Chris McGreal in Washington
Tuesday 22 May 2012
A banned terrorist group is conducting what members of Congress describe as one of the most effective lobbying campaigns seen on Capitol Hill, winning support from politicians even in the face of a government investigation of its legality.
Former heads of the CIA, FBI, homeland security and the US military have joined members of Congress of both major parties in backing a legal action by the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran, known as the MEK, to be removed from the US list of proscribed terrorist organisations.
But the openness of the campaign and the large amounts of money backing it, with donations to congressional campaign funds and large payments for speeches in support of the MEK, has prompted an investigation into potential breaches of laws against financial dealings with banned organisations and whether the campaign amounts to material support for terrorism.
Among those under investigation are the former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Hugh Shelton, the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Michael Mukasey, who, as attorney-general, oversaw the prosecution of terrorism cases.
The heavyweight political backing for the MEK has surprised some US officials because of the organisation’s past as a Marxist-Islamist group responsible for the killing of Americans. At one time the MEK supported the Islamic revolution in Iran.
But some critics contend that if the MEK’s supporters were not so powerful, they would face the same treatment as that meted out to less influential Americans jailed after being convicted of supporting terrorism for actions such as offering conflict resolution advice, donating money for schools and rebroadcasting a Hezbollah television station.
Reza Marashi, a former official on the US state department’s Iran desk who was part of the team that reviewed evidence against the MEK and regards the terrorism designation as appropriate, said he is astonished that the group is able to operate so openly.
“My former government colleagues are bewildered by the freedom of movement that a designated terrorist organisation enjoys on Capitol Hill. They’re disgusted by former US government officials willing to make a quick buck by shilling for the MEK,” said Marashi, who is now research director for the National Iranian American Council. “Do we really want to open the door to other terrorist organisations to spend millions of dollars lobbying to get off the terrorist list?”
Among those campaigning for the MEK to be unbanned are former CIA director James Woolsey; former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani; ex-homeland security chief Tom Ridge; and Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, James Jones.
Cole said he believes that Americans should be free to speak in favour of unbanning the MEK. But he regards it as hypocritical for officials to criminalise similar actions by others.
“The MEK has demonstrated through very, very generous contracts that if you can get a lot of powerful people to speak up for you, you might succeed in getting yourself off the list,” he said. “You need only compare this to the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation in Dallas, Texas, which was the largest Muslim charity in the United States prior to 9/11. By basically giving aid to build schools and provide healthcare to organisations that were not designated as terrorist, these individuals had committed the crime of supporting terrorism and are spending 65 years in prison.
“There are plenty of people sitting in jail today who were initially investigated by treasury but ultimately prosecuted by the justice department. That said, the people sitting in jail are not people with the power and the connections that Michael Mukasey, Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, Louis Freeh and Rudi Giuliani have.
“The reality is that people like that are very unlikely to be criminally prosecuted, whereas people without that power and without those connections will be prosecuted and have been. There’s clearly a double standard.”