The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Official Mudslinging
Published on April 5, 2012

On March 9, Guy Taylor of the Washington Times reported that the Treasury Department earlier in the week began investigating former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell for trafficking with terrorists. Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy picked up the story a day earlier.  Apart from a New York Times article on March 13, attention to the matter in the major media has been muted.  This is curious given the events of the past several months both in Iraq and the United States.

The purported problem? Accepting fees for giving speeches in support of humane treatment of the residents at Camp Ashraf in Iraq and advocating the removal of the Ashraf residents’ organization, the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization list. MEK, now stateless Iranians who are not everyone’s (or maybe anyone’s) cup of tea, has opposed the current Iranian regime since 1979 and claims to have had 100,000 supporters killed by the Iranian government.

By now, you will have noticed that Rendell is not the only advocate for MEK around.  He’s been joined over the past year by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former National Security Adviser James Jones, former CIA director R. James Woolsey, and a score of others.  And you will have noticed television and newspaper ads in support of getting MEK off the FTO list.

Truth would out, there has been a strongly worded Congressional resolution, as well as public statements from the European and British parliaments, protesting the treatment of Ashraf residents by the UN and Iraqis and urging that the State Department “delist” the MEK.  And the U.S. Courts are also involved.  In 2010, the Federal Court of Appeals – DC, gave the State Department 180 days to take MEK off the list or show the reason why it would not do so.  Nothing happened.  In February, MEK went back to the same court for a writ of mandamus.  The court gave the State Department until March 26 to fish or cut bait.

The State Department did respond to the Court of Appeals on March 26, though not in such a way as to move matters forward.  Reuters reported that State had requested that the court deny the MEK suit and withdraw the order to delist MEK or otherwise respond.

So far, the stories on this matter have focused on the propriety of former U.S. public officials speaking out and being reimbursed for their trouble. But the real story is much bigger—and it’s a disaster in the making for the U.S. government.

On February 17, the Iraqi government began transferring residents of Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty, an abandoned U.S. base nearer to Baghdad.  What the transferees found there was truly appalling.  Insufficient drinking water, almost no electricity, and a non-functioning sewer system.  The camp had been looted and stripped long since and had been left that way.  Despite what they found and the fact that the Iraqis would not allow them to purchase and import the tools necessary to fix the most egregious problems, 397 members of MEK accepted the transfer and others did not resist a second transfer of around the same number on March 8.  They could hardly have caused trouble: They gave up their arms to the U.S. military in 2003 and were isolated at Ashraf thereafter, watched closely by Americans, then Iraqis.

In 2004, the Ashraf detainees were declared to be under the protection of Geneva Convention by the United States.  An extensive screening had been undertaken by the military, consulting with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and all 3,800 residents were cleared of terrorist connections and issued promissory letters and ID cards in English and Arabic stating that they were under the protection of the United States.  You can, as we did, ask Brig. Gen. David Philips about all that.  If you do, you’ll understand why his name appears among the public supporters of delisting MEK. 

In September 2011, the UNHCR designated the Ashraf residents as refugees and asylum-seekers.

MEK was prepared to begin the move to Camp Liberty by December 30, 2011.  However, in early January MEK’s representatives in Paris and its eminent European supporters began to worry about the state of Camp Liberty, sending letters to Ban Ki-Moon, UNHCR, Secretary of State Clinton and others.  The United Nations Aid Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) got into the act, and on January 31 certified Camp Liberty as meeting minimum humanitarian standards.  The certification job was clearly botched.  Some think that UNAMI caved in to Iraqi pressure. Iraq, incidentally, publicly admitted that it was under pressure from Tehran.

On February 29, during House Foreign Affairs Committee budgetary hearings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was questioned by congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Ted Poe about the Camp Liberty news and the status of the State Department’s review of MEK as a terrorist organization.

In response to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s question regarding the status of the MEK FTO review, Secretary Clinton told the House committee that

MEK’s cooperation in a relocation plan from its paramilitary base on the Iran-Iraq border will be a key factor in any decision on whether to take it off the U.S. List of foreign terrorist organizations. The United States will help ensure the safety and security of the camp’s residents as they are moved to another site inside Iraq.

Rohrabacher raised MEK’s argument that its current FTO status makes it difficult to establish refugee status for MEK members and secure places for them in states other than Iraq or Iran. Clinton rejected the suggestion, saying that no country has raised the issue of the MEK’s terrorist designation with the State Department. And she backed an Iraqi relocation plan that has already taken 397 camp residents to their new, temporary home at the former U.S. Camp Liberty.

“There were complications but it was peaceful,” Clinton told lawmakers in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “There was no violence. The safety [sic] so far has been protected and we are watching that very closely.”

Clinton argued that each individual from Camp Ashraf has to be treated separately, both regarding refugee status and as potential threats.  This is because, according to her, Ashraf does not only contain members of MEK—despite the fact that Ashraf residents had been screened and cleared by the United States in 2004 and the camp has gained no residents since.

In remarks prefatory to his questions, Congressman Poe mentioned his latest visit to Iraq, at which time he and others in the delegation asked Prime Minister Maliki if they could visit Camp Ashraf.  According to Poe, Maliki’s response was “absolutely not.” Maliki then said that “your country has designated them an FTO organization and we are treating them as such.”

Poe’s principal question to Secretary Clinton was whether the United States would take in individuals now in Camp Liberty.  Implied in his remarks was also the question as to where the delisting review stood and whether the closing of Camp Ashraf was the quid pro quo for delisting MEK.

Secretary Clinton did not respond to Poe’s principal question.  The remainder of her statement involved a reiteration of the U.S. hope to avoid bloodshed and violence and an indication that the “processing” of Ashraf residents is a UN responsibility. She said that she would have preferred to have them processed at Camp Ashraf, but that this had turned out to be impossible for a number of reasons.  She did not specify them.  Clinton said that the move to Camp Liberty should accelerate the refugee processing and that the U.S. was seeing progress regarding the conditions at the new camp.

The Secretary closed her remarks with a reiteration of her previous statement that the closing of Camp Ashraf was “very important” to the delisting review.

The foregoing is the backdrop to the “Ed Rendell, et al.: trafficking with terrorists” story.

While Guy Taylor’s approach to the Washington Times story was fairly straightforward, it did contain unchallenged statements from Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

“Everyone on Capital Hill knows that, once on the terrorist list, the MEK could no longer lobby under their own name, so they created organizations with the same individuals and used those organizations, which are not on the terrorist list, to do the lobbying,” said Mr. Parsi.

“That includes giving money to U.S. officials to speak on their behalf and speak in support of the MEK while pretending that the money is not coming from the MEK.”

Taylor noted that the website of NIAC maintains a list of groups it claims are raising money for MEK, and he quoted Parsi as saying that the State Department had privately told him that MEK sets up shell organizations to raise money.

At Foreign Policy, Josh Rogin held forth in a manner highly suggestive of a private briefing from the State Department.  He reported that officials had told him that “the group’s American advocates have now become a major obstacle in the international effort to move the MEK to a new home in Iraq and avoid a bloody clash with the Iraqi military.”

Rogin also said:

The United Nations and the U.S. government have worked tirelessly in recent months to avoid a violent clash between the MEK and the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is determined to oust the MEK from Camp Ashraf, where more than 3,000 members of the group, many of them suspected to be armed, have lived for years. Two previous attempts by the Iraqi government to enter the camp resulted in bloody confrontations.

(A quick aside: Prior to the end of 2009 the U.S. military found not one weapon in Camp Ashraf and that all of the victims of Iraqi incursions into the camp were camp residents.)

After naming big names among MEK supporters, Rogin stuck to the line about their making things harder for the UN and U.S. government. He said he was also told that it was MEK that was trashing Camp Liberty, “literally.”  Since Ashraf residents were permitted to bring next to nothing into the camp it’s hard to imagine they brought trash in.  We’ve seen pictures taken at Camp Liberty after the February 17 transfer.  It’s American trash.

Rogin goes on:

“The Americans who ought to know better and claim to be on the side of good solutions are really damaging it. Either they are too lazy or too arrogant to actually do their homework. They don’t spend the time to learn facts, they just pop off. They accept the MEK line without question and then they posture,” the official said. “We have a plan that has a chance to work and the Iraqis want it to work. The MEK it’s not clear. And in this situation they are being badly advised by the people whose names appear in these ads.”

If viewed from an international perspective, what we seem to have here is the U.S. Department of State against the world.  Where everyone else is worried about the possibility of mistreatment of Camp Ashraf residents by the Iraqis, or even their transfer to Iran, the State Department focuses on the danger of Ed Rendells and Tom Ridges. One wonders how they can possibly believe that the American public will regard the score or so of eminent MEK supporters as a band of misguided, money-grubbing flouters of the rules regarding dealings with designated terrorist organizations.

If anything dire happens to the residents of Camp Ashraf and, now, Camp Liberty, how can State believe that blame will fall on the Rendells and Ridges? Even if all 3,400 MEK members are transferred to the tiny space afforded them at “trashed” Camp Liberty without incident, they remain in jeopardy as long as they remain in Iraq. After disarming, then clearing MEK of terrorist activity and giving camp residents U.S. protection in 2004, the U.S. government shirked that guarantee when we left Iraq in at the end of 2009. We could have, and should have, transported these people out of Iraq and onto U.S. territory prior to our departure. This would hardly have been unprecedented. We, for example, did this with the Vietnamese boat people under our protection in 1975 and have done it numerous other times. 

And we could do it now. Of course, we would anger the Iraqis and, especially, the Iranian mullahs who have been the motive force in pressuring Nur al-Maliki to close Camp Ashraf. The State Department is taking very great risks here. Embarrassment at the idiotic attempt to soil the reputations of eminent Americans and European officials is nothing compared to the physical risks to MEK and the accusations of appeasing Iran that will surely be coming soon in substantial quantity.

K.D.M. Jensen is associate director of the American Center for Demoracy for its Economic Warfare Institute.  Rachel Ehrenfeld is director of ACD and the author of Funding Evil.