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It's Time to Lift the 'Terror Tag' From Iranian Opposition Group MEK

As a retired Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, you could say I have a soft spot for a good crime story. Here’s one that would make anyone’s spine tingle: a secret U.S. government document emerges that asserts a friendly foreign organization is planning to conduct multiple terrorist attacks. Sounds like best-seller material. The only problem is that someone put this purely fictitious tale on the non-fiction shelf, with dangerous implications.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon announce a decision on a court-mandated review of the status of Iran’s main opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq's (MEK). The group was classified as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO) during the Clinton administration at the request of the Iranian government in a futile effort to placate the mullahs in Tehran whom Clinton believed were open to negotiations (the group had a violent past against the Iranian regime).

Today, the organization has strong bipartisan support in both the U.S. House and Senate. The poisonous “terror tag” has been removed by both the United Kingdom and the European Union years ago, yet it remains in place the United States, a naive and inhumane bit of leverage against the Iranian regime, who hate the idea of an organized democratic opposition.  

Meanwhile, the MEK has provided accurate intelligence to the U.S. regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its deadly meddling in Iraq.  

U.S. counter-terrorism professionals—including the former heads of the FBI and the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff--are perplexed that an organization that has provided so much assistance to the United States still remains listed as an "FTO." To many of us who have dedicated our lives to fighting terrorism, the removal of the MEK from the FTO list is as necessary as it is certain.

Enter the “document”.

With the State Department’s imminent decision, a number of detractors of the MEK have engaged in a last ditch campaign to hype a November 2004 document which they claim is an “FBI Report,” as evidence that the MEK was planning terrorist acts. I’ve seen the so-called “report.” I, myself, have written reports on terrorist organizations. And believe me, this amateurish collection of vague and unsubstantiated charges is no FBI “report.”

The document, known in FBI parlance as a "Letterhead Memorandum (LHM)," indicated the FBI was investigating individuals with ties to the MEK in a “criminal” investigation, not a “terrorism” investigation. It has no author and no FBI file number, making its validity highly questionable. After further examination, the LHM is actually comprised of two completely separate documents, pasted together.

The cover page of the LHM (dated November 2004) was prepared by the Los Angeles Office of the FBI as part of its criminal investigations about individuals with alleged ties with the MEK. 

In a recent article, Trita Parsi, an Iranian-American critic of the MEK, claims that the “FBI Report” finds that the MEK “continued to plan terrorist acts at least three years after they claimed to renounce terrorism.” But, there is nothing in the LHM that substantiates that claim as it focuses clearly on criminal matters -- such as immigration smuggling by a number of Iranian nationals.

The LHM fails to make any reference to a single “terrorist” activity after 2001. And, some of the alleged incidents described as terrorism amount to nothing more than Iranian exiles pelting rotten eggs at Iranian regime officials on foreign trips. Incredibly, one of the examples and criteria of “past terrorist activities” is: “June 1981, the MEK began large scale protests against Khomeini.”

The second portion of the LHM, which appears to be clipped from a completely different document, is apparently meant to be a guide for agents to conduct field interviews. It begins by saying, “In anticipation of potential interviews of Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) members who are detained in Iraq, the following is a guide...that may prove helpful in interviews.” 

This document could not have been prepared in November 2004 because the “potential” interviews were actually already completed by that time (as mentioned earlier in the LHM). 

Roughly seven months before the document’s date, in May 2004, several different U.S. government agencies, including the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security and Treasury (as well as the CIA, the FBI, and the DIA), completed their interviews with the members of the MEK residing in Camp Ashraf, Iraq. As a result of these interviews, the U.S. government granted the MEK members at Camp Ashraf ‘protected persons’ status under the Fourth Geneva Convention after finding “no basis to charge any member of the group with the violation of American law,” according to the New York Times

The section in the LHM entitled “Current Terrorist Activity” refers to purported investigations of alleged “telephone calls” discussing “acts of terrorism.” If “telephone calls” were used as justification to label “terrorist activity” the LHM would have been labeled “SECRET” or “Terrorism Investigation” versus “Criminal Investigation.” 

Citing a Canadian newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, the LHM charges that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were being hidden in Camp Ashraf, the besieged home of the MEK in Iraq. However, ten years after the invasion of Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction have been discovered anywhere in Iraq, let alone at Camp Ashraf.

The very existence of a public FBI LHM is suspect; the FBI and intelligences agencies are not known for providing investigative information to the public.

The MEK shares an important objective with the U.S.; to support democratic change in Iran that would bring human rights protection and freedom for its citizens. The MEK’s removal from the FTO list would show Western support for the Iranian people and their desire for freedom. Delisting the MEK would strengthen America’s hand in its complex relationship with Tehran and would be of material assistance in achieving U.S. regional and international goals of combating terrorism and halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

The MEK’s listing is, and has always been, about politics and not national security.  Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI said he and other former U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic leaders would not have spoken in favor of the MEK “if there was some secret, classified magic bullet that legally or factually justified keeping this freedom fighting organization on the list. There is none.”

The FTO list is an important tool in combating terrorism, but its designations must stand to reason. If due process is completed in an impartial and objective manner and not influenced by the likes of an unsubstantiated, amateurish cut-and-paste job like the LHM, then it would lead to delisting the MEK.

Richard R. Schoeberl has over 16 years of counterintelligence, terrorism, and law enforcement experience. Mr. Schoeberl is a retired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent where his experience ranged from service as a field agent to leadership responsibilities in executive positions at FBI Headquarters and the National Counterterrorism Center where he provided oversight to the United States international counterterrorism effort. Mr. Schoeberl held collateral duties in the FBI as an FBI Certified Instructor and a member of the FBI SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) program. >