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Mujahideen-e Khalq: Former U.S. Officials Make Millions Advocating For Terrorist Organization

Posted:   |  Updated: 01/29/2014 8:59 pm EST

WASHINGTON -- The ornate ballroom of the Willard Hotel buzzed with activity on a Saturday morning in July. Crowded together on the stage sat a cadre of the nation's most influential former government officials, the kind whose names often appear in boldface, who've risen above daily politics to the realm of elder statesmen. They were perched, as they so often are, below a banner with a benign conference title on it, about to offer words of pricey wisdom to an audience with an agenda.

That agenda: to secure the removal of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) from the U.S. government's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. A Marxian Iranian exile group with cult-like qualities, Mujahideen-e Khalq was responsible for the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s, along with staging a handful of bombings. But for a terrorist organization with deep pockets, it appears there's always hope.

Onstage next to former FBI director Louis Freeh sat Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and current MSNBC talking head; former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean; former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton; former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Togo West; former State Department Director of Policy Planning Mitchell Reiss; former Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway; Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush; and Sarah Sewall, a Harvard professor who sits on a corporate board with Reiss.

All told, at least 33 high-ranking former U.S. officials have given speeches to MEK-friendly audiences since December of last year as part of more than 22 events in Washington, Brussels, London, Paris and Berlin. While not every speaker accepted payment, MEK-affiliated groups have spent millions of dollars on speaking fees, according to interviews with the former officials, organizers and attendees.

Rendell freely admits he knew little about the group, also known as People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), before he was invited to speak just days earlier. But he told the audience that the elite status of his fellow panelists and the arguments they made for delisting the group were enough to convince him that it was a good idea.

The event where Rendell spoke was just part of a surge in pro-MEK lobbying efforts in Washington during the past year, spurred by an ongoing State Department review of the group's status, which is expected to be completed this month. In addition to funding conferences with influential speakers, supporters have taken out issue ads in newspapers, placed op-eds in major publications, commissioned academic papers, hired new lobbying firms and made scores of visits to lawmakers.

At first glance, these methods seem like standard Washington lobbying practices. But the MEK is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, and providing direct assistance or services to them is against the law, as is taking payment from them. So why isn't Howard Dean under arrest? The operative word is "direct".

The MEK's delisting campaign is funded by a fluid and enigmatic network of support groups based in the United States. According to an MEK leader, these groups are funded by money from around the world, which they deliberately shield from U.S. authorities. These domestic groups book and pay for their VIP speakers through speaker agencies, which in turn pay the speakers directly and take a fee for arranging appearances. That way, the speakers themselves don't technically accept money from the community groups. If they did, they might discover what their speaker agents surely know: That most of the groups are run by ordinary, middle-class Iranian Americans working out of their homes -- people who seem unlikely to have an extra few hundred thousand dollars laying around to pay speaker fees and book five-star hotels to bolster the MEK's cause.

The speakers are just the type of national-security heavyweights a plaintiff terrorist organization needs. In addition to those named above, the commissioned figureheads include Obama's recently-departed National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones; former Bush Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge; onetime State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow and former CIA directors Porter Goss and James R. Woolsey.

Retired military officers are popular -- former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark and former Commander in Chief of United States Central Command Gen. Anthony Zinni have both addressed MEK groups. Yet more speakers appear to have been chosen for their deep political ties, such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former New Mexico Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, former Bush White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and former 9/11 Commission Chairman Lee Hamilton.

Hamilton acknowledged to IPS News that he was paid for his appearances, describing his fee at the time as "significant." Dean also acknowledged that he was paid for at least a portion of the speeches he gave to MEK groups in London, Paris and Washington, as did Gen. Clark. Gen. Jones told The Wall Street Journal that he received a "standard speaking fee." Gen. Zinni's speaker agent confirmed that Zinni was also paid his "standard speaking fee" for an eight-minute address at an MEK-related conference in January -- between $20,000 and $30,000, according to his speaker profile. The same firm arranged for Zelikow to speak at two MEK-affiliated events this spring, and it recruited John Sano, the former deputy director of the National Clandestine Service, for his first MEK-related appearance on July 26.

Goss's first speech to an MEK support group was in April. He told The Huffington Post that it had been handled entirely by his speaker agent and that his payment came from his agent. According to his profile, Goss commands a minimum of $20,000 to $30,000 per engagement.

"I never discuss my speaking fees," Card told HuffPost when asked how much he was paid for seven minutes’ worth of remarks in late July on Capitol Hill. His standard fee, however, is between $25,000 and $40,000 per speech. Gov. Richardson's office referred questions to his speaker agent, who did not return a call for comment, but Richardson's standard speaker fees are the same as Card's.

Woolsey was the only one of the speakers who reported that he waived his standard fees for MEK-supporting events, citing his belief in the cause as his motivation for appearing.

Sewall, on the other hand, carefully distanced herself from the MEK’s objectives. “I was invited to speak at a conference on the Arab Spring and I received a speaker fee,” she said of her July 16 speech. “My remarks were aimed at an Iranian American audience that was concerned about Camp Ashraf. I, too, am concerned about the ongoing humanitarian situation there. But I would not want my presence at the conference to be equated with a position on the delisting of the MEK."

The rest of the speakers did not respond to repeated requests for comment by email and phone from The Huffington Post. Nevertheless, the sheer size of the roster of marquis names illustrates just how far some elder statesmen on government pensions will go to fund their (very) golden years.

But not everyone accepts invitations to speak at MEK-related events. Despite offers of up to $40,000 for notably brief remarks, sources with knowledge of speaker negotiations said at least four invited speakers have declined this year because they had questions about the ultimate goals.

The payment of a speaker's fee does not, of course, imply that the speaker has been told what to say. Indeed, while most of the panelists at MEK-affiliated conferences support at least part of the Iranian network's agenda, others avoid mentioning the exile group at all.

In both cases, what they say is less important to the group's cause than the mere fact that they show up and say it. Unless a speaker has a can't-lose stock tip, nobody is inherently worth $20,000 for a six-minute speech -- it's the shine of the speaker's credibility that the MEK's supporters are buying. The group has a well-documented history of conflating speakers' attendance at these events and deducing from that a broad endorsement of their agenda. Facilitating this is the point of the invitation, and both sides are sophisticated enough to know it, whether it's written in their speaker contracts or not.

MEK Protest at The State Department July 15

On July 16 at the Willard, first-time MEK conference speaker Rendell said that he initially declined the invitation to speak because, "I don't know hardly anything about this subject …[and] I don't think I'm qualified to come." To his surprise, conference organizers wanted to book him anyway. To help prepare for the event, Rendell told the audience that he had a long phone call with one of the group's representatives. He also studied a packet of materials the organization sent him about the MEK and their Iraq compound, Camp Ashraf. On the morning of the conference, Rendell met with more MEK supporters, as well as with Dean, a frequent MEK conference speaker.

Rendell's rhetorical ability to quickly distill an issue didn't fail him behind the podium. "It's been a great learning experience for me," he told the crowd. "As a result of what I've learned [from the MEK supporters], on Monday I will send a letter to President Obama and to Secretary Clinton telling them [first], that the United States is morally bound to do everything we can to ensure the safety of the residents of Camp Ashraf. And two, if Director Freeh and General Shelton and General Conway and Governor Dean and the rest of these great panelists say that MEK is a force for good and the best hope we have for a third option in Iran, then, good Lord, take them off the terrorist list! Take them off the terrorist list!"

As Rendell's applause died down, he added that he had never heard of Camp Ashraf until the group invited him to speak.

Conference organizer Ahmad Moein later defended the decision to book Rendell, despite his professed ignorance on the topic at hand. "It is the responsibility of Iranian American communities, including ours, to invite officials with impeccable service to this country ... and to provide them the opportunity to speak about the issues of mutual concern," Moein wrote in an email, noting that, like the organization, Rendell had previously condemned the Iranian regime.

The former governor's decision and subsequent endorsement highlights a kind of intellectual peer pressure that pervades MEK-related conferences and seeps into the public debate. Fueled by standing ovations, the speakers shower praise on one another and on their hosts, leading one speaker to even compare the aura around events to that of a religious revival.

Rendell isn't the only paid speaker MEK supporters have personally prepped in recent weeks. After Sano accepted a last-minute invitation to speak at a July 26 event, he described how he "sat down with two members of the Iranian committee for a couple of hours ... and they gave me some background" on the organization and related issues. Sano added that their information "meshed up with some of the things I had done in the government."

As for whether he had any qualms about how much the speakers were compensated for addressing the groups, Sano, who delivered the day’s longest remarks with a 14 minute speech, paused and thought. "I mean, I guess you can interpret it either way. I was familiar with the situation in Iran both from my previous life and from what I've read in the press," he said, adding that he believes in delisting the group. But in the end, Sano admired the panel’s big names more than anything else. "That was convincing for me ... the other panel members.”