The Department of Treasury is investigating payments to three former top-ranking government officials for speaking on behalf of a group on the U.S. terrorist list. The three are among nearly two dozen prominent former officials who have received up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees in exchange for their efforts on behalf of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK). Additionally, a current State Department Ambassador has used these contacts to send messages to MEK representatives. While it remains unclear where the money originated and how much each official received, the payments and contact may violate the federal prohibition on providing “material support” to a listed terrorist group.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton, all publicly campaigned to remove the MEK from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. Their publicists received subpoenas from Treasury in late February and early March 2012. The New York Times reports that the former high ranking government officials received about $20-30,000 per speech and a variety of perks, including first-class airfare to European cities.
Rendell told the Washington Times that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a subpoena to his representatives on Feb. 29, 2012 seeking “transactional records about what payments we received for speaking fees.” He has publicly stated that he has received as much as $160,000 for making at least seven speeches since July 2011 calling for the MEK to be taken off the terrorist list, and was told the money came from Iranian-American supporters of the MEK. On March 16, 2012 MSNBC reported that representatives for Freeh and Shelton had also received subpoenas for records related to talks given over the past year at events sponsored by the MEK.
Rendell said he and other officials have met with Maryam Rajavi, the group’s Paris-based leader, and has sent emails to her staff. He also revealed that there have been weekly conference calls among a “core group” of former senior officials participating in the lobbying effort, including former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. And it has been reported that current State Department Ambassador Daniel Fried, the special envoy for detainee related matters, participated in some of these phone calls “urging the pro-MEK members to pass along messages to MEK leaders in Paris.”
U.S. law prohibits giving to or receiving funds from a listed terrorist group. It is also illegal to advocate on behalf of a designated terrorist group if that advocacy is coordinated with them. In a June, 21 2010 decision the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (HLP), voting 6-3 in support of a broad interpretation of the material support statute. As a result the law criminalizes providing of not only cash and other tangible aid, but also coordinating speech with a designated terrorist group. David Cole, a Georgetown Law Professor who represented the plaintiffs during the HLP case, wrote on the New York Times website the day of the decision, that this was the first time the Court had ruled “that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolent activity can be made a crime, and that any coordination with a blacklisted group” can be prosecuted as a felony, punishable by 15 years in prison.
On March 11, 2012 Cole told the Washington Times that his believes that individuals have a “First Amendment right to speak out freely” for an organization like the MEK, but that the Supreme Court’s decision makes it a “crime to engage in any transaction, which would certainly include getting paid to do public relations for them.”
John Sullivan, a Treasury spokesman, responding to media inquiries declined to comment about specific allegations in the investigation, but said “the MEK is a designated terrorist group; therefore, U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with or providing services to this group. The Treasury Department takes sanctions enforcement seriously and routinely investigates potential violations of sanctions laws.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the MEK denied the group has paid senior former U.S. officials. “The objective of this failed propaganda is to weaken the widespread public support of the members of Congress, officials and scores of U.S. generals for … revoking of the illegitimate and unjust terror listing of the MEK.”
The questions surrounding the former officials’ payments and actions have caught the interest of many Washington analysts. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald wrote an extensive piece on the MEK’s supporters, saying:
“Even for official Washington, where elite crimes are tolerated as a matter of course, this level of what appears to be overt criminality — taking large amounts of money from a designated Terrorist group, appearing before its meetings, meeting with its leaders, then advocating on its behalf — is too much to completely overlook.”
Additionally, Greenwald says use of the “material support” law to prosecute Muslim-Americans with fewer connections to designated groups has become routine:
“What’s infuriating is that there are large numbers of people — almost always Muslims — who have been prosecuted and are now in prison for providing “material support” to Terrorist groups for doing far less than Fran Townsend and her fellow cast of bipartisan ex-officials have done with and on behalf of MEK.”
Kay Guinane, Director of the Charity and Security Network, blogged about these efforts to de-list the MEK in January 2011. She said these former officials are right to be concerned about flaws in the designation process, which lack an appeals process and sufficient transparency and oversight. “U.S. nonprofit organizations have been struggling with these issues for years,” GUinane said. “Listings made without adequate due process or chance to appeal, based on secret or questionable evidence, do not engender public trust in the process. When they include groups that, like the MEK, have been cleared in other countries, the credibility of the process is further undermined,” she added.
The Hill is reporting that prominent Washington lobbying firms, including Akin Gump, diGenova & Toensing, and Brown Lloyd James, who have received thousands of dollars in exchange for their work to remove the MEK from State’s list of terrorist organizations, have not been subpoenaed by federal authorities.
Victoria Toensing, a founding partner of diGenova & Toensing, said her firm is not expecting to receive a subpoena. The firm was paid $110,000 by the Iranian-American Community of North Texas to work on behalf of the MEK. “Why would I receive a subpoena?” Toensing said. “I was paid by individuals who are Americans and live in Texas. They are not on the terrorist list.” Toensing’s said she was “furious” about the reports that former government officials who have spoken in favor of MEK have been subpoenaed. “They have used government authority to subvert the First Amendment,” she said.
What prompted Treasury to start an investigation nearly a year after the start of the public lobbying effort, that included nationally aired TV commercials, is not clear. Reporter Michael Isikoff from NBC said it might be related to an email that requested a national security expert to speak in Switzerland on behalf of the “National Council of Resistance of Iran” that was forwarded to the FBI. The National Council of Resistance is considered to be an alias of the MEK.
Among the high-profile officials who have met with or received payments to speak publicly about removing the MEK from State’s list are former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, former White House chief of staff Andy Card, former homeland security advisor Frances Townsend, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Sens. Robert Torricelli and Evan Bayh, former CIA Director Porter Goss, and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.
Despite the public lobbying campaign, the debate surrounding the MEK and its actions remains. Started in 1965 by forces opposing the shah of Iran, the MEK is responsible for terrorist attacks in the 1970s that killed Americans, according to State Dept. The Clinton Administration declared the MEK a terrorist organization in 1997. Today, MEK supporters say the organization is not engaged in violence. The European Union removed the group from its terrorist list in 2009.