A well-financed lobbying campaign by prominent U.S. politicians and former officials on behalf of a designated terrorist organization is focusing new attention on the group and its influential advocates.
Supporters of the Iranian opposition group Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, have met with senior Obama administration officials to push for the organization’s removal from the State Department’s terrorist list and better treatment of its members at a camp in Iraq.
Public appearances on behalf of the MEK by such people as former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell and former Obama national security adviser James L. Jones had already sparked an investigation by the Treasury Department into whether payments of tens of thousands of dollars to some of them violated anti-terrorism laws.
In recent weeks, new questions have been raised about whether private meetings, conference calls and other contact with officials at the State Department and elsewhere in the administration over the past year require the advocates’ registration as lobbyists or agents of a foreign entity.
Under federal law, advocates for foreign organizations are required to register as lobbyists and provide details about their clients and income. But the MEK supporters have not registered, which would require disclosing the amounts they are paid and the identities of officials with whom they meet.
The supporters argue that they are acting legitimately to facilitate U.S. policy decisions, which could make them exempt from registration requirements.
But scholars of lobbying regulations say the contacts with administration officials easily meet the definition of lobbying under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a law that has sometimes led to criminal charges.
“The law applies to anyone engaged in political or lobbying activity — or even propaganda — on behalf of a foreign ‘principal,’ a term that is defined broadly,” said David Cole, a professor and expert on criminal and constitutional law at Georgetown University Law School. “It’s a very low bar.”
The new questions are the latest challenge for the MEK, which has been listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization since 1997 and was linked to the deaths of six Americans in the 1970s.
Trying to reshape image
The MEK has been campaigning for years to get off the terrorist list, including buying advertisements in The Washington Post and other publications. A federal appeals court has given Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton until October to make a decision on whether to remove the group.
At the same time, the MEK and its advocates have been clashing with the Iraqi government over efforts to relocate 3,300 MEK members living in exile at a former Iraqi military base since the mid-1980s.
The MEK has enlisted some of the biggest names in U.S. politics and national security. In addition to Giuliani, Rendell and Jones, the group’s advocates have included former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former Joint Chiefs chairman Hugh Shelton, former U.N. ambassadors John Bolton and Bill Richardson, and Mitchell Reiss, a former State Department official who has been among Republican president candidate Mitt Romney’s top foreign policy advisers since 2008.
Rendell, Giuliani and Mukasey were among 16 prominent former U.S. officials who flew to Paris for a pro-MEK rally last month. Also in Paris was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and Republican presidential candidate. In a video, Gingrich is seen bowing to the MEK’s co-founder. Afterward, Gingrich appealed for “decisive action” by the United States on the group’s behalf.
The MEK and its umbrella group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, denied asking anyone to lobby for them.
The dissidents “have not asked anyone in the United States to advocate for them, nor do they have any agents or lobbyists in that country,” said Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman. He said State Department officials had asked U.S. supporters to intervene to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe” at the MEK’s Iraqi camp, and noted that more than 100 U.S. lawmakers have co-sponsored legislation to remove the MEK from the terrorist list.
Still, some of the MEK’s prominent surrogates have acknowledged accepting travel expenses from MEK-allied groups as well as speaking fees of $10,000 to $40,000 per engagement. Rendell has acknowledged accepting more than $150,000 in expenses from MEK supporters. Before he began speaking on their behalf, he says, he knew very little about the MEK.
The supporters, some of whom have acknowledged intervening on the MEK’s behalf with U.S. officials, say their motives are humanitarian. They say pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi government have attacked the group’s followers since U.S. troops who had protected them left Iraq.