When the White House released its Sept. 12 "white paper" detailing Saddam Hussein's "support for international terrorism," it caused more than a little discomfort in some quarters of Washington.
The 27-page document--entitled "A Decade of Deception and Defiance"--made no mention of any Iraqi ties to Osama bin Laden. But it did highlight Saddam's backing of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), an obscure Iranian dissident group that has gathered surprising support among members of Congress in past years. One of those supporters, the documents show, is a top commander in President Bush's war on terrorism: Attorney General John Ashcroft, who became involved with the MKO while a Republican senator from Missouri.
The case of Ashcroft and the MKO shows just how murky fighting terrorism can sometimes get. State Department officials first designated the MKO a "foreign terrorist organization" in 1997, accusing the Baghdad-based group of a long series of bombings, guerilla cross-border raids and targeted assassinations of Iranian leaders. Officials say the MKO--which originally fought to overthrow the Shah of Iran--was linked to the murder of several U.S. military officers and civilians in Iran in the 1970s. "They have an extremely bloody history," says one U.S. counterterrorism official.
But the MKO, which commands an army of 30,000 from bases inside Iraq, has tried to soften its image in recent years--in part with strong backing from politically active Iranian-Americans in the United States. The MKO operates in Washington out of a small office in the National Press Building under the name the National Council of Resistance of Iran. According to the State Department, the National Council of Resistance is a "front" for the MKO; in 1999, the National Council itself was placed on the State Department terrorist list. But National Council officials adamantly deny their group has earned the terror label and have aggressively portrayed itself to Washington lawmakers as a "democratic" alternative to a repressive Iranian regime that itself is one of the world's leading sponsors of terrorism. "You're talking about a really popular movement," says Alireza Jafarzadeh, the National Council's chief Washington spokesman, who insists that the MKO "targets only military targets."
Only two years ago, these arguments won sympathy from Ashcroft--and more than 200 other members of Congress. When the National Council of Resistance staged a September 2000 rally outside the United Nations to protest a speech by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, Missouri's two Republican senators--Ashcroft and Chris Bond--issued a joint statement of solidarity that was read aloud to a cheering crowd. A delegation of about 500 Iranians from Missouri attended the event--and a picture of a smiling Ashcroft was later included in a color briefing book used by MKO officials to promote their cause on Capitol Hill. Ashcroft was hardly alone. Among those who actually appeared at the rally and spoke on the group's behalf was one of its leading congressional supporters: Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Torricelli.
That same year, Senator Ashcroft wrote a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno protesting the detention of an Iranian woman, Mahnaz Samadi, who was a leading spokeswoman for the National Council of Resistance. The case quickly became a cause celebre for the MKO and its supporters in the United States.
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents had arrested Samadi at the Canadian border, charging her with failing to disclose her past "terrorist" ties as an MKO "military commander"--including spending seven months in a MKO military-training camp inside Iraq--when she sought political asylum in the United States several years earlier, according to court documents obtained by NEWSWEEK.
Senator Ashcroft saw the case differently. In his May 10, 2000, letter to Reno, the Missouri lawmaker expressed "concern" about the detention, calling Samadi a "highly regarded human-rights activist" and a "powerful voice for democracy." (As part of a later settlement with the INS, Samadi admitted her membership in MKO but denied that she personally participated in any "terrorist activity." While her grant of political asylum was revoked, the INS dropped its deportation proceedings and she was permitted to remain in the United States.)
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the National Council's top Washington lobbyist, said he had "several" meetings with Ashcroft aides about the matter and that he "certainly" viewed the Missouri senator as a supporter of his group. But backers of the MKO acknowledge the real lobbying was done by Iranian-Americans in Missouri who wrote letters and made repeated phone calls on Samadi's behalf. How much Ashcroft got personally involved isn't clear. A Justice Department spokeswoman told NEWSWEEK that Ashcroft's letter to Reno was the result of a "straightforward, constituent-type inquiry," adding that the current attorney general would never "knowingly" back any terrorist group. When he signed the joint statement with Bond that was read at the National Council rally at the United Nations, Ashcroft did not "intend to endorse any organization," the spokeswoman, Barbara Comstock, said. "He was supporting democracy and freedom in Iran," she said. Comstock said Ashcroft currently has "no problem" prosecuting all U.S.-based terror groups, including the MKO.
Ashcroft isn't the only one now distancing himself from the MKO. The Senate's most aggressive promotor of the MKO for years has been Bob Torricelli, who in recent years has circulated numerous letters among his colleagues--including one as recently as last year--describing the MKO as a "legitimate" alternative to the repressive Iranian mullahs and urging that the group be taken off the State Department terrorist list. Torricelli told NEWSWEEK he saw his support for the group as a way of putting pressure on the Iranian regime. "They [the MKO] were the only game in town," he said. But Torricelli also said last week said he would no longer push the group's cause after getting hammered over the issue by his GOP opponent, Doug Forrester, who accused Torricelli of receiving more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Iranian-Americans who supported the group. (Torricelli aides say the amount is exaggerated and that others, including some leading Republicans, have also received contributions from some of the same Iranian-Americans.) As a result of the September 11 attacks and new concerns about any allegations of terrorism, Bond also has put his backing for the group "in abeyance," an aide said.
Much of the new skittishness among MKO's congressional backers also stems from the decision by the Bush White House to emphasize the connections between MKO and Saddam. It isn't the first time this was done. Former Clinton administration official Martin Indyk, who served as assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs in 1997, told NEWSWEEK that one of the reasons the group was put on the terrorism list in the first place was part of a "two-pronged" strategy that included ratcheting up pressure on Saddam. Like the Bush White House, the Clinton administration was eager to highlight Iraqi ties to terrorism and had collected extensive evidence of Saddam providing logistical support to the MKO in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. (The MKO's headquarters are located on a heavily guarded street in central Baghdad.) But the United States could find no other hard evidence linking Saddam to terror groups, Indyk said. "That was about all we had on [Saddam] when it came to terrorism," Indyk told NEWSWEEK.
National-security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in an interview Wednesday on PBS's "The NewsHour" that the United States had new evidence from "high-ranking detainees" that Iraq has provided "some training to Al Qaeda in chemical-weapons development." But a top U.S. law-enforcement official recently cast some doubt about the strength of the evidence connecting Saddam and Al Qaeda, telling NEWSWEEK there is far more substantial evidence that Iran was harboring top Al Qaeda leaders.)
The other "prong" in the Clinton strategy that led to the inclusion of the MKO on the terrorist list was White House interest in opening up a dialogue with the Iranian government. At the time, President Khatami had recently been elected and was seen as a moderate. Top administration officials saw cracking down on the MKO--which the Iranians had made clear they saw as a menace--as one way to do so. Still, Indyk said the basic decision to label the MKO as terrorists could be justified anyway. "Yes, they're bad guys," he told NEWSWEEK. "But no--they're not targeting us."
Indyk's comments lend partial support to one of the main contentions of MKO and its congressional supporters: that geopolitical strategy--a tilt toward Iran--was an important factor in the State Department decision to accuse MKO of terrorism. "They wanted to appease the Iranian regime," said Jafarzadeh, the National Council of Resistance lobbyist.
Still, the Justice Department appears only to be stepping up investigations into MKO members. Early last year, the FBI broke up a ring of Iranians who were raising money at the Los Angeles airport under the guise of helping suffering children when, according to a court complaint, they were routing the funds to the MKO. (A federal judge recently tossed the case out of court, but the Justice Department is appealing.) Then, last December, FBI agents showed up at the home of Jafarzadeh. Armed with a search warrant, the agents hauled away boxes of documents, including files on the group's dealings with members of Congress. One in particular must have gotten the agents' attention. It was labeled ASHCROFT.