One of the most under-reported political stories of the last year is the devoted advocacy of numerous prominent American political figures on behalf of an Iranian group long formally designated as a Terrorist organization under U.S. law. A large bipartisan cast has received substantial fees from that group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and has then become their passionate defenders. The group of MEK shills includes former top Bush officials and other Republicans (Michael Mukasey, Fran Townsend, Andy Card, Tom Ridge, Rudy Giuliani) as well as prominent Democrats (Howard Dean, Ed Rendell, Bill Richardson, Wesley Clark). As The Christian Science Monitor reported last August, those individuals "have been paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak in support of the MEK." No matter what one thinks of this group -- here is a summary of its activities -- it is formally designated as a Terrorist group and it is thus a felony under U.S. law to provide it with any "material support."
There are several remarkable aspects to this story. The first is that there are numerous Muslims inside the U.S. who have been prosecuted for providing "material support for Terrorism" for doing far less than these American politicians are publicly doing on behalf of a designated Terrorist group. A Staten Island satellite TV salesman in 2009 was sentenced to five years in federal prison merely for including a Hezbollah TV channel as part of the satellite package he sold to customers; a Massachusetts resident, Tarek Mehanna, is being prosecuted now "for posting pro-jihadist material on the internet"; a 24-year-old Pakistani legal resident living in Virginia, Jubair Ahmad, was indicted last September for uploading a 5-minute video to YouTube that was highly critical of U.S. actions in the Muslim world, an allegedly criminal act simply because prosecutors claim he discussed the video in advance with the son of a leader of a designated Terrorist organization (Lashkar-e-Tayyiba); a Saudi Arabian graduate student, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, was prosecuted simply for maintaining a website with links "to groups that praised suicide bombings in Chechnya and in Israel" and "jihadist" sites that solicited donations for extremist groups (he was ultimately acquitted); and last July, a 22-year-old former Penn State student and son of an instructor at the school, Emerson Winfield Begolly, was indicted for — in the FBI’s words — “repeatedly using the Internet to promote violent jihad against Americans” by posting comments on a "jihadist" Internet forum including “a comment online that praised the shootings" at a Marine Corps base, action which former Obama lawyer Marty Lederman said "does not at first glance appear to be different from the sort of advocacy of unlawful conduct that is entitled to substantial First Amendment protection."
Yet here we have numerous American political figures receiving substantial fees from a group which is legally designated under American law as a Terrorist organization. Beyond that, they are meeting with the Terrorist leaders of that group repeatedly (Howard Dean told NPR last year about the group's leader, Maryam Rajavi: "I have actually had dinner with Mrs. Rajavi on numerous occasions. I do not find her very terrorist-like" and has even insisted that she should be recognized as Iran's President, while Rudy Giuliani publicly told her at a Paris conference in December: "These are the most important yearnings of the human soul that you support, and for your organization to be described as a terrorist organization is just simply a disgrace"). And, after receiving fees from the Terrorist group and meeting with its Terror leaders, these American political figures are going forth and disseminating pro-MEK messages on its behalf and working to have it removed from the Terrorist list.
Given all the prosecutions of politically powerless Muslims for far fewer connections to Terrorist groups than the actions of these powerful (paid) political figures, what conceivable argument is there for not prosecuting Dean, Giuliani, and the rest of them for providing "material support for Terrorism"? What they are providing to MEK is the definitive "material support." Although these activities (along with those of the above-listed prosecuted Muslims) should be protected free speech, the U.S. Government has repeatedly imprisoned people for it. Indeed, as Georgetown Law Professor David Cole noted, these activities on behalf of MEK are clearly prosecutable as "material support for Terrorism" under the standard advocated by the Bush and Obama DOJs and accepted by the Supreme Court in the Holder v. Humanitarian Law case of 2009, which held that even peaceful advocacy on behalf of a Terrorist group can be prosecuted if done in coordination with the group (ironically, many of these paid MEK supporters have long been advocates of broad application of "material support" statutes (when applied to Muslims, that is) and have even praised the Humanitarian Law case). If we had anything even remotely approaching equal application of the law, Dean, Giuliani, Townsend and the others would be facing prosecution as Terrorist-helpers.
Then there's long been the baffling question of where MEK was getting all of this money to pay these American officials. Indeed, the pro-MEK campaign has been lavishly funded. As the CSM noted: "Besides the string of well-attended events at prestigious American hotels and locations, and in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin, the campaign has included full-page advertisements in The New York Times and Washington Post -- which can cost $175,000 apiece." MEK is basically little more than a nomadic cult: after they sided with Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, they were widely loathed in Iran and their 3,400 members long lived in camps in Iraq, but the Malaki government no longer wants them there. How has this rag-tag Terrorist cult of Iranian dissidents, who are largely despised in Iran, able to fund such expensive campaigns and to keep U.S. officials on its dole?
All of these mysteries received substantial clarity from an NBC News report by Richard Engel and Robert Windrem yesterday. Citing two anonymous "senior U.S. officials," that report makes two amazing claims: (1) that it was MEK which perpetrated the string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and (2) the Terrorist group "is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service." These senior officials also admitted that "the Obama administration is aware of the assassination campaign" but claims it "has no direct involvement." Iran has long insisted the Israel and the U.S. are using MEK to carry out Terrorist attacks on its soil, including the murder of its scientists, and NBC notes that these acknowledgments "confirm charges leveled by Iran’s leaders" (MEK issued a statement denying the report).
If these senior U.S. officials are telling the truth, there are a number of vital questions and conclusions raised by this. First, it would mean that the assurances by MEK's paid American shills such as Howard Dean that "they are unarmed" are totally false: whoever murdered these scientists is obviously well-armed. Second, this should completely gut the effort to remove MEK from the list of designated Terrorist groups; after all, murdering Iran's scientists through the use of bombs and guns is a defining act of a Terror group, at least as U.S. law attempts to define the term. Third, this should forever resolve the debate in which I was involved last month about whether the attack on these Iranian scientists constitutes Terrorism; as Daniel Larison put it yesterday: "If true, the murders of Iranian nuclear scientists with bombs have been committed by a recognized terrorist group. Can everyone acknowledge at this point that these attacks were acts of terrorism?"
Fourth, and most important: if this report is true, is this not definitive proof that Israel is, by definition, a so-called state sponsor of Terrorism? Leaving everything else aside, if Israel, as NBC reports, has "financed, trained and armed" a group officially designated by the U.S. Government as a Terrorist organization, isn't that the definitive act of how one becomes an official "state sponsor of Terrorism"? Amazingly, as Daniel Larison notes, one of the people who most vocally attacked me for labeling the murder of Iranian scientists as "Terrorism" and for generally arguing that Terrorism is a meaningless, cynically applied term -- Commentary's Jonathan Tobin -- yesterday issued a justification for why Israel should be working with Terrorist groups like MEK. As Larison wrote about Tobin's article:
In other words, Israeli state sponsorship of a terrorist group is acceptable because it’s in a good cause. . . . Because Israel is overreacting to a perceived threat from Iran, Tobin believes it is entirely defensible for Israel to partner with a recognized terrorist group. In other words, Tobin believes that terrorism is “entirely defensible” so long as it is committed by the right people and directed at the right targets. It’s as if he is going out of his way to vindicate Glenn Greenwald.
Of course, as I documented in my last book, those who are politically and financially well-connected are free to commit even the most egregious crimes; for that reason, the very idea of prosecuting Giuliani, Rendell, Ridge, Townsend, Dean and friends for their paid labor on behalf of a Terrorist group is unthinkable, a suggestion not fit for decent company, even though powerless Muslims have been viciously prosecuted for far less egregious connections to such groups. But this incident also underscores the specific point that the term Terrorism is so completely meaningless, manipulated and mischievous: it's just a cynical term designed to delegitimize violence and even political acts undertaken by America's enemies while shielding from criticism the actual Terrorism undertaken by itself and its allies. The spectacle whereby a designated Terrorist group can pay top American politicians to advocate for them even as they engage in violent Terrorist acts, all while being trained, funded and aided by America's top client state, should forever end the controversy over that glaringly obvious proposition.
* * * * *
Four notes: (1) The book event I did with Noam Chomsky last November in Boston will be broadcast several times this weekend on C-SPAN; the schedule is here; (2) The New Zealand political journal Listener has an interview and profile of me and With Liberty and Justice for Some; (3) the video for two of the civil liberties events I did this week are now online: this one at Indiana University/Purdue and this one from Columbia University; and (4) I'll be the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the ACLU in Idaho tomorrow night; ticket information is here.
* * * * *
According to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a NATO airstrike yesterday in Afghanistan killed 8 children. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar yesterday patiently explained that drone strikes -- which Americans widely support, including American liberals -- are "completely illegal and unlawful" and "counterproductive" because they "fuel terrorism," since people tend to become quite angry at the foreign power which slaughters their children, their spouses, their parents, their neighbors, etc., i.e., for every Terrorist the U.S. allegedly kills, it creates five more people wanting to attack the U.S. (see her answers to the two questions beginning at 4:30):