn U.S. pleasure, approbation. And of course this makes sense, because in 2003 you had the administration saying on to Tehran. And so the MEK quickly realized that Saddam failed to put them into power into Iran—maybe the U.S. could.
JAY: So, again, just to be—are there specific examples of how this organization qualifies to be on the terrorist list?
GOULKA: So they’re putting a big push now to get off of the list. And, of course, getting off of the list matters, because that frees up their ability to raise money, and they would certainly use it to make it seem like the U.S. actually supports them. But what they’re using—one of the ways that they say they should not be on the group—on the list is that they say that those assassinations back in the ’70s were done by a splinter group or a different MEK, and that they’re not, you know, responsible for those, and therefore they don’t fall under the requirements of the act. And since Iran has not been an ally of the U.S. in many, many years, therefore attacks done against Iranians don’t count as being against the interests of the United States or its allies.
JAY: And that—I suppose that is the true definition of how United States looks at terrorism: if it’s against an ally, it’s terrorism; if it’s against an enemy, it’s not terrorism. So within the lines of Washington rhetoric and politics they may not be so wrong.
GOULKA: Exactly. And, of course, that raises the issue now that since their goal is—. Their immediate goal is to get off the FTO list, but their big goal is to get into power in Iran, and they want to use the United States’s military to get that. So as they’ve been promoting the fears of a nuclear Iran—the MEK in 2005 were the ones to have a press conference announcing to the public the existence of the Natanz nuclear facility. You know, as a side note, then that information came to them, it appears, from the Israeli government, which wanted also to have this be put into the public arena, and the U.S. already knew. But the MEK’s been waving the flag of fear about Iran since then.
And why do they want this fear promoted? It’s to get the U.S. to invade Iran to put them in power. And I can’t think of anything that would be more against the interests of American national security than for us to actually have an actual invasion of Iran. Considering the tragedy of the Iraq War, to expect anything else other than a protracted occupation and reconstruction would be foolish.
JAY: The MEK is still on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. And now you’ve got all these government officials taking money and essentially—what is it?—they’re getting paid for speaking engagements and they’re lobbying to get the MEK off the list. But that in theory is illegal, is it not?
GOULKA: In theory. So the material support law created in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 is something that’s been viewed from the start as having a very low threshold of activity to count as being material support, and that’s a, you know, federal crime. And this law has been sort of broadly interpreted by the Supreme Court since then, and so you’ve seen a number of people who have gone to prison for fairly minor things.
So here you have these prominent former officials taking money to speak on behalf of the MEK at events organized by the MEK. And are they committing a crime? Well, what’s particularly interesting here is: on one end you have the notion of equal enforcement of a law. If you’re going to enforce it against Muslims in America, why would you not enforce it against prominent public officials? And, you know, we can wonder then about the impunity that prominent powerful officials can enjoy.
On the flipside, there is a First Amendment question here that, aside from their taking money and doing this in concert with a designated foreign terrorist organization, they are—these officials are making their own political statements, and maybe those should be protected by the First Amendment.
So I think this does raise questions about how well tailored that statute actually is.
JAY: But that’s quite a different thing, to take money and have your say, taking money from—or taking money from a terrorist organization or a foreign government. There was just a Pakistani fellow who I think just got sentenced to two years ’cause he was taking ISI Pakistani money to try to lobby in the United States and—but hadn’t declared himself, you know, an agent of a foreign government and such. I mean, similar issues. Once you take money, you’re not in the same category as just free speech, no?
GOULKA: That’s true. But, of course, money and speech have been heavily linked in the last few years.
JAY: Yeah. So what—just to final—to sum up or to end with, what do you make of the Treasury Department actually going after these guys, including two prominent Democrats? This doesn’t happen without the White House signing off, one would think, and it’s very hard to believe such serious high-level people get investigated and the White House doesn’t get consulted. What would be their interest in pushing this?
GOULKA: Well, I think you’re right that no bureaucrat is going to go step on the toes of prominent officials like this without serious approval from above. I mean, I can attest to that from when I used to work at the Justice Department. I think that—just speculating, I think this is probably linked to what Obama said in his AIPAC speech, that there’s a lot of loose talk of war, and I see this as being a statement to these officials that they need to watch their step. They’ve responded by giving public speeches since, so they are saying sort of bring it on, we’re going to keep doing this. But it—you know, we’ll see what actually happens.
JAY: They’ve responded by making public speeches that they got paid for? Or just public speeches?
GOULKA: I don’t actually know, but they were at at least one MEK-organized event where these folks have been paid to speak previously.
JAY: The MEK is able to organize events in the United States even though it’s on that list. How is that?
GOULKA: Oh, they—everything is done through organizations—they claim that they’re not connected to the MEK, that they just happen to have similar viewpoints, they happen to support the MEK. They’re often involved with people who actually used to be members of the MEK or the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the MEK’s political arm, until those were listed on the FTO list, and then they promptly cut their ties and say that they’re independent or have their own new, you know, little think tanks to promote the interests of the MEK. And there is also a group called the Iran Policy Center that was founded by several ex-Reagan officials that has been promoting the interests of the MEK for the last while, and, you know, they have to pay close attention to not running afoul of the law. How exactly that’s happening, how we’re doing that, I think the Treasury Department’s checking that out.
JAY: And I guess the next step—if this gets serious, at some point the Justice Department steps in. If there’s going to be any charges, does it come from the Justice Department? Or can the Treasury Department actually lay charges?
GOULKA: Well, as I understand it, the Treasury Department can take action such as freezing accounts. But if there’s going to be actual criminal charges, that’s in the Justice Department’s field.
JAY: And then that’s when we’ll find out how serious they’re really pushing this.
GOULKA: That would be a big step.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Jeremiah.
GOULKA: Thanks so much for having me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.