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.
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.”
On May 12, a large-type, full-page ad appeared in The Washington Post demanding that the United States, "Delist the MEK, Iran's Main Opposition." Listed below the call to action were the names of 10 prominent national security bigwigs -- some of whom never agreed to be on the list. Asked why his name was on the ad, Zelikow told The Huffington Post that he had "nothing to do with" it and that "no one had asked for my permission to sign off on it." He added that he was "surprised to see it." The same ad also listed Gen. Clark without his permission, according to a spokeswoman who said Clark never authorized the use of his name, and first learned of the ad when he saw it in print.
The promotion was paid for by a British MEK support group, but neither the phone nor email address listed on the ad was functioning at press time. At least two of the listees -- Dean and Woolsey -- agreed to have their names used. The other individuals did not reply to inquiries on the matter.
Zelikow and Clark’s experiences are typical of interactions with MEK groups, said Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and a critic of the MEK. "You do one thing with [MEK-related groups], and from then on they sign your name to anything they want to. They figure it's more difficult for a public figure to complain and draw attention to themselves than it is to just live with it," he said.
Given the organization's controversial history, it's easy to see why some speakers might choose not to publicize their affiliation.
Founded on Marxist principles in 1963, the Mujahideen-e Khalq carried out a number of bombings and assassinations in Iran during the 1970s, including one that killed six Americans. It was initially aligned with the 1979 Islamic revolution, but Ayatollah Khomeini quickly deemed the MEK a threat to his newly-installed government. Forced out of Iran, they eventually settled near Khalis, Iraq, at Camp Ashraf, a desert compound about 75 miles from the Iranian border where the majority of MEK loyalists reside today.
From 1980-'88, a militant wing of the MEK supported Saddam Hussein in his war against their former countrymen, a conflict which resulted in massive casualties on both sides -- further fueled by U.S. financial support for Iraq. As a result of their actions in the war, the group is reviled today within Iran by major segments of the pro-democracy Green Movement and by those loyal to the ayatollahs. In post-Saddam Iraq, the MEK is best known for having allegedly carried out attacks on Kurds and Shiite Iraqis during the early 1990s, under orders from Hussein. MEK supporters deny that the group participated in either of the conflicts. If the alliance with Saddam in the 1980s helped to keep them on the U.S.'s good side throughout the decade, that changed in the 1990s. In 1996, Congress created the Foreign Terrorist Organization List as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and when it went into effect in 1997, the MEK was one of the first groups placed on the list.
Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the MEK agreed to give up its weapons arsenal in exchange for protection from the U.S. military. But following a review in 2007, the U.S. State Department maintained the organization’s classification as a Foreign Terrorist Organization when it ruled the group still possessed the "capacity and will" to commit terrorist acts.
Throughout all this, the MEK has been led by the same two charismatic figures: Maryam Rajavi and her husband, Massoud Rajavi. Mrs. Rajavi is based in Paris, where she leads an Iranian shadow-government known as the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI). Massoud Rajavi's whereabouts are unknown. Members have long argued that the NCRI is a separate organization from the MEK, but an extensive FBI investigation concluded in 2004 that the NCRI is "not a separate organization, but is instead, and has been, an integral part of the MEK."
As part of its advocacy, the NCRI offers itself as the viable alternative to the current regime, and a democratic opposition. But U.S. officials don’t see it that way. “We do not view the MEK as a viable opposition movement for Iran,” a senior government official with knowledge of the issue told The Huffington Post. “Its own structure is not democratic, so how can the Iranian people expect it to enact democratic change within the country? There is a viable democratic movement afoot in Iran, and the world saw that in 2009.”
The question of the MEK's structure arouses intense debate. Independent reports from Human Rights Watch and from the RAND Corporation have cataloged the group's cult practices at Camp Ashraf, which according to RAND, include "a near-religious devotion to the Rajavis ... public self-deprecation sessions, mandatory divorce, celibacy, enforced separation from family and friends and gender segregation." MEK members and supporters deny that the group is a cult, and they dismiss the reports as propaganda by the Iranian regime.
Visitors to the White House surely recognize the name Camp Ashraf. For months, MEK supporters have stationed themselves in a tent on Pennsylvania Avenue, pleading for U.S. troops to protect the encampment from retaliation by Iraqi forces aligned with Iran, and providing passersby with evidence of massacred supporters.
Following a particularly brutal assault on the camp by Iraqi soldiers in April of this year, Howard Dean defended the Mujahideen-e Khalq on MSNBC.
As the U.S. military prepares to leave Iraq later this year, the fate of Camp Ashraf's 3,400 residents is uncertain. Most recently, officers on the ground hoped to convince Ashraf residents to relocate to a safer camp, but they have so far refused. Complicating matters, the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently approved an amendment aimed at preventing the "forcible relocation" of Ashraf residents. At a recent Capitol Hill conference, members of Congress and some of the group’s past paid speakers passionately objected to any attempts to move followers out of camp. But time is running out -- without the U.S. military's constant protection, the residents are in very real danger of more attacks by local troops like the one in April.
MEK supporters argue that the only way to save the residents of Ashraf is by delisting the MEK from the State Department's terrorist list. But the group's detractors say this is false, and that other military and diplomatic options exist which have nothing to do with the FTO listing. The European Union did remove the group from its terrorist list in 2009, however, following a series of court cases.
In July, Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified at a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing that, "[While] the MEK emphasizes its commitment to democracy and free expression, in neither deed nor word has it forsworn its violent pedigree." Former Bush Attorney General and frequent MEK conference panelist Michael Mukasey disagreed, telling lawmakers that the MEK's terrorist designation is "based on acts that are alleged to have occurred at the time the Shah was in power in Iran," and "the State Department has no evidence of any violent act even attributed to the group since then."
Mukasey’s claim is disputed by a number of sources, but the question of whether the MEK has renounced its militant origins lies at the core of the State Department's review. A spokesman for the State Department declined to comment on the ongoing examination.
During the past year, two court cases in the United States have affected the MEK support groups' U.S. operations. In June 2010, the Supreme Court upheld a broad definition of the kind of "material support" that would be illegal to provide to designated terrorist organizations, including the MEK. The following month, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the MEK support groups seeking FTO status review, which the State Department has since undertaken.
In the meantime, the MEK's supporters skirt the financial restrictions placed on Foreign Terrorist Organizations using a web of dozens of Iranian American community groups whose members live in the United States. Many of these groups were created in 2003, when the U.S. government shut down the stateside office of the MEK's sister operation, the NCRI. In Texas, three separate Iranian American societies were registered between January and April of 2003, with two of them registered within a day of each other, according to state records. Only one of these three groups, the Iranian American Community of North Texas, is still operating.
Members of these groups closely guard the details of their activities and financing, a practice that leads to widespread speculation in foreign policy circles that they serve as illegal front groups for the MEK. "Anytime there's an influx of money this big, you have to question the motives," said Dr. Parsi.
Spokesmen for active MEK support groups in Missouri and California say their secrecy reflects a need to protect family members in Iran from retaliation, and is not intended to cover up illegal financing. According to Kasra Nejat, president of the MEK-affiliated group the Iranian American Cultural Association of Missouri (IACAM), "The Iranian regime’s agents spy on … community members … [so] the communities have made it their policy to keep details of activities of their members private."
But a senior NCRI leader, Mahin Filabi, says that the secrecy will continue only as long as the FTO restrictions remain in place. A former Iranian Olympic wrestler, Filabi says that the primary reason MEK-related groups in the U.S. hide their funding sources is because of the constraints of the FTO restriction. The State Department "has to take that list off, and let us have bank accounts," he told HuffPost following a congressional briefing in late July. "Then they [will] know where [the money] is coming from. You call me 'terrorist' and say, 'Hey, where is your money coming from?' I'm not going to tell you."
According to Filabi, the MEK raises money all over the world through televised pledge drives on its Internet TV channel, Sima TV, among other modes of outreach. He described how "for three days [recently] they were collecting money. One guy in Australia, his name was Ahmed, called the TV and said ‘OK, I have a house, worth $250,000, I am selling. I give [the money] to you.’" Filabi claimed not to know where Sima TV is based, or how its proceeds reach the United States, but he said MEK supporters watch it "in every country," including Iran.
For the highly paid speakers, however, the murky origins of the group's money appear to offer just enough cover for them to deny having ever knowingly provided material support to a Foreign Terrorist Organization. VIP speaker agents offer them another layer of separation by dealing directly with the MEK-related community groups -- signing contracts, taking money and conducting the actual financial business involved. Of the 33 MEK speakers, nearly all of them are represented by one of three major speaker bureaus: Leading Authorities, Washington Speakers Bureau (WSB) and the International Speakers Bureau (ISB). Senior executives from each bureau declined to respond to calls and emails from The Huffington Post.
Given how much money MEK support groups spent on speakers this year, it's no surprise that speaker agencies closed ranks. What's hard to believe, however, is how these brokers could possibly ignore the obvious disparities between many of the inscrutable, scattered community groups that sign their contracts, and the enormous amounts of money these groups pay to hire the nation's most prestigious speakers.
One of the groups in question, the Iranian American Community Association of Missouri (IACAM), sponsored two high-profile events in Washington this winter, each of which entailed a half-dozen expensive speakers, according to the events’ organizer, Dr. Neil Livingstone. But the group doesn't even have a website, and its president Kasra Nejat, refused to say whether his group sponsored the events, or what they cost. The group is headquartered in Nejat's house, and registered as a non-profit in Missouri, but not with the federal government. Nejat and his wife, Rahelph Nejat, each personally donated $1,000 to Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) in June of last year, less than two weeks after Clay backed a measure in the House to remove the MEK from the FTO list.
Similar MEK-affiliated organizations are registered as non-profits in Virginia, Colorado, and Florida. Like the Missouri group, none of them has a federal tax-exempt status, and none of them maintains a website.
in January of this year, the Iranian American Community of North Texas (IACNT) hired the K Street lobbying firm diGenova & Toensing specifically to advocate on behalf of MEK delisting. According to lobbying registration forms, the IACNT's headquarters are a Carrollton, Texas, home belonging to physicist Homeira Hessami, but the crude website offers no indication of how the community is funded. Records do, however, reveal that Hessami has personally donated nearly $5,000 to pro-MEK lawmakers since 2009. A phone call and email to the group by The Huffington Post were not returned.
In March, one of the largest MEK support groups, the Iranian American Community of Northern California (IACNC) hosted a lavish conference on Capitol Hill with eight professional speakers, including Sec. Ridge, Gov. Dean and Mukasey, as well as nine members of Congress. One month later, the group hired a prestigious D.C. law firm, Akin Gump, to lobby directly for delisting the MEK.
Reached via email, a spokesman for the IACNC claimed that all their funding comes from "community members," and that his community is "fully responsible for paying [Akin Gump] and we raise the reasonable fee for the firm among our community members." He acknowledged that his group sponsored four major speaker events in Washington this spring, including the July 16 Willard conference, but said he was not "authorized to divulge the information about the cost of our activities such as rallies, demonstrations, conferences and meeting our representatives and church leaders."
But it's not just the MEK's support groups that are secretive: The U.S. contractors they do business with keep secrets, too.
One of them is former Sen. Bob Torricelli (D-N.J.), who dropped his reelection bid in 2002 amid allegations of accepting improper donations. Torricelli founded a lobbying firm, Rosemont Associates, and in 2007 watchdog groups questioned donations he made from his leftover campaign account. Torricelli has denied any wrongdoing in either case. In 1995, Torricelli received $2,000 in campaign contributions from Nejat, the president of the Missouri-based MEK support group, the IACAM.
In January, February and July of this year, Torricelli moderated well-publicized Washington conferences for MEK-affiliated groups. Asked about his pay structure for the first two events, a spokesman for Rosemont Associates said that Torricelli "is part of the legal team involved in the FTO delisting effort of the MEK. He works through the law firm Mayer Brown … [and] any questions about the legal team [should be directed to the firm]."
Mayer Brown partner Andrew Frey confirmed that Torricelli had been retained as part of a legal team, but told HuffPost the firm had "no involvement in the conferences or in payment for them," and Frey did not "really know," how Torricelli was involved in the events.
Another of the MEK-related groups' go-to men in Washington is Dr. Neil Livingstone, a security expert who has worked for unnamed MEK supporters since at least 2005. Livingstone is currently mounting a campaign for governor of Montana on the GOP ticket.
During the past six years, Livingstone has written three reports and organized three conferences that were paid for by MEK-related entities follwing with a massive 2005 report he co-authored with FreedomWorks founder Dick Armey, then a partner at DLA Piper. The 236 page document contains 1,194 references to the MEK, as well as a disclaimer that “[None of this report was] prepared under the direction, control, or with any financing from MEK or NCRI.”
Livingstone's next two reports both accuse other groups of anti-MEK bias. The first attacks the RAND Corporation study on the MEK. The second report accuses the State Department of bias against the MEK. Livingstone refused to say who paid for any of the reports, which are occasionally distributed at MEK supporters' conferences.
The three events Livingstone organized were all in Washington, on Dec. 17 of last year, Jan. 20 and Feb. 19. According to transcripts, Livingstone told guests that his company, ExecutiveAction LLC "sponsored" two of the events, but he later told The Huffington Post that the bills were in fact paid by the Iranian American Cultural Association of Missouri. He declined to say how much the MEK-affiliated groups paid him for planning the events. Now that the State Department's decision regarding the MEK is imminent, Livingtsone is moving on. He is in the process, he told The Huffington Post, of closing down his company to focus on his gubernatorial campaign.
How will Trump’s administration impact you? Learn more