Although the dissident Iranian group known as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) has been listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department since 1997, there have been long-standing rumors that it was also being used by the United States as part of its efforts to destabilize the Iranian government.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has been following these allegations for years. Only now, however, does he appear to have pieced the whole story together -- or perhaps the subject has taken on fresh urgency as the result of a vigorous lobbying effort, which spans both political parties, to have MEK taken off the list of terrorist organizations and given open support.
Last August, for example, Christina Wilkie reported at the Huffington Post on a high level pro-MEK presentation:
"Onstage next to former FBI director Louis Freeh," she wrote, "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. ... 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."
Another presentation this past winter included Dean, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.
Wilkie's article raised questions about the lavish funding of these pro-MEK events, and just last month the Treasury Department launched an investigation of that funding, with subpoenas being issued to speaking agencies representing Rendell, Ridge, Freeh, and Shelton.
"The investigation, being conducted by the Treasury Department, is focused on whether the former officials may have received funding, directly or indirectly, from the People's Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK, thereby violating longstanding federal law barring financial dealings with terrorist groups," investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff explained. "The sources, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said that speaking fees given to the former officials total hundreds of thousands of dollars."
"The investigation comes at a time of intense internal debate about the MEK," Isikoff continued, "in part spurred by assertions it could prove a useful ally in pressuring the Iranian government to suspend its nuclear program. NBC News reported recently that MEK operatives, trained by the Israeli Mossad, are believed by some U.S. intelligence officials to have been involved in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists — a report that the group has denied as 'absolutely false.'"
In the context of this ongoing controversy, Hersh's article in the current issue of The New Yorker appears intended as a reminder of some of the more questionable aspects of past U.S. relations with the MEK. He begins by describing the former nuclear test site in a desolate region of Nevada where the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) began secretly training MEK members in 2005.
“We did train them here, and washed them through the Energy Department because the D.O.E. owns all this land in southern Nevada,” a former senior American intelligence official told Hersh. “We were deploying them over long distances in the desert and mountains, and building their capacity in communications."
Hersh was apparently aware of this training as early as 2008, when he told NPR's Terri Gross, "We're funding a group that is on U.S. terrorist list to work against the Iranian government. They've been on the border for years. The enemy of my enemy is my friend (even if they're on our terrorist watch list). This group has had covert training in America (in Nevada)."
More than two years earlier, Raw Story investigative reporter Larisa Alexandrovna had exposed the same connections, writing in April 2006, "The Pentagon is bypassing official US intelligence channels and turning to a dangerous and unruly cast of characters in order to create strife in Iran in preparation for any possible attack, former and current intelligence officials say. One of the operational assets being used by the Defense Department is a right-wing terrorist organization known as Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), which is being 'run' in two southern regional areas of Iran."
According to Hersh's sources, the MEK training continued at least to 2007 but had ended before the start of the Obama administration. A retired four-star general told Hersh that "the men doing the training were from JSOC, which, by 2005, had become a major instrument in the Bush Administration’s global war on terror.
“The JSOC trainers were not front-line guys who had been in the field," the general stated, "but second- and third-tier guys—trainers and the like—and they started going off the reservation. ‘If we’re going to teach you tactics, let me show you some really sexy stuff…' I told one of the guys who called me that they were all in over their heads, and all of them could end up trouble unless they got something in writing. The Iranians are very, very good at counterintelligence, and stuff like this is just too hard to contain.”
“The M.E.K. was a total joke,” a senior Pentagon consultant told Hersh, “and now it’s a real network inside Iran. How did the M.E.K. get so much more efficient? Part of it is the training in Nevada. Part of it is logistical support in Kurdistan, and part of it is inside Iran. M.E.K. now has a capacity for efficient operations that it never had before.”
Photo of Seymour Hersh by Marjorie Lipan via Flickr