Just how serious is Washington about battling terrorism? The airwaves fill regularly with sanctimonious declamations about terrorist threats and with vows to pursue the war against them to its ultimate conclusion-a war without territorial limits, and with ill-defined opponents and no clear time horizon. A forever war.
But to insiders, it is evidently a laughing matter. Developments the past week suggest that for some prominent Washington figures, rubbing elbows with a scheduled terrorist organization and taking money from its front groups is a no-brainer. It may be that they know something most of us don't about the intelligence community's dealings with these terrorists.
The State Department scheduled the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or People's Mujahideen of Iran (MEK) as a terrorist organization in 1997. Regularly described as a cult, the group mixes Shia Islam, Marxism, and rituals venerating its charismatic leaders.
While these leaders claim to have renounced terrorist violence, they have a history of advocating violence to accomplish religious and political objectives. The MEK earned its place on the State Department's list based largely on an assassination campaign that targeted American military personnel in Iran in the mid-Seventies.
Three military officers and three defense contractors were murdered in MEK-linked attacks: Lieutenant Colonel Louis Lee Hawkins (USA), Colonel Paul Shaffer (USAF) and Lieutenant Colonel Jack Turner (USAF), as well as William Cottrell, Donald Smith, and Robert Krongard, who were in Iran working with Rockwell International on the NSA's Ibex System.
It is unlawful to accept funds from the MEK or to support the group materially, yet its supporters managed to stage a conference in Washington this past week. Among those appearing were Mitchell Reiss, a senior adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and former attorney general Michael Mukasey. Both Reiss and Mukasey openly joked that they were potentially committing a criminal offense by aiding a scheduled terrorist group.
Why would Washington political figures publicly associate themselves with a terrorist organization? It might be because they know that the United States itself shelters, arms, trains, and supports the same group-and that prosecutors would therefore face a quandary in going after them.
The covert relationship between the MEK and the U.S. military and intelligence communities has not been very covert. The official U.S. account is that following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the MEK was disarmed and confined to a former Iraqi military base, Camp Ashraf.
American intelligence figures familiar with the arrangement paint a different picture, noting that U.S. forces housed, armed and protected the MEK in Iraq. After the American withdrawal, Iraqi forces raided Camp Ashraf.
American officials scrambled to find new lodgings for the MEK, ultimately placing them at the U.S.-maintained Camp Liberty, near Baghdad Airport. American officials are now said to be arranging the relocation of MEK forces to a new facility constructed for them in Kurdish northern Iraq, close to the Iranian border.
The New Yorker's Sy Hersh recently succeeded in documenting more of the MEK relationship with the JSOC, the Pentagon's covert intelligence operation. Hersh takes us to a site in the Nevada desert sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas:
It was here that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) conducted training, beginning in 2005, for members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a dissident Iranian opposition group known in the West as the M.E.K.... The M.E.K.'s ties with Western intelligence deepened after the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003, and JSOC began operating inside Iran in an effort to substantiate the Bush Administration's fears that Iran was building the bomb at one or more secret underground locations. Funds were covertly passed to a number of dissident organizations, for intelligence collection and, ultimately, for anti-regime terrorist activities. Directly, or indirectly, the M.E.K. ended up with resources like arms and intelligence. Some American-supported covert operations continue in Iran today, according to past and present intelligence officials and military consultants.
Hersh notes that the Obama Administration halted the MEK training programs. Since Obama's team came to office, however, the organization has ramped up its efforts to move the president's policies back into line with George W. Bush's. This explains the aggressive outreach, including generous speaking fees and trips abroad, to political figures in both parties. The MEK plainly wants to align itself with the United States in a coming war against Iran, by establishing itself as a source of intelligence and perhaps as an instrument of black operations.
Indeed, with the United States waging a covert war against Iran, the MEK may already be in the thick of things. NBC News recently reported that the MEK is collaborating in a carefully orchestrated and remarkably effective Israel- run campaign to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. Former CIA senior analyst Paul Pillar recently wrote a blog post indicating that he considers the report credible. He notes, moreover, that the assassination campaign can be considered classic terrorism, applying the definition used by the U.S. government.
Those arguing for the MEK to be delisted as a terrorist group claim that their 1970s assassination spree was the work of a fundamentally different organization. The modern MEK, they argue, is fully aligned with American foreign-policy objectives and is well-positioned to assist the United States in a coming military confrontation with Iran. In particular, they say that the MEK has provided essential intelligence about Iran's nuclear weapons program, which the U.S. intelligence community generally believes was curtailed in 2003.
These claims may all be true, but they don't convincingly address the MEK's historic use of terrorist tactics, its pattern of human rights abuses, and its culture of violence. Moreover, the Iraq War should have left Americans wiser about émigré groups who peddle evidence of weapons programs as a rationale for the invasion of their homeland and for their eventual installation as a new and friendly government.
The Obama Administration may be caving in to the political pressure brought by the MEK's well-compensated Beltway friends. The State Department has reportedly suggested that if the MEK's leadership accepts resettlement in northern Iraq, this will be counted as another factor in support of delisting. If the MEK succeeds in this goal, America's posture as an opponent of terrorism will be a laughingstock, and will demonstrate that in Washington today, a little bit of cash, prudently spread, can accomplish almost anything.