On a Saturday afternoon last February, journalist Carl Bernstein got up on stage at the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and delivered a speech questioning the listing of an obscure Iranian group called the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) on the U.S. government list of officially designated foreign terrorist organizations.
The speech, before a crowd an organizer put at 1,500, made Bernstein one of the few journalists who has appeared at events in a years-long campaign by MKO supporters to free the group from the official terrorist label and the legal sanctions that come with it. He told ProPublica that he was paid $12,000 for the appearance but that, "I was not there as an advocate."
Bernstein told the crowd that, "I come here as an advocate of the best obtainable version of the truth" and as "someone who believes in basic human rights and their inalienable status." He also challenged the State Department, saying that if the agency "has evidence that the MKO is a terrorist organization, have a show-cause hearing in court, let them prove it."
Joining him on stage at the Park Avenue hotel was a decorated group including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former congressman Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Bernstein's speech, reprinted on the website of another pro-MKO group under the title "The Kafkaesque Nature of Things," compared the presence of the MKO on the terrorist list to his parents' experience belonging to a group that was on a U.S. government list of subversive organizations during the McCarthy era.
"So I know, like you, what it means to be designated a certain way and your cause and your purpose misunderstood, twisted, and turned into something that it is not," he said. "When, in fact, the evil, the terrorism, the real terrorism, is in the heart of Tehran, not in this room."
In an interview, Bernstein told ProPublica that the pro-MKO events are "obviously … part of a lobbying campaign" but his speech was "largely about using the designation of terrorist and subversive organizations as a smokescreen for other things." He said that stories focusing on speakers at pro-MKO events rather than on "the substance of what the controversy is" amounted to "journalistic McCarthyism."
ProPublica reported in July that syndicated columnist Clarence Page had spoken at a large rally in Paris featuring MKO leader Maryam Rajavi; after we reached out to Page, he said he would reimburse his $20,000 speaker's fee, and the Chicago Tribune reprimanded him for violating the company ethics code.
Bernstein is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and writes periodically for Newsweek. A Vanity Fair spokeswoman said the magazine does not have a policy governing outside work of its contributors. A Newsweek spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Bernstein has not written or spoken about MKO issues apart from the paid appearance at the Waldorf Astoria.
A news release issued after the event by the organizing group, the Global Initiative for Democracy, ran under the headline "Bipartisan Group of U.S. Leaders Calls on State Department to Remove Iranian Dissidents From Terror List" and quoted Bernstein.
"What is news here is [that the failure to delist] is serving the purpose of the Iranian regime. That is news," the release said, attributing the statement to "famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein."
In the past few years, pro-MKO groups have marshaled considerable financial resources to bring high-profile speakers to an unending stream of rallies and other events in the U.S. and Europe. The pro-MKO campaign has taken on new prominence against the backdrop of the nuclear standoff involving the U.S., Israel and Iran, whose government is a sworn enemy of the MKO.
The group, sometimes described as cult-like by critics, is blamed by the State Department for killing Americans in several attacks in Iran in the 1970s and in attacking Iranian targets through the early 2000s. The MKO now claims it has renounced violence and has sued to be removed from the terrorist list.
The public push in the U.S. is notable both because it has brought together a large bipartisan group of former top military officials and veteran politicians from both parties and also because of the large sums of money paid for those appearances.
For example, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, received $160,000 for appearing at seven pro-MKO rallies and conferences, his office confirmed to NBC in March. Each event typically involves five to 10 former officials who speak in favor of removing the group from the terrorist list. The typical fee for a speaker at one of the events has been in the $20,000 range, according to news reports. Pro-MKO groups are thought to have spent millions of dollars on the events in recent years.
The Americans speaking at pro-MKO events have generally not included journalists, except for Page and Bernstein. It's common for prominent journalists to have contracts with speaker bureaus and deliver lectures for pay; Bernstein said, "I speak before all kinds of groups."
NBC reported in March that firms representing two speakers who appeared alongside Bernstein at the Waldorf Astoria event — former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Hugh Shelton — had received subpoenas as part of a Treasury Department inquiry into the source of money for pro-MKO events.
The New York City-based Greater Talent Network, which represents Freeh and reportedly received one of the subpoenas, also represents Bernstein. The agency did not respond to phone calls, but Bernstein told ProPublica he has not been contacted about any legal action and he is not part of the group of pro-MKO speakers that has hired former Solicitor General Seth Waxman to represent them in the matter.
Treasury Department spokesman John Sullivan told ProPublica the agency does not comment on potential investigations. "The MKO is a designated terrorist group; therefore U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with or providing services to this group," he said. "The Treasury Department takes sanctions enforcement seriously and routinely investigates potential violations of sanctions laws."
So who paid for the Waldorf Astoria event?
Bruce McColm, president of the Global Initiative for Democracy, told ProPublica in an email: "Resources for the event were provided by the Iranian-American community in New Jersey, New York, Northern California and Texas."
McColm added that "[t]he financial arrangements for speakers were handled by the Iranian-American Community. For the legal at heart, there were no funds provided by NCRI/MKO or any other so-called front groups." NCRI stands for National Council of Resistance of Iran and is recognized by the State Department as an alias for the MKO.
McColm is a former executive director of Freedom House, a pro-democracy group he left in the early 1990s. In recent years, he has worked for the government of Equatorial Guinea and served as a member of the Iran Policy Committee, which advocates putting support for the MKO at the center of U.S. policy toward Iran.
In the past few years, MKO and its sympathizers have invested considerable financial resources to bring high-profile speakers to rallies and gatherings in the United States and Europe to back the terrorist group.
The MKO fled Iran and settled in Iraq in 1986, where it enjoyed the support of the country's executed dictator Saddam Hussein, and set up its camp near the Iranian border.
The group - listed as a terrorist organization by much of the international community - is notorious for carrying out numerous acts of terror against Iranian civilians and officials, involvement in the bloody repression of Shia Muslims in southern Iraq in 1991 , and the massacre of Iraqi Kurds in the country's north under Saddam’s dictatorship.
In December 2011, the United Nations and Baghdad agreed to relocate some 3,000 MKO members from Camp New Iraq, formerly known as Camp Ashraf, in Diyala province to Camp Liberty - a former US military base near Baghdad International Airport.