The Cable

Meet The Weird, Super-Connected Group That's Mucking Up U.S. Talks With Iraq

When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki begins a three day official visit to Washington today, he'll face predictable questions about Iran, Syria, and Iraq's own political instability and soaring violence. Top lawmakers, however, will press him on a very different issue: the recent killings of dozens of members of a former terrorist group that the Iraqi government had promised -- and failed -- to protect.

The Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, is the most powerful lobby you've never heard of, and probably the most unusual. It has used a combination of political savvy and seemingly bottomless pools of money to persuade many prominent lawmakers and former officials from the Bush and Obama administrations that it has broad support within Iran and could help turn the country into a democracy. Along the way, it's gone from being as seen as a group responsible for the deaths of at least six Americans to one that is a vital partner in the effort to overthrow Iran's theocratic regime.

MEK supporters like New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, say they want to punish the Maliki government for an attack on an MEK compound called Camp Ashraf last month that left that killed at least 50 of its members. During an October 3rd hearing, Menendez told Wendy Sherman, the number three official at the State Department, that he would suspend U.S. weapons sales to Iraq until more was done to protect the MEK members at the base.

Vice President Biden discussed the MEK issue when he spoke with Maliki Wednesday morning, according to a senior administration official.  The official said Baghdad wanted the MEK to leave Iraq, but said the U.S. government had no credible information that the Iraqi government was involved in the September attack on Camp Ashraf.  Still, the official said that Washington worried that the group’s roughly 2,900 members would be in danger until they could be moved to new homes in other countries.  The problem, he said, was that Albania and Germany were the only nations that have so far been willing to take in even small numbers of MEK followers. 

 

Menendez aides say the senator, for his part, plans to specifically raise the Iraqi government’s treatment of the MEK members, along with his concern that Baghdad is allowing Iran to use its airspace to fly weapons and fighters to Syria, when he sits down with Maliki later Wednesday.

"It is unacceptable to lose one more life when American commanders gave these individuals a written guarantee toward their safety and it sends a message to others in the world that when we say that we are going to do that and we do not, that they should not trust us," he said at the time. "I doubt very much that we are going to see any approval of any weapons sales to Iraq until we get this situation in a place in which people's lives are saved."

The MEK has also enlisted prominent retired officials to tout its cause in public speeches and private meetings at the State Department and on Capitol Hill. Its long list of supporters includes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Attorney General Mike Mukasey, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, retired Marine General Jim Jones, Obama's first national security advisor, and retired Army General Hugh Shelton, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

MEK advocates like Rendell receive up to $30,000 per speech, which means many have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the group. Rendell, in an interview, said he genuinely believed in the group's cause and wasn't in it for the money. He said that he and MEK advocates like Jones and former FBI Director Louis Freeh have spent hundreds of hours personally lobbying the State Department and members of Congress on behalf of the group and had done so pro bono. Rendell said he bills $1,000 per hour as a lawyer, which meant that had foregone significant amounts of money to aid the group.

"The U.S. had promised to guarantee their safety and then just stood aside when they were massacred, gangster style," he said in the interview. "It's disgusting."

Rendell helped draft a letter to Obama last week that demanded U.S. assistance for the MEK members still stuck at Camp Ashraf. In the letter, obtained by FP, MEK's advocates said the killings at Camp Ashraf was a "premeditated mass murder planned at the highest level and executed by Iraqi forces and agents, using equipment and training provided by U.S. forces."

"We urge you to allow all of the Camp Liberty residents to be evacuated immediately from Iraq, using United States forces, and brought to safety in a United States Government supported facility," the letter read. Until that happened, the group argued, the Obama administration should "suspend any aid or sale of arms to Iraq."

For the moment, that's not a step the White House is prepared to take. Bernadette Meehan, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said the administration was "deeply concerned" about the safety of the MEK members at Camp Ashraf and consistently pressed the the Iraqi government to do as much as possible to protect them. Still, she said that delaying weapons sales to Iraq could do more harm than good.

"U.S. security assistance, and foreign military sales in particular, are tools that we use for building and shaping Iraq's defense capabilities and integrating Iraqi security forces with our security forces and regional partners," Meehan said. "Withholding security assistance may well serve to decrease our influence in Baghdad, our ability to seed relationships, and provide leverage for strategic competitors who will fill the vacuum and could conceivably damage our long-term interests."

Administration officials said the president would discuss a range of regional and security issues with Maliki when the Iraqi leader visits the White House Friday but declined to say whether the president planned to specifically raise the MEK issue.

Either way, the MEK's prominent role in the U.S.-Iraqi relationship represents a remarkable turnaround for a group that was once held responsible for a string of bombings and assassinations inside Iran that killed at least six Americans, including the deputy chief of the U.S. military mission to Iran and a senior Texaco executive. It was also linked to the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In 1997, the State Department designated the group a "foreign terrorist organization," a move that imposed strict financial sanctions against the MEK. The MEK's current leadership has long denied any involvement in the killings or the seizure of the embassy.

The group's relationship with Washington improved dramatically after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The MEK group gave up its weapons and formed a warm relationship with senior American commanders, who gave the group formal promises of protection. Last month, however, masked gunmen with military-quality weapons swept into an MEK compound outside Baghdad, killed roughly 50 of its members and abducted seven others. Grisly videos released by the MEK showed the corpses of men who were shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs. The group's supporters here at home immediately accused Maliki's government of orchestrating the attack, something Baghdad denies, and called for it to be sanctioned in response.

The MEK's power in Washington surprises many experts on the group, who describe it as a cult that exerts tremendous power over the daily lives of its followers.

Jeremiah Goulka, a former RAND researcher who has made repeated visits to Camp Ashraf, said MEK leaders physical cut their members off from the outside world, limit their access to outside newspapers or TV stations, and enforce gender segregation and celibacy. He said the MEK required its followers to attend regular sessions where they were forced to admit whether they had sexual thoughts. Those that admitted to them were publicly humiliated, while those that denied having them were derided as liars and criticized anyway.

"That's the definition of how a cult works," he said.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the group had little support back home because ordinary Iranians were nationalists troubled by both the MEK's vaguely socialist ideology and its past relationship with Saddam Hussein, which funded the group's operations for decades. Many outside experts believe the MEK is still drawing from the pools of money it received from the former Iraqi leader.

"What keeps them in the news are their deep pockets," Sadjadpour said. "Once those deep pockets run out they're basically going to be rendered irrelevant."

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Cable

Intel Vets: Of Course Obama Knew About NSA Spying

Everyone from the president to the lawmakers who are supposed to oversee the National Security Agency claim they had no idea it was spying on the communications of dozens of foreign leaders. But that claim is laughable, according to veteran members of the intelligence community, former White House advisers, and now one of the NSA's main overseers in Congress.

A former White House official, who served in a prior administration, said it was essentially impossible that the president wouldn't know foreign leaders were being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, and principally the NSA, as part of regular operations aimed at keeping him informed about diplomatic relations and negotiations. Information on foreign leaders that is based on recorded calls or other signals intelligence is "unique," the former official said, and its nature is obvious to anyone reading or hearing an intelligence report or receiving a briefing.

"If you saw it, you'd know that it came out of somebody's mouth," the former official said. "I cannot believe that [Obama's national security staff] didn't brief the president on foreign leaders when he was going in to visit with them." Much of that information would have comes from signals intelligence. And the failure to inform the president that a piece of information came from spying on a leader could be a fireable offense, the former White House official said. "It's almost a dereliction not to tell him."

At a hearing Tuesday about whether to modify current surveillance law that governs the NSA's activities, a clearly frustrated Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, all but admitted that the NSA had revealed to members of his committee the details of an operation that targeted the personal communications of as many as 35 heads of state and government. And if his colleagues didn't know it, Rogers implied, they weren't paying attention.

Rogers said the committee is privy to huge amount of information on U.S. spying, including a list of priority intelligence topics that is approved and modified by the president and his advisers and sets out the parameters of U.S. intelligence gathering. And, he said, committee members have access to "sources and methods" of spying, as well as "mounds of material" about the fruits of intelligence.

In a testy exchange with Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who questioned why the committee had not been informed that the NSA had intercepted the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Rogers fired back that the committee had been kept in the loop and that if Schiff hadn't read the reports he had no one to blame but himself.

"To make the case that somehow we are in the dark is mystifying to me," Rogers said. "Some members spend a lot more time on this committee than others based on their schedules, which are significant in this Congress. But it is disingenuous to imply that this committee did not have a full and complete understanding of activities of the intelligence community."

Asked directly by Schiff whether he was aware that the NSA had targeted the phone calls of foreign leaders, Rogers refused to confirm a specific operation but emphasized that "we have access to all sources and methods, and there is lots of product to be reviewed by the intelligence committee."

"We would be happy to take you down to the committee and spend a couple of hours going through mounds of product that would allow a member to be as informed as a member wishes to be on sources and methods," a clearly frustrated Rogers told Schiff.

Asked if Rogers had just confirmed knowledge of the NSA operations spying on foreign leaders, a spokesperson said, "The chairman's comment speaks for itself."

Former government officials with long experience in the intelligence community said they doubted that President Obama didn't have some idea that Merkel's and other leaders' communications were being monitored in some capacity, even if he didn't know the specifics of those operations.

President Obama doesn't approve particular methods of surveillance or select its targets, and his daily intelligence briefing is filled with more reports on national security threats -- such as terrorism or Iran's nuclear program -- than it is information about allies.

"As a general matter, it's not reasonable to expect that the president would have been involved in or necessarily briefed on decisions about individual intelligence targets; rather, he approves a set of intelligence priorities, and then it's the responsibility of his administration to determine how to carry those out," said a senior administration official.

At the hearing,  Rep. Michele Bachmann asked intelligence officials to what extent the White House is kept informed of surveillance operations such as the one that targeted Merkel. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said that National Security Council officials responsible for a particular country are typically informed of operations in their area of responsibility. Pressed by Bachmann whether intelligence reports presented to the president and his staff might include sourcing information that would have made them aware that Merkel's phone was being tapped, Clapper claimed that it would be "unlikely and unrealistic" that the reports would go into the level of detail to reveal sources.

But the provenance of the intelligence the president receives is not a mystery. "[Obama] doesn't have time to get a briefing on every aspect" of NSA intelligence gathering, said a former U.S. government official. "But Merkel is someone he talks to and meets with regularly. There's no way that before a call, say in advance of a G8 meeting, he's not going to ask his national security adviser, 'What's Merkel's position?'"

And when a president asks such a question, he doesn't expect his advisers to speculate. He wants to know what information they've received from the intelligence agencies, among other sources.

It's also unlikely that foreign officials were surprised to learn that their communications were being monitored by the United States. Foreign leaders have reacted with a mix of offense and outrage to revelations of NSA spying. In Germany, protesters have marched in the streets, and Merkel personally called Obama to express her anger at having her phone tapped.

But there is an element of theater in these protests.

"A lot of what I believe the Europeans are publicly saying about this is mostly for their public support. I think they want their people to have an understanding that they're infuriated," said Bob Stasio, a former intelligence community official. "There's no doubt in my mind that those folks in those positions know everything is fair game. This is what countries do."

As for professed outrage among some U.S. officials, Stasio called it "a microcosm of the European reaction. I can't say they were specifically aware of which people were targeted. But they had to have some idea conceptually that this was going on. That's what the [NSA] is authorized to do," said Stasio, now the CEO of Ronin Analytics, a cybersecurity company.

In light of that reality, intelligence experts were especially mystified by a scathing rebuke of the NSA issued yesterday by one of its staunchest defenders, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Feinstein said she was "totally opposed" to spying on U.S. allies and was outraged to learn it had been happening for more than a decade.

"Don't get me started on that," said another former U.S. government official who is deeply familiar with intelligence issues, adding that Feinstein, who is privy to classified intelligence reports, should have known where the information was coming from. "It's as if your spouse shows up with a big bag of money and it never occurs to you to ask: ‘Hey, I wonder how he got all this cash," the former official said. "She's not doing it in bad faith. It just never dawned on her, apparently. Except, how long has she been chairman now?"

It was "certainly plausible" that Obama didn't know specifically about the NSA tapping Merkel's phone, the former official said. "It's one thing to recognize that certain types of collection are taking place. It's another to understand their scale and scope." But, the former official continued, "Ask yourself this: Do you think the French try to spy on President Obama? Of course they do! We presume he's a target to friendly and hostile nations alike -- any country with an intelligence apparatus."

The senior administration official, without specifying details about who knew what and when, said that Obama "feels strongly about making sure that we are collecting information not just because we can, but because we should."

As for signals intelligence, and where it fits into the mix, the official said it was just one piece. The president doesn't rely solely on that source, and in the case of allies, information used to prepare him for meeting with leaders "comes mostly from the fact that we have regular and frank interactions with our counterparts every day through our embassy and from here. We know what they are thinking because we talk to them about it."