Benjamin’s repeats his defamatory MEK narrative
As the President-elect’s transition team began to vet potential candidates in November for top cabinet posts, several key figures sympathetic to a more firm policy on Iran were reported to be leading contenders. With growing speculation that the new administration will pursue a tougher policy towards Tehran, advocates of the conciliatory approach towards the Iranian regime and the usual detractors of the Tehran’s opponents took to the opinion pages to discourage a change in the current policy of engagement.
They also sought to discredit personalities who were being considered for key positions in the new administration. Among these detractors was Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department official when Hillary Clinton headed Foggy Bottom.
On November 23, Politico Magazine published Mr. Benjamin’s 3,326-word piece, replete with unfounded allegations, not only against the MEK, but impugning the motives and the integrity of those supporting the organization, including Americans of every political persuasion. The NCRI’s US Representative Office provided a timely response on the same day.
Five days later, Politico expressed its refusal to publish the rebuttal. And the story did not stop there, as Politico published another submission by Benjamin on December 13, containing even more unsolicited accusations, misinformation and historical falsehoods.
The NCRI-US submitted its rebuttal to the new charges, but for the second time, it was declined.
It is deeply disappointing that Politico summarily dismissed multiple requests to provide at least some measure of fairness in light of profoundly misleading accusations against the only opposition group that the Tehran regime fears most.
The media have recently been engaged in lengthy self-reflection about the prevalence of “fake news,” and the disastrous consequences that such things can create for American society. This is a sad illustration of the dangers that are posed by this phenomenon.
So, in the interest of Politico’s readers and others, the NCRI-US has decided to present its rebuttal here. It invites readers of good will to review the charges and the defenses, and to make up their own minds about who is telling the truth, and who is – whether deliberately or inadvertently – providing journalistic cover for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Daniel Benjamin’s commentary, “Yes, We Do Know the MEK Has a Terrorist Past” (Politico Magazine, December 13, 2016), is a hyperbolic repetition of a defamatory MEK narrative from Mr. Benjamin’s time in office as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State. Sadly, unlike policy experts in Washington, he has chosen to ignore the fact that these allegations and characterizations have since been refuted in detail by independent researchers, and formally discredited by successive high judicial opinions.
The crux of the matter and the source of the bizarre rage and abandonment of all semblance of academic detachment is not simply the MEK, but generally the U.S. policy towards Tehran.
Today, the policy of appeasing the Iranian regime, universally condemned as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and the number one per capita executioner of its own citizens, has failed. It is understandable that some Inside the Beltway are not happy with this failure. But this is a function of dealing with a regime that has slaughteredover 100,000 dissidents, including 15-year-old girls and pregnant women. This is a known fact, as admitted by former high-ranking regime officials, including Ayatollah Montazeri who was in line to become the regime’s second supreme leader;this is not speculation or hyperbole.
The Terror Designation
How else to explain the former Counterterrorism Coordinator’s glaring disregard for, if not total ignorance of, the statute known as Anti-Terrorism and Effective
Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), 8 U.S.C. § 1189? Benjamin invokes non-statutory criteria, such as a group’s democratic credentials or popularity, as among the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether to designate a group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Obviously, still fuming four years after America’s second highest court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, harshly rebuked his bureau for “egregiously” violating the most fundamental pillar of the rule of law, the right to due process, he is now resorting to the media to re-litigate his case.
For the record, the “AEDPA” authorizes the Secretary of State to designate a foreign entity as an FTO only upon making affirmative findings, supported by evidence: that the organization engages in terrorist activity or terrorism, or retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism, and its terrorist activity or terrorism threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States.
His bureau’s “administrative record,” presented to the Court in response to the MEK’s judicial challenge to its listing, did not contain a shred of evidence to support any such findings. Mr. Benjamin is silent about that failure, which resulted in two favorable rulings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The same thing happened in courts in the United Kingdom and European Union, which also examined the classified material and concluded (in the case of the U.K. Court of Appeal) that the British Government’s refusal to delist the MEK had been “perverse.”
Following the decision of the Circuit Court in 2012, Mr. Benjamin’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, demonstrated her lack of confidence in his assessment by removing the terrorist designation of the MEK, thus making U.S. counterterrorism policy consistent with that of the E.U., the U.K., and France. Her decision was applauded by a large bi-partisan group of Members of Congress, and endorsed by a bipartisan collection of many former senior leaders of U.S. Government and military, whose integrity Mr. Benjamin has blithely impugned.
Instead of reasoned analysis, we are presented with the unsupported opinion of a former official, now in academia, trying to promote his byline with complete contempt for facts on the topic he writes about. Although what Mr. Benjamin has to say has little or nothing to do with the criteria for designation as a Foreign
Terrorist Organization, it is also demonstrably and provably false. Let’s look at the record.
The delisting of the MEK was no act of charity, nor an exercise of “discretion” by the Secretary of State, as Mr. Benjamin falsely asserts. America’s second highest court twice invited the Department to present evidence that the MEK belonged on the list. The Department failed to do so.
When the Court of Appeals heard the case in 2010, it unanimously found that the due process rights of the MEK has been violated. But the State Department refused to heed the court’s ruling, prompting the MEK to file a writ of mandamus. In their briefs to the court and during the oral hearing, the Government vehemently argued against delisting. The Court was unpersuaded, and in an extraordinary decision, granted the writ against the Secretary of State. In their unanimous judgment, the justices called the Department’s delay “egregious” and ordered it to act – either presenting evidence of “capability and intent” to engage in terrorism on the part of the MEK, or taking it off the FTO list. It was against that background that Mrs. Clinton raised the flag of surrender, saving herself and her Department from the further embarrassment that would have resulted had the Court been required to issue the order.
Ironically, in his many appearances before Congressional hearings, Mr. Benjamin never uttered any of the allegations set out in his two pieces in Politico, not even when grilled by Members from both sides of the aisle. He knew that despite several classified briefings on the MEK, Congress strongly rejected the FTO designation, which it viewed as a goodwill gesture to Tehran. Ninety-nine members (52 Democrats and 47 Republicans, among them the Chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence and six other committee chairs) called for the MEK’s delisting.
Benjamin attempts to give his commentary a semblance of credibility by referencing a letter signed in 2011 by a “distinguished Iranian-American historian” and “three dozen other leading Iran scholars,” who opposed the delisting of the MEK. I am reminded of a well-known Iranian proverb: “They asked the fox, who’s your witness? and he said, ‘My tail.’” The overwhelming majority of the signatories are not “leading scholars,” but Iran apologists whose ties with the Iranian regime and its intelligence agents are beyond dispute.
The central tenet of both of Benjamin’s Politico Magazine pieces is that the MEK was involved in terrorism, including the in deaths of U.S. officers and “innocent Iranians.” Terrorism involves the deliberate targeting of civilians for political gain. That definition is correct, and shows why nothing that the Iranian resistance has done in waging a half-century-long struggle against the turbaned tyrants of Iran and the preceding military dictatorship of the Shah can be described as terrorism. If the activities of the MEK in the 1970s and ‘80s were terrorism, then so too were the movement for American independence, and French resistance against Nazi occupation.
Even before the MEK unilaterally ceased all its military operations in June 2001, it never targeted civilians. Period. This was made clear by the very same Congressional Research Service whose 24-year-old report Benjamin cited as a source.
When faced with the Shah’s and Khomeini’s bloody onslaughts, the MEK exercised its inalienable right, stated in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” One of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in 1775, “In defense of our persons and properties under actual violation, we took up arms. When that violence shall be removed, when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, hostilities shall cease on our part also.” President John F. Kennedy added, “Those who make peaceful change revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
“Killing of Americans”
As for the oft-repeated allegation about MEK involvement in the death of U.S. military officers more than 40 years ago, several assassinations. All members but one of the MEK central committee, including its founders, were executed by June 1972, 13 months before the first U.S. officer was killed in Tehran. The sole surviving leader, Massoud Rajavi, originally sentenced to death, was given a life term after an extensive international effort on his behalf. He remained incarcerated for eight years and was ultimately released from prison in January 1979 after the Shah fled Iran.
This account, that a self-serving group of Marxists and not the mainstream Muslim MEK, was responsible for those incidents, is reflected in the 2005 Country Reports on Terrorism, compiled by Benjamin’s former bureau: “A Marxist element of the MEK murdered several of the Shah’s U.S. security advisers prior to the Islamic Revolution.” As early as the summer of 2002, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote, “Some experts say the attack may have been the work of a Maoist splinter faction operating beyond the Rajavi leadership’s control.”
The Motives Behind the Terrorist Designation
Mr. Benjamin disputes the contention that ulterior political motives, and not the MEK’s conduct in Iran, were behind the group’s terrorist designation in 1997. He cites a 1992 letter written by another State Department official, Robert Pelletreau. But that opinion is far from universally accepted. He would have done better to read page B-132 of the Tower Commission report, which shed light on the disgraceful arms-for-hostages debacle in 1985. We all remember when an American delegation met with its Iranian counterparts (including Iran’s current president Hassan Rouhani), offering a bible, a key-shaped cake, a pistol, and a planeload of TOW missiles (to sweeten the deal) to secure the release of several U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon. The page in question is a reprint of a letter written by a CIA handler to his Iranian go-between, describing the “positive and constructive steps [taken by the U.S. Government] as a sign of goodwill and utmost respect toward the Islamic Republic,” and citing as one of those steps “the [issuance] of an official announcement terming the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization terrorist and Marxist…,” and “banning any and all types of assistance to the opponents of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” These actions were taken by Mr. Benjamin’s former employers, and again, this is history, not speculation.
The day after the State Department announced its decision to label the MEK as an FTO in 1997, a senior Clinton administration official told the Los Angeles Times, “The inclusion of the People’s Moujaheedin (sic) was intended as a goodwill gesture to Tehran and its newly elected president, Mohammed Khatami.”
Five years later, that same official, the Clinton Administration’s Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Martin Indyk, told Newsweek, “[There] was White House interest in opening up a dialogue with the Iranian government. Top Administration officials saw cracking down on the [MEK], which the Iranians had made clear they saw as a menace, as one way to do so.”
And in 2006, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “In 1997, the State Department added the MEK to a list of global terrorist organizations as ‘a signal’ of the U.S.’s desire for rapprochement with Tehran’s reformists, says Martin Indyk, who at the time was assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs. President Khatami’s government ‘considered it a pretty big deal,’ Mr. Indyk says.”
Last, but not least, at the time of MEK’s 2008 legal challenge to the FTO designation, Mr. Benjamin’s predecessor, New York Times. History, Mr. Benjamin. Why were these facts simply overlooked in the polemics that appeared in Politico?
Nor is there any truth to Mr. Benjamin’s allegation that the MEK was involved in the crackdown on Iraqi Kurds following Operation Desert Storm. The most definitive testament to this fact is a 1999 letter to a court in the Netherlands by then-foreign affairs spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq and later-to-be Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, who wrote, “(We) can confirm that the Mujahedeen (sic) were not involved in suppressing the Kurdish people neither during the uprising nor in its aftermath. We have not come across any evidence to suggest that the Mujahedeen have exercised any hostility towards the people of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
“A More Informed Debate on the MEK”
Finally, what Mr. Benjamin calls “evidence” of the “MEK’s troubling history” and “the account of its efforts to buy influence on Capitol Hill,” fall far short of the normal definition of “evidence.” His claims do not survive a simple fact check. The 11-year-old Human Rights Watch report he cites was based on 12 hours of telephone interviews with 12 agents of the Iranian intelligence services. It was by no means a credible analysis, and was debunked by no less than senior active-duty officers of the United States military based at Camp Ashraf at the time when HRW reported all kinds of nefarious goings-on. These included then-Colonel (now Brigadier General, retired) convicted felon, who served time in a federal prison for accepting bribes as a sitting Member of Congress from a Syrian arms smuggler (who sold weapons to the Iranian regime).
So much for what Mr. Benjamin has to say. But his commentary studiously omits reference to the MEK’s told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing “We all owe a debt of gratitude to the MEK for bringing this information to the world, and causing the United States and the world to focus on the problem.”
I couldn’t agree more with Dan Benjamin on the need for “a more informed debate about the MEK,” and I wholeheartedly welcome such a discussion. But that discourse should, of course, include an examination of the role and influence of the Iranian regime’s counterintelligence operations in the United States, and scrutiny of the money trail through its Iranian and non-Iranian lobby groups and individuals inside the Beltway, who seek to tilt the Iran policy narrative in favor of appeasing the criminals who have ruled our homeland though sheer terror for 37 years and wreaked havoc in the entire Middle East region.
In closing, I can do no better than to remind Mr. Benjamin of the words of this country’s second President John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Yes, there should be an informed debate, but that debate must be grounded in fact, not in innuendo and grotesquely revisionist history.
Representative in the United States
National Council of Resistance of Iran
December 15, 2016