Gareth Porter, Fair, November 07 2015:…Nisman relied for that spectacular intelligence claim were not “defectors,” but the four members of the Mujahideen E Khalq’s political front, the National Council of Resistance Iran (NCRI). The MEK, an armed opposition group, had been a terrorist arm of the Saddam Hussein regime during the Iran/Iraq War, and had …
The New Yorker Doesn’t Factcheck What ‘Everyone Knows’ Is True
Detail from a New Yorker photo illustration accompanying Dexter Filkins’ article “Death of a Prosecutor” (7/20/15). (illustration: Alex Williamson)
Dexter Filkins has been one of the top journalists covering America’s wars since 9/11—first for the New York Times, and since 2011 for the New Yorker—often uncovering stories that were not welcomed by the US national security structure. But when Filkins, in a long-form New Yorker article last summer (7/20/15), took on the subject of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s untimely death and its relation to his role in indicting senior Iranian officials for a 1994 Buenos Aires terror bombing, it tested how far Filkins would go in questioning conventional wisdom.
The July 18, 1994, bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires (known by the Spanish initials AMIA), which killed 85 people and wounded nearly 300, is almost always blamed on Iran in media references to the attack. Other than my own investigation of the case in 2008 (The Nation, 1/19/08), I’m aware of no journalist who has gone beyond that frame in covering it.
Filkins apparently intended to write a journalistic portrait of Nisman and the disputed circumstances in which he died of a gunshot wound last January, rather than to explore the case itself. But in order to write such a portrait, Filkins had to deal with the evidence Nisman used in his AMIA indictment, and Filkins stumbled badly in writing about those issues.
Filkins’ failure goes to the root of a systemic problem of news media coverage of Iran and many other issues. Certain narratives about episodes and issues in recent history have become so unanimously accepted among political and media elites as to be virtually unchallengeable in media reporting. Such narratives have been repeated in one form or another for so many years that reporters simply would not think to question them for a moment, much less actually investigate their truth.
The narrative surrounding the AMIA bombing and its Iranian origins is a notable example of the phenomenon. Reporting on the Argentine investigation of the bombing and the indictment of the Iranians by Nisman in 2006 has treated Iran’s responsibility as an accepted and documented fact. And when Filkins believes he is adding independent reporting that corroborates Nisman’s interpretation of the evidence, he actually committed errors that a careful reporter would normally have avoided.
Filkins presents the primary evidence of Iranian/Hezbollah responsibility in Nisman’s 2006 indictment as follows:
In the course of 801 pages, he charged seven Iranian officials, including the former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and also indicted Hezbollah’s senior military commander, Imad Mugniyah. “The decision to carry out the attack was made not by a small splinter group of extremist Islamic officials,” Nisman wrote, but was “extensively discussed and ultimately adopted by a consensus of the highest representatives of the Iranian government.” Drawing on the testimony of Iranian defectors, Nisman wrote that the decision was made on August 14, 1993, at a meeting of the Committee for Special Operations, which included the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
But if Filkins had read the English-language version of Nisman’s indictment, which is now available, or had done an online search on the subject, he would have learned that the sources that Nisman relied for that spectacular intelligence claim were not “defectors,” but the four members of the Mujahideen E Khalq’s political front, the National Council of Resistance Iran (NCRI). The MEK, an armed opposition group, had been a terrorist arm of the Saddam Hussein regime during the Iran/Iraq War, and had carried out terrorist actions against Americans and Iranians in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was taken off the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012 after a well-funded campaign to buy off prominent political and national security figures.
The two MEK sources that made specific claims about the meeting were senior officials of the organization: Reza Zakeri Kouchaksaraee, president of the NCRI’s Security and Intelligence Committee, and Hadi Roshanravani, a member of its International Affairs Committee. Nisman quotes from testimony by Kouchaksaraee before the Argentine Oral Court in 2003 that the decision to bomb the AMIA had been made by a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council on August 14, 1993: “This meeting lasted only two hours from 4:30 to 6:30 pm,” said the MEK official.
Nisman quoted Roshranravani as having testified to the same starting time, but a meeting date two days earlier: August 12, 1993. Roshranravani even claimed that the NCRI knew the exact agenda of the meeting, and that “the idea for an attack on Argentina” had been discussed during a discussion on “the strategy of exporting fundamentalism throughout the world.”
Neither NCRI official nor Nisman himself offered any explanation for how an exiled armed opposition organization could have penetrated the highest level of the Iranian government—or why Argentine investigators had been unaware of such crucial alleged intelligence for nearly a decade. Furthermore, the NCRI had by then a long history of publicizing intelligence claims—especially on alleged Iranian weapons of mass destruction—that Mossad, Israel’s international intelligence service, hoped would influence international opinion.
Nisman called two other NCRI members who testified before the same court “defectors.” But one of them, Ali Reza Ahmadi, was identified as an Iranian foreign service officer from 1981 to 1985, while the other, Hamid Reza Eshagi, was not otherwise identified. Those two witnesses made only joint statements, merely supporting what the senior officials of the NCRI had testified. They made no claim to independent knowledge of the meeting.
A review of the indictment reveals that Nisman cited the same four NCRI members a total of 61 times to document the alleged participation of each of the seven senior Iranians for whom Nisman was requesting arrest warrants. Nearly half of the citations were for Kouchaksaraee, the head of NCRI’s Security and Intelligence Committee.
Filkins appears to have been unaware, however, of Nisman’s reliance on the testimony of the armed opposition to the Iranian regime, with its shady history, for the crucial information on which his indictment of the Iranians was based. “Much of the testimony that guided Nisman toward the Iranian regime,” Filkins writes, “was provided by a man referred to in court documents as ‘Witness C’—Abolghasem Mesbahi, an Iranian intelligence agent who defected to Germany in 1996.”
But in identifying Mesbahi as the key source, Filkins not only misrepresents the alleged evidence in Nisman’s indictment, but also demonstrates a remarkable lack of curiosity about a figure whose record as a witness on this and other cases was marked by serious anomalies and even absurdities.
Mesbahi’s claims about Iranian sponsorship of the AMIA terror bombing had provided fodder for a number of stories on the case for years. But it turns out his story was not consistent. Mesbhai’s initial statement to Argentine investigators, in a secret 100-page deposition in 2000, claimed that Iranian planning for the AMIA bombing began in 1992. According to the transcript, Mesbahi said one Iranian intelligence cell was devoted to “cooperating with members of the Argentine police, corrupting them or threatening them to collaborate with the attack,” while another worked on obtaining the explosives.
But when Mesbahi testified to the oral court by video conference from the Argentine embassy in Berlin in November 2003, he declared: “It’s a rule that in terrorist operations, local sources of the chosen country can never be trusted. It is not possible that anyone who lived in Argentina was involved in or informed about the attack.”
In the same sensational 2000 deposition, Mesbahi claimed that, after the attack, Argentine President Carlos Menem had sent an emissary to Tehran, whom he described as a bearded man of about 50 years of age, who had negotiated a deal that resulted in a $10 million deposit to a numbered account that Menem had provided. In return, Mesbahi testified, Menem agreed to “make declarations that there was no evidence against Iran that it was responsible.” The money, he writes “was paid from another Swiss account, controlled by Rafsanjani, the Iranian president.”
But in his 2003 testimony, Mesbahi backed away from this account, saying that everything he knew about the affair had come from someone who had died in 1997, and that he did not know if any payments had actually been made.
And as for the previous date for the Iranian decision to carry out the bombing, Mesbahi told the oral court the decision was made in 1993, not 1992, as he had claimed before.
It was not only in regards to AMIA that Mesbahi was known to the US intelligence community as a “fabricator.” He had claimed to German investigators that Iran asked Libya and the Abu Nidal terrorist organization to carry out the attack on Pan Am 103 in December 1988. That claim was discredited by the FBI.
Even more outrageously, he had also concocted a tale of having been tipped off by Iranian contacts, through a series of “coded messages” in the summer and early September of 2001, about plans for a coming Iranian terrorist strike in the United States that would involve crashing civilian airliners into buildings in major US cities, including Washington and New York, on September 11–and that he had frantically tried to contact someone in German or US intelligence about the information. In fact, neither the German nor US government ever got any communication from Mesbahi.
Filkins does quote a single sentence from the head of the FBI’s mission to Buenos Aires to assist in the AMIA investigation, James Bernazzani, summing up his view of Mesbahi as a witness: “Mesbahi was full of shit.” But he does not confront the significance of Bernazzani’s comment. “Still, many American officials believe that Iran was involved in the bombing,” he writes, as if to dismiss questions of Mesbahi’s suspect credibility.
Filkins quotes former CIA operative Robert Baer as saying Iran could be presumed to be involved because of the alleged involvement of the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia group Hezbollah:
The assumption was that the Iranians were involved, because the attack was carried out by a unit that they created…. [Hezbollah security chief Imad] Mugniyah never did anything without the green light of the Supreme Leader.
But Filkins’ assumption that the United States had hard evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement is seriously misguided. Filkins cites Bernazzani’s account of assisting the Argentine intelligence agency SIDE with its investigation of the bombing by examining the truck and finding “bits of flesh and bluejeans stuck to a fragment of metal.” Filkins completes Bernazzani’s account:
Technicians at an FBI lab quickly identified a man who they believed was the driver: Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Hezbollah operative from Lebanon. Intelligence analysts determined that Berro’s family had been fêted by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, shortly after the bombing. “The case we made would have stood up in the US judicial system,” Bernazzani said.
But that is not what happened. As Bernazzani told me in a November 2007 interview, the FBI investigators did believe the DNA evidence they found in an evidence locker had come from the suicide bomber, but they could not link it with any specific individual, because they had no DNA sample at that point with which the compare the evidence. In fact, the only evidence the FBI and its Argentine colleagues were able to find for Iranian and/or Hezbollah involvement in the bombing for several years was, he said, “circumstantial.”
Bernazzani recalled that it was more than eight years after he began working on the case in late 1996 that Nisman had taken a DNA sample from one of Ibrahim Hussein Berro’s brothers during his visit in September 2005. Bernazzani told me that he assumed—though he didn’t know for a fact—that the Argentines had compared the DNA found earlier with that of the brother.
But Nisman never talked about the DNA evidence publicly—including in his indictment—except to claim to a reporter in 2006 that the samples had been contaminated. Bernazzani was certainly under the impression in 2005, before he retired from the FBI, that the sample was not contaminated. The implication is that the DNA sample from the evidence locker and the sample taken from Berro’s brother did not match.
Filkins cites Nisman’s claim in the indictment that the coordinator of the entire AMIA bombing operation was Mohsen Rabbani, previously the leader of the Al Tawhid mosque in Buenos Aires and, in 1994, the cultural attache of the Iranian embassy. It was Rabbani, according to Nisman, “who financed the attack, oversaw the purchase of the Renault [van used in the bombing] and directed the assembly of the bomb.”
But the evidence of Rabbani’s guilt cited by Nisman is based on the kind of inferential leaps usually employed to construct crude conspiracy theories. The indictment argues, for example, that it is “reasonable to infer” that Rabbani’s withdrawal of a total of $94,000 from a bank account between March 22 and July 18, 1994, was to pay for expenses related to the AMIA attack.
The evidence for Nisman’s conclusion that Rabbani had overseen the purchase of the suicide bomb car consists entirely of the fact that Rabbani “made inquiries at various Buenos Aires car dealers concerning the purchase of a van that was identical or similar to the one that was used as a car bomb in the AMIA attack several months later.” But in fact the Renault Trafic van was just about the only vehicle available in Buenos Aires for hauling relatively small loads, and the intelligence report on the surveillance of Rabbani available in the public record of the Argentine investigation shows that Rabbani had looked at a car dealer’s white Trafic on May 1, 1993—15 months before the bombing—but had not bought it.
Filkins notes approvingly Nisman’s use of phone metadata and travel dates to infer the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the plot to carry out the bombing. The approach used by the Argentina’s SIDE, as described in Nisman’s indictment, began with the assumption that a certain set of phones that were in contact with one another only from July 1 through July 18, 1994, represented the “operational group” for the bombing. Then they inferred that the fact that some of those phones were in contact with subscribers in Lebanon who were, in Nisman’s words, “suspected of having ties with Hezbollah” was evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement in the bombing.
Bernazzani told me that he was appalled by SIDE’s use of “link analysis” to establish responsibility, and that officials in Washington had not taken such “speculative” theorizing seriously either.”It can be very dangerous,” he said. “Using that analysis, you could link my telephone to bin Laden’s.”
Filkins thus assembled a set of “facts” from Nisman and others supporting his thesis of Iranian guilt, without any serious effort to inquire into its accuracy, reliability and significance. His handling of Bernazzani’s testimony further suggests a readiness to interpret data that doesn’t fit the accepted picture in such a way as to keep it intact.
The point of deconstructing this New Yorker piece is not that Filkins is more careless about checking facts than his journalistic peers; rather, it is to direct attention to much more bigger and more complex problem affecting the entire news media structure: a climate of opinion in which certain issues are matters of such solid consensus that normally alert and energetic journalists suspend their skepticism and factchecking, because, after all, “everybody knows” that certain propositions are true.
Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist and historian on US national security policy, is the winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book is Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, published in 2014.
President Fernández de Kirchner: Terrorists used Nisman and then killed him
Press TV, January 25 2015:… The “real move against the government was the prosecutor’s death… They used him while he was alive and then they needed him dead. It is that sad and terrible,” the Buenos Aires Herald quoted Kirchner as writing in a letter on Thursday. In July 1994, a car bomb exploded at the building of the Argentine Israelite Mutual …
Argentina investigates security officers over AMIA prosecutor death
Alberto Nisman, the late Argentinean prosecutor of
the 1994 AMIA bombing case. (File photo)
Ten Argentine police forces assigned to protect the AMIA bombing case prosecutor are under investigation for their activities on the day he was found dead.
The officers, together with two supervisors, are being questioned as part of an internal police probe into the handling of Alberto Nisman’s death, a source close to the investigation said.
According to the source, the officers are not considered suspects, but they have all been suspended from duty during the probe.
The body of Nisman was discovered on January 18 in the bathroom of his apartment in a neighborhood of the capital, Buenos Aires, with a bullet wound in his head.
The initial police report said Nisman had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
On Thursday, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner refused allegations that prosecutor Nisman committed suicide.
“I’m convinced that it was not suicide,” said the president in a statement posted on her Facebook page.
Nisman’s death happened hours before he was to testify in a congressional hearing about AMIA.
The “real move against the government was the prosecutor’s death… They used him while he was alive and then they needed him dead. It is that sad and terrible,” the Buenos Aires Herald quoted Kirchner as writing in a letter on Thursday.
In July 1994, a car bomb exploded at the building of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, also known as AMIA, in Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people died and hundreds more were injured.
The Israeli regime accuses Tehran of masterminding the terrorist attack. The Islamic Republic of Iran has strongly denied any involvement in the incident.
Indictment of Iran for ’94 Terror Bombing Relied on
MEK (Mojahedin Khalq, MKO, Rajavi cult)
Gareth Porter, IPS, August 07 2013: … The primary source is Reza Zakeri Kouchaksaraee, president of the Security and Intelligence Committee of the NCRI. The report quotes Kouchaksaraee as testifying to an Argentine Oral Court in 2003, “The decision was made by the Supreme National Security …
WASHINGTON, Aug 7 2013 (IPS) – Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman based his 2006 warrant for the arrest of top Iranian officials in the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 on the claims of representatives of the armed Iranian opposition Mujahedin E Khalq (MEK), the full text of the document reveals.
The central piece of evidence cited in Nisman’s original 900-page arrest warrant against seven senior Iranian leaders is an alleged Aug. 14, 1993 meeting of top Iranian leaders, including both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and then president Hashemi Rafsanjani, at which Nisman claims the official decision was made to go ahead with the planning of the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA).
But the document, recently available in English for the first time, shows that his only sources for the claim were representatives of the MEK or People’s Mujahideen of Iran. The MEK has an unsavoury history of terrorist bombings against civilian targets in Iran, as well as of serving as an Iraq-based mercenary army for Saddam Hussein’s forces during the Iran-Iraq War.
The organisation was removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist groups last year after a campaign by prominent former U.S. officials who had gotten large payments from pro-MEK groups and individuals to call for its “delisting”.
Nisman’s rambling and repetitious report cites statements by four members of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which is the political arm of the MEK, as the sources for the charge that Iran decided on the AMIA bombing in August 1993.
The primary source is Reza Zakeri Kouchaksaraee, president of the Security and Intelligence Committee of the NCRI. The report quotes Kouchaksaraee as testifying to an Argentine Oral Court in 2003, “The decision was made by the Supreme National Security Council at a meeting that was held on 14 August, 1993. This meeting lasted only two hours from 4:30 to 6:30 pm.”
Nisman also quotes Hadi Roshanravani, a member of the International Affairs Committee of the NCRI, who claimed to know the same exact starting time of the meeting – 4:30 pm – but gave the date as Aug. 12, 1993 rather than Aug. 14.
Roshanravani also claimed to know the precise agenda of the meeting. The NCRI official said that three subjects were discussed: “The progress and assessment of the Palestinian Council; the strategy of exporting fundamentalism throughout the world; and the future of Iraq.” Roshanravani said “the idea for an attack in Argentina” had been discussed “during the dialogue on the second point”.
The NCRI/MEK was claiming that the Rafsanjani government had decided on a terrorist bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina as part of a policy of “exporting fundamentalism throughout the world”.
But that MEK propaganda line about the Iranian regime was contradicted by the U.S. intelligence assessment at the time. In its National Intelligence Estimate 34-91 on Iranian foreign policy, completed on Oct. 17, 1991, U.S. intelligence concluded that Rafsanjani had been “gradually turning away from the revolutionary excesses of the past decade…toward more conventional behavior” since taking over as president in 1989.
Ali Reza Ahmadi and Hamid Reza Eshagi, identified as “defectors” who were affiliated with NCRI, offered further corroboration of the testimony by the leading NCRI officials. Ahmadi was said by Nisman to have worked as an Iranian foreign service officer from 1981 to 1985. Eshagi is not otherwise identified.
Nisman quotes Ahmadi and Eshagi, who made only joint statements, as saying, “It was during a meeting held at 4:30 pm in August 1993 that the Supreme National Security Council decided to carry out activities in Argentina.”
Nisman does not cite any non-MEK source as claiming such a meeting took place. He cites court testimony by Abolghassem Mesbahi, a “defector” who had not worked for the Iranian intelligence agency since 1985, according to his own account, but only to the effect that the Iranian government made the decision on AMIA sometime in 1993. Mesbahi offered no evidence to support the claim.
Nisman repeatedly cites the same four NCRI members to document the alleged participation of each of the seven senior Iranians for whom he requested arrest warrants. A review of the entire document shows that Kouchaksaraee is cited by Nisman 29 times, Roshanravani 16 times and Ahmadi and Eshagi 16 times, always together making the same statement for a total of 61 references to their testimony.
Nisman cited no evidence or reason to believe that any of the MEK members were in a position to have known about such a high-level Iranian meeting. Although MEK propaganda has long claimed access to secrets, their information has been at best from low-level functionaries in the regime.
In using the testimony of the most violent opponents of the Iranian regime to accuse the most senior Iranian officials of having decided on the AMIA terrorist bombing, Nisman sought to deny the obvious political aim of all MEK information output of building support in the United States and Europe for the overthrow of the Iranian regime.
“The fact that the individuals are opponents of the Iranian regime does not detract in the least from the significance of their statements,” Nisman declared.
In an effort to lend the group’s testimony credibility, Nisman described their statements as being made “with honesty and rigor in a manner that respects nuances and details while still maintaining a sense of the larger picture”.
The MEK witnesses, Nisman wrote, could be trusted as “completely truthful”.
The record of MEK officials over the years, however, has been one of putting out one communiqué after another that contained information about alleged covert Iranian work on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, nearly all of which turned out to be false when they were investigated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The only significant exception to the MEK’s overall record of false information on the Iranian nuclear programme was its discovery of Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility and its Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.
But even in that case, the MEK official who announced the Natanz discovery, U.S. representative Alireza Jafarzadeh, incorrectly identified it as a “fuel fabrication facility” rather than as an enrichment facility. He also said it was near completion, although it was actually several months from having the equipment necessary to begin enrichment.
Contrary to the MEK claims that it got the information on Natanz from sources in the Iranian government, moreover, the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh reported, a “senior IAEA official” told him in 2004 that Israeli intelligence had passed their satellite intelligence on Natanz to the MEK.
An adviser to Reza Pahlavi, the heir to the Shah, later told journalist Connie Bruck that the information about Natanz had come from “a friendly government”, which had provided it to both the Pahlavi organisation and the MEK.
Nisman has long been treated in pro-Israel, anti-Iran political circles as the authoritative source on the AMIA bombing case and the broader subject of Iran and terrorism. Last May, Nisman issued a new 500-page report accusing Iran of creating terrorist networks in the Western hemisphere that builds on his indictment of Iran for the 1994 bombing.
But Nisman’s readiness to base the crucial accusation against Iran in the AMIA case solely on MEK sources and his denial of their obvious unreliability highlights the fact that he has been playing a political role on behalf of certain powerful interests rather than uncovering the facts.
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Mojahedin Khalq (MKO, MEK, Rajavi cult) Our Men in Iran?
(Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, April 2012)
… Five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated since 2007. M.E.K. spokesmen have denied any involvement in the killings, but early last month NBC News quoted two senior Obama Administration officials as confirming that the attacks were carried out by M.E.K. units that were financed and trained by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. NBC further quoted the Administration officials as denying any American involvement in the M.E.K. activities. The former senior intelligence official I spoke with seconded the NBC report that the Israelis were working with the M.E.K., adding …
Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, April 6 2012
From the air, the terrain of the Department of Energy’s Nevada National Security Site, with its arid high plains and remote mountain peaks, has the look of northwest Iran. The site, some sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, was once used for nuclear testing, and now includes a counterintelligence training facility and a private airport capable of handling Boeing 737 aircraft. It’s a restricted area, and inhospitable—in certain sections, the curious are warned that the site’s security personnel are authorized to use deadly force, if necessary, against intruders.
It was here that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) conducted training, beginning in 2005, for members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a dissident Iranian opposition group known in the West as the M.E.K. The M.E.K. had its beginnings as a Marxist-Islamist student-led group and, in the nineteen-seventies, it was linked to the assassination of six American citizens. It was initially part of the broad-based revolution that led to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran. But, within a few years, the group was waging a bloody internal war with the ruling clerics, and, in 1997, it was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. In 2002, the M.E.K. earned some international credibility by publicly revealing—accurately—that Iran had begun enriching uranium at a secret underground location. Mohamed ElBaradei, who at the time was the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency, told me later that he had been informed that the information was supplied by the Mossad. The M.E.K.’s ties with Western intelligence deepened after the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003, and JSOC began operating inside Iran in an effort to substantiate the Bush Administration’s fears that Iran was building the bomb at one or more secret underground locations. Funds were covertly passed to a number of dissident organizations, for intelligence collection and, ultimately, for anti-regime terrorist activities. Directly, or indirectly, the M.E.K. ended up with resources like arms and intelligence. Some American-supported covert operations continue in Iran today, according to past and present intelligence officials and military consultants.
Despite the growing ties, and a much-intensified lobbying effort organized by its advocates, M.E.K. has remained on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations—which meant that secrecy was essential in the Nevada training. “We did train them here, and washed them through the Energy Department because the D.O.E. owns all this land in southern Nevada,” a former senior American intelligence official told me. “We were deploying them over long distances in the desert and mountains, and building their capacity in communications—coördinating commo is a big deal.” (A spokesman for J.S.O.C. said that “U.S. Special Operations Forces were neither aware of nor involved in the training of M.E.K. members.”)
The training ended sometime before President Obama took office, the former official said. In a separate interview, a retired four-star general, who has advised the Bush and Obama Administrations on national-security issues, said that he had been privately briefed in 2005 about the training of Iranians associated with the M.E.K. in Nevada by an American involved in the program. They got “the standard training,” he said, “in commo, crypto [cryptography], small-unit tactics, and weaponry—that went on for six months,” the retired general said. “They were kept in little pods.” He also was told, he said, that the men doing the training were from JSOC, which, by 2005, had become a major instrument in the Bush Administration’s global war on terror. “The JSOC trainers were not front-line guys who had been in the field, but second- and third-tier guys—trainers and the like—and they started going off the reservation. ‘If we’re going to teach you tactics, let me show you some really sexy stuff…’ ”
It was the ad-hoc training that provoked the worried telephone calls to him, the former general said. “I told one of the guys who called me that they were all in over their heads, and all of them could end up trouble unless they got something in writing. The Iranians are very, very good at counterintelligence, and stuff like this is just too hard to contain.” The site in Nevada was being utilized at the same time, he said, for advanced training of élite Iraqi combat units. (The retired general said he only knew of the one M.E.K.-affiliated group that went though the training course; the former senior intelligence official said that he was aware of training that went on through 2007.)
Allan Gerson, a Washington attorney for the M.E.K., notes that the M.E.K. has publicly and repeatedly renounced terror. Gerson said he would not comment on the alleged training in Nevada. But such training, if true, he said, would be “especially incongruent with the State Department’s decision to continue to maintain the M.E.K. on the terrorist list. How can the U.S. train those on State’s foreign terrorist list, when others face criminal penalties for providing a nickel to the same organization?”
Robert Baer, a retired C.I.A. agent who is fluent in Arabic and had worked under cover in Kurdistan and throughout the Middle East in his career, initially had told me in early 2004 of being recruited by a private American company—working, so he believed, on behalf of the Bush Administration—to return to Iraq. “They wanted me to help the M.E.K. collect intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program,” Baer recalled. “They thought I knew Farsi, which I did not. I said I’d get back to them, but never did.” Baer, now living in California, recalled that it was made clear to him at the time that the operation was “a long-term thing—not just a one-shot deal.”
Massoud Khodabandeh, an I.T. expert now living in England who consults for the Iraqi government, was an official with the M.E.K. before defecting in 1996. In a telephone interview, he acknowledged that he is an avowed enemy of the M.E.K., and has advocated against the group. Khodabandeh said that he had been with the group since before the fall of the Shah and, as a computer expert, was deeply involved in intelligence activities as well as providing security for the M.E.K. leadership. For the past decade, he and his English wife have run a support program for other defectors. Khodabandeh told me that he had heard from more recent defectors about the training in Nevada. He was told that the communications training in Nevada involved more than teaching how to keep in contact during attacks—it also involved communication intercepts. The United States, he said, at one point found a way to penetrate some major Iranian communications systems. At the time, he said, the U.S. provided M.E.K. operatives with the ability to intercept telephone calls and text messages inside Iran—which M.E.K. operatives translated and shared with American signals intelligence experts. He does not know whether this activity is ongoing.
Five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated since 2007. M.E.K. spokesmen have denied any involvement in the killings, but early last month NBC News quoted two senior Obama Administration officials as confirming that the attacks were carried out by M.E.K. units that were financed and trained by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. NBC further quoted the Administration officials as denying any American involvement in the M.E.K. activities. The former senior intelligence official I spoke with seconded the NBC report that the Israelis were working with the M.E.K., adding that the operations benefitted from American intelligence. He said that the targets were not “Einsteins”; “The goal is to affect Iranian psychology and morale,” he said, and to “demoralize the whole system—nuclear delivery vehicles, nuclear enrichment facilities, power plants.” Attacks have also been carried out on pipelines. He added that the operations are “primarily being done by M.E.K. through liaison with the Israelis, but the United States is now providing the intelligence.” An adviser to the special-operations community told me that the links between the United States and M.E.K. activities inside Iran had been long-standing. “Everything being done inside Iran now is being done with surrogates,” he said.
The sources I spoke to were unable to say whether the people trained in Nevada were now involved in operations in Iran or elsewhere. But they pointed to the general benefit of American support. “The M.E.K. was a total joke,” the senior Pentagon consultant said, “and now it’s a real network inside Iran. How did the M.E.K. get so much more efficient?” he asked rhetorically. “Part of it is the training in Nevada. Part of it is logistical support in Kurdistan, and part of it is inside Iran. M.E.K. now has a capacity for efficient operations than it never had before.”
In mid-January, a few days after an assassination by car bomb of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, at a town-hall meeting of soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, acknowledged that the U.S. government has “some ideas as to who might be involved, but we don’t know exactly who was involved.” He added, “But I can tell you one thing: the United States was not involved in that kind of effort. That’s not what the United States does.”
Mohammad Karami, Paris, November 28 2013: … after the recent exposures and revelations by the survivors of the cult, in particular after Dr. Karim Ghasim, Dr. Mohammad Reza Rohani left the National Council of Resistance (NCRI, another name for Mojahedin Khalq) and the recent revelations made by Hadi Afshar (Saeed Jamali), Iraj Mesdaghi and others, the Leadership …
Marrive News, Tel Aviv, November 24 2013: … According to the Israeli press, the Israeli financial grant to the organization comes after the MEK promised to provide detailed and accurate information about Iran’s nuclear facilities, stressing that Israel had previously given financial and in-kind assistance to the organization over three stages. The MEK’s press release some days ago contained …
Ashraf news Baghdad, November 24 2013: … Al Zyoud said through his Facebook page, “Remember always that the Iranian opposition was sponsored by Great Martyr Saddam Hussein, and our faithful commander met with them and listened to them and I will talk about those meetings.” The Jordanian Parliamentary delegation, which comprised 19 MPs from the Congress, drew sharp criticism …