Journalism in the Public Interest

Watergate Journalist Carl Bernstein Spoke at Event Supporting Iranian ‘Terrorist’ Group

Bernstein was paid $12,000 for remarks in which he challenged the State Department to show evidence the Mujahadin-e Khalq should continue to be designated a terrorist organization.


Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein speaks during an event sponsored by The Washington Post to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Watergate on June 11, 2012. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Update, Sept. 21, 2012: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided to remove the MEK from the U.S. government list of foreign terrorist organizations, CNN reports, marking a victory for the group and the dozens of former officials who have been paid to speak at events urging the policy shift. Clinton was up against a court-imposed October 1 deadline to make a decision about whether the MEK should remain on the list. The decision has not been officially announced, but an unnamed U.S. official told CNN: "We don't love these people but the secretary's decision is merited based on the record of facts that we have."

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 Mujahadin-e Khalq (MEK) 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 MEK 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 MEK 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-MEK group under the title "The Kafkaesque Nature of Things," compared the presence of the MEK 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-MEK 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-MEK 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 MEK 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 MEK 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-MEK 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-MEK 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 MEK.

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 MEK now says it has renounced violence and has sued to be removed from the terrorist list. (Bernstein’s speech also referred to the “murderous bureaucracy” that runs Iran, “against whom the MEK has courageously fought.”)

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-MEK 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-MEK groups are thought to have spent millions of dollars on the events in recent years.

The Americans speaking at pro-MEK 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-MEK 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-MEK 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 MEK 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/MEK 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 MEK.

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 MEK at the center of U.S. policy toward Iran.

The Global Initiative for Democracy was incorporated in Virginia last November. The Alexandria-based group’s mission statement says it “engages in wide ranging activities nationwide to promote the cause of democracy, human rights, religious tolerance, and cultural and artistic diversity in Iran as well as to ensure the safety and security of political refugees and asylum-seekers.”

But, much like other groups that have organized pro-MEK events, the Global Initiative for Democracy appears to be primarily focused on the MEK. The only other event detailed on the group’s website was a pro-MEK event held at a Washington hotel in May and featuring former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, among others. News stories featured on the group’s website mostly involve the MEK.

A decision by the Obama administration on the MEK's status is expected soon.

Citing two unnamed American officials, The New York Times reported earlier this month that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was preparing to possibly redesignate the MEK as a terrorist group, partly because of the failure of the MEK to fully vacate the group’s home in Iraq, called Camp Ashraf, to a new location.

The Iraqi government wants hundreds of MEK members to leave the camp and, ultimately, the country. MEK members first found haven in Iraq in the 1980s during the rule of Saddam Hussein, who armed the group and, according to the State Department, “deployed thousands of MEK fighters in suicidal, waves of attacks against Iranian forces” in the Iran-Iraq war. The group now has an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 members worldwide.

The most recent acts of violence committed by the MEK were “regular mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids against Iranian military and law enforcement personnel” near the Iran-Iraq border in 2001, according to the State Department’s annual terrorism report. French authorities also arrested 160 MEK members in 2003 “at operational bases they believed the MEK was using to coordinate financing and planning for terrorist attacks.”

By law, an organization can be placed on the list of foreign terrorist organizations if it engages in terrorist activity or “or retain[s] the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism.” In the waning days of the Bush administration in 2009, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied an MEK petition to be removed from the list.

The State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, told reporters in July that the closure of Camp Ashraf would be a key factor informing the agency’s decision because “the history and the use of Ashraf is that of an MEK paramilitary base.”

“It’s where the MEK had its heavy weaponry and from which it carried out a number of military operations during the reign of Saddam Hussein,” he said. “The MEK’s relocation will assist the Secretary in determining whether the organization remains invested in its violent past or is committed to leaving that past behind.”

After several years of legal wrangling, a federal appeals court in June ordered that Clinton must decide on the MEK’s status by Oct. 1. If she fails to take action, the court said it would delist the MEK itself. The order also criticized Clinton for putting off a decision on the MEK, calling the delay “egregious.”

In a petition to the court, the MEK’s lawyers said the group’s leadership decided to end all use of violence in 2001. It also pointed to decisions by Britain and the European Union in 2008 and 2009 to declassify the MEK as a terrorist group.

From left to right: Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey (at podium); former Congressman Patrick Kennedy; Bernstein; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean; former House Speaker Dennis Hastert; former New York City Rudy Giuliani; retired General Henry Shelton; retired General George Casey; former FBI director Louis Freeh; retired Lieutenant General David Deptula

The lineup at the February event at the Waldorf-Astoria, from left: Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey (at podium); former Congressman Patrick Kennedy; Bernstein; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean; former House Speaker Dennis Hastert; former New York City Rudy Giuliani; retired General Henry Shelton; retired General George Casey; former FBI director Louis Freeh; retired Lieutenant General David Deptula (Global Initiative for Democracy)

“For the legal at heart, there were no funds provided by NCRI/MEK or any other so-called front groups”

What is and what isn’t a “front group”? When the State Department issued its first list of FTOs under the 1996 Antiterrorism Act, it did not include the NCRI as an alias of the MEK. That was later changed. The “Iranian-American Community of Northern California”, or more specifically some of its individual members, are the contact people that operate the NCRI and MEK web sites hosted in the U.S. If the “Iranian-American Community of Northern California” were added as an alias, you can be sure that some new front group would be created.

I can respect Carl Bernstein’s position as far it applies to rights under the Constitution but I fail to see how designating the MEK benefits the regime in Iran in any way.

Are your kidding? Designating the most organized opposition to the Ayatollahs is a big gift by the “Great Satan” to the Iranian regime. Tehran has killed tens of thousands of the members of the group over the past few years. Most of those executed or sentenced to death after the summer 2009 uprising in Iran were MEK members and supporters. Mr. Bernstein is wise to take the position he has taken. It is the most honorable thing to do if you are on the side of those who have been repressed.

“On a Saturday afternoon last February, journalist Carl Bernstein got up on stage”  What?  Why is this news?  If it is news, why seven months between the event and the reporting?

Carl Bernstein is my hero forever. If he thinks the MEK is kosher, I am good. But I am sure he is right. He knows who the enemy is, and who our allies are.
If this group is opposing the Iranian rulers who suppress women and use them for unjustified purposes, I am for this group. The leader of MEK is a women and many of its members are women; that should say something about this group.

What I want to know is where is this MEK group, that have been hiding in the Kurdish mountains until relatively recently, etc., is getting the money, clout, etc. for such events, in Paris, the Waldorf, etc.
and so many speakers—Bolton, Giuliani, Gingrich, Richardson, Kennedy, Page, Bernstein and so many others to support their cause????

Has anyone else wondered about all this?

Written declaration 0075/2010, tabled by Alejo Vidal-Quadras, Stephen Hughes, Kristiina Ojuland, Søren Bo Søndergaard and Struan Stevenson, on Camp Ashraf (minutes of 25.11.2010, item 7 and P7_TA(2010)0452), had been signed by 401 Members.

Texts adopted

Thursday, 25 November 2010 - Strasbourg, Final edition

Camp Ashraf

Declaration of the European Parliament of 25 November 2010 on Camp Ashraf

The European Parliament ,

–  having regard to its previous resolutions on human rights in Iran,

–  having regard to its resolution of 24 April 2009 on Camp Ashraf(1) , home to 3400 Iranian dissidents in Iraq, including 1000 women, all of whom are ‘Protected Persons’ under the 4th Geneva Convention,

–  having regard to the removal of the opposition PMOI from the EU’s blacklist in 2009,

–  having regard to Rule 123 of its Rules of Procedure,

A.  whereas several relatives of Ashraf residents have been sentenced to death by the Iranian regime after returning from visits to their families in Ashraf,

B.  whereas the Iraqi Government has failed to respect the EP resolution and is continuing a merciless siege of the Camp,

C.  whereas the residents are still being subjected to external pressures under the pretext that the PMOI remains on the US blacklist,

D.  whereas in July 2010 the US Appeals Court in Washington ruled in favour of the PMOI and urged the State Department to review its decision to maintain them on the US terrorist blacklist,

E.  whereas US and UN forces have withdrawn from Ashraf and residents are now vulnerable to attack,

1.  Calls on the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to urge the USA to follow the example of the EU by removing the PMOI from its blacklist and to urge the UN to provide urgent protection for Ashraf;

2.  Instructs its President to forward this declaration, together with the names of the signatories(2) , to the Council, the Commission and the parliaments of the Member States.

add to that 22 victorious court ruling in favor of MEK in UK, France EU and US, rejecting the terrorist designation, including two the US Court of Appeal DC Circuit and also the Fact that the residents in Camp Ashraf, members of MEK are considered as protected persons under the 4th Geneva Convention.

Non of this is mentioned in this article wonder why???!!! Carrying water for the mullahs are we, hmmmmm, who much are you paid??

Please include my email address to any organization that is in need of a speaker ,—schedule of fees—-

A favorable mention of your organization—-$12,000

A most favorable mention——$20,000

As was reveiled earlier this year, the MEK was trained ” in commo, crypto, small-unit tactics and weaponry.”  by the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command[JSOC) at a Department of Energy site in Nevada under the Bush Administration

Facing current challenges in US-Iranian relations the Department of State seems eager to restore alliance with the MEK in case of an armed intervention against the Iranian regime.

Unlike the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration is keen enough to delist the MEK from its list of terrorist organizations before engaging in further supportive measures.
For more see:

Seems very odd that ProPublica thinks this is worth it’s time… Doesn’t ProPublica usually go after the bad guys? Has something changed?

The so-at-the-ready litany of events & reasons listed above by Juergista renders my question above even more crucial.  Who is taking such an interest in this group, at such great energy & cost?  Whenever the condition of women these days is cited as a reason for specific action in a specific location, it should raise suspicion.  Malalai Joya, the great anti-war campaigner, & former member of Parliament of Afghanistan, will tell you as much.

#nick petitte try Press TV, FARS News, NYT, WP, and, ProPublica, TMmucker, NIAC .... they would greatfully accept your speech or op-ed, but do not forget “the MEK kill the Iranian nuclear Scientists (that is the point here understand and saddam help them to, OK do not forget these points)”

A travesty of justice.

salwa haddad

Aug. 31, 2012, 5 p.m.

All the details in the comment above pose more questions than they answer.  Certainly the MLK, in hiding and supposedly “hunted,” as such is not capable of such activity.  Who is so interested in them, with all the resources needed to go to all that trouble, and why???

Pretty impressive panel of unpaid people.

“A decision by the Obama administration on the MEK’s status is expected soon.”

In this dark time of our history (Iran) like any other times in the past, we will not forget our friends and the brave one who stood on the side of the truth….
My question is for Justin Elliott: why are you writing against any one who talks about MEK and people of Ashraf? and how much the get paid? Don’t you get paid to write these articles? well, The point for me is the truth. I don’t care if I have to pay to find out about it.
Thank you

The trouble here is having a “terrorist watch list”.  One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.  The US is still annoyed that Iran threw over the local puppet government in 1979, and the effects of that have shaped Middle East policy for the last couple of decades.

Nations need to stop fiddling with other peoples’ futures for their own petty self-interest, and the world just might become a better place.

You are all missing the point. The point is poor muslims are rounded up and thrown in GITMO and tortured to death for “material support” of terrorists. 

Here we have rich, powerful folks being paid to do just that. 

The argument isn’t just about whether or not the MEK is a terrorist group.  It is about why their is a set of laws for poor muslims, and another set of laws for the rich and powerful.

Ask Seymour Hersh or Glenn Greenwald about the MEK.

Paul Sheldon Foote

Sep. 1, 2012, 12:35 a.m.

At least Benedict Arnold was a war hero in the American Revolution before he became a traitor.  Today, Americans do not need to look to foreign countries for America’s worst enemies.  They need look only at those Americans who take money from the Iranian Communist MEK (MKO, PMOI, NCRI, Rajavi Cult, or Pol Pot of Iran) terrorists.

“...the designation of terrorist and subversive organizations as a smokescreen for other things.”  This sounds more reasonable from our govt.  If they don’t like you then just designate someone a terrorist whether domestically or internationally.

I cannot say who is right, but if our government is going to label us, each of us, something awful then they should at least document it.  Americans need to take a more defiant stand against their govt. to be more accountable.  Need to read about these Americans who do take a stand against their govt.  It’s so accurtate for today so I recommend it.

At least someone is taking action instead of feeling hopeless.  Great article.

Tommy P Wilson

Sep. 1, 2012, 11:46 a.m.

Hey… Rudy Giuliani, Patrick Kennedy, Michael Mukasey, and Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. you have given “material support”...
One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter I guess.
What a world…
Great article… thanks.

Looks like culties are commenting here.  (Tara Hope, looking at you)

The problem with MEK isn’t just that it’s a terrorist group, but also that (like most/all such groups) it is a mind control cult.with Rajavi as charismatic leader. The reason there is currently a push to delist them as a terrorist organization in the US is to provide cover for the US/Israel, which have in recent years been not-so-covertly training/equipping the group to act as their agents within Iran for such totally non-terroristic activities as assasinations.

Please do a Google Earth Search for Camp Ashraf, the current location of MEK forces. Scroll around to the east and then north and south along the Iranian border.

Note the potential of Camp Ashraf and vicinity for smuggling, infiltration, and invasion by anyone on the Iraqi side of the border into the Iranian sidei. This is prime real-estate for a war of any desired level of intenisty against Iran. Moving the MEK out of the way lets anything our military policy-makers want in there instead.

Frank Winstead

Sep. 4, 2012, 11:04 a.m.

So how far back has Carl Bernstein been a paid agent of foreign interests?

How much of his work on Watergate was influenced by these and other foreign interests?

I feel like Bernstein is in a better situation there than some of the others who have accepted money for the same gig, since he’s not (and doesn’t aspire to be) a government official.

However, all the same, “I was not there as an advocate,” is kind of a load of crap.  If you accept money to attend the event, you’re a paid advocate their cause.  To think otherwise is deceiving yourself.

I don’t have a problem with advocating the cause (though I haven’t seen the sea change in MEK that these people claim to see), but just admit that your paid presence is at least an implicit (and arguably explicit) endorsement.

Loosers are loosers. MEK, received funds from US and its allies, particularly Germany and UK, to help Saddam and Iraqi armed forces from 1980 to 1988 to fight with Iranians. They have no room in Iran and no esteem among the people fo Iran.
If the neocons in the District of Columbia think that MEK will be installed after Israeli attack, and US support, as part of Bolton, Bush, Rice strategy, a banckrupt theory that time has proved to be futile, then the West must think twice!

Edward Dylan Goff

Sep. 10, 2012, 4:06 a.m.

I think an important story would be why Mitt Romney’s foreign policy adviser, Mitchell Reiss, would be a paid speaker at MEK events. Since pro-MEK speakers can reportedly earn up to “$30,000 or more per talk and first-class flights to European capitals” you have to wonder why this isn’t a violation of the Patriot Act which strictly forbids “material support or resources” 

That is defined in the PA as “expert advice or assistance” means advice or assistance derived from scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge.” (We can assumed they have been chosen on that account and not on their fashion sense.)

The Supreme Court has also defined “support” very broadly.  “[F]oreign organizations that engage in terrorist activity are so tainted by their criminal conduct that any contribution to such an organization facilitates that conduct.”

Rudi may like to claim that MEK is not a terrorist organization. In fact it is, according to the State Department, and participation,  in the group should be investigated.

Nader Moavenian

Sep. 11, 2012, 9:15 p.m.

Justin Elliott writes with so much hatred toward MEK and anyone supporting the cause of justice for MEK that makes anyone with a reasonable mind to wonder if he is somehow on the payroll of the fascist regime of Mullahs of Iran. This is not his first article against MEK and it won’t be his last. I pray that the truth comes out sooner rather than later to put an end to his so called journalism career for sake of the public he is trying to full!

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories