Ex-US Officials Face 'Material Support' Probe for Terror Links

Former Homeland Security advisor to George W. Bush, Fran Townsend. (Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing)

Ex-US Officials Face 'Material Support' Probe for Terror Links

High-ups in US political establishment expose hypocrisy by ignoring federal law they championed

A Treasury Department investigation has been initiated against nearly two dozen former high-ranking US officials, many who continue to hold elite positions of power in media and policy circles or private industry, for their active support and financial ties to an Iranian dissident group, the People's Mujahedin of Iran (or MEK), that is listed by the State Department as a 'terror organization'.

Those under investigation represent a bipartisan group including former Democratic governors Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Howard Dean of Vermont; former Republican Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush, Fran Townsend, Bush's Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, and former UN ambassador John Bolton; former Republican Mayor of New York, Rudolph Guiliani; and ex-FBI Director Louis Freeh and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton, among others.

Due to a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010 that affirmed a DOJ interpretation of the 'material support' statute, The MEK's listing as a terror organization makes it illegal to coordinate with, provide assistance to, or take payment from the group.

"What is particularly repellent about all of this," Glenn Greenwald recently wrote about the situation, "Is not the supreme hypocrisy and self-interested provincialism" of these former officials. That's par for the course. The real problem, he argues

... is that there are large numbers of people -- almost always Muslims -- who have been prosecuted and are now in prison for providing "material support" to Terrorist groups for doing far less than Fran Townsend and her fellow cast of bipartisan ex-officials have done with and on behalf of MEK. In fact, the U.S. Government has been (under the administration in which Townsend worked) and still is (under the administration Rendell supports) continuously prosecuting Muslims for providing "material support" for Terrorist groups based on their pure speech, all while Fran Townsend, Ed Rendell and company have said nothing or, worse, supported the legal interpretations that justified these prosecutions.

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MSNBC reports today:

The investigation, being conducted by the Treasury Department, is focused on whether the former officials may have received funding, directly or indirectly, from the People's Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK, thereby violating longstanding federal law barring financial dealings with terrorist groups. The sources, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said that speaking fees given to the former officials total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"This is about finding out where the money is coming from," an Obama administration official familiar with the probe said. "This has been a source of enormous concern for a long time now. You have to ask the question, whether this is a prima facie case of material support for terrorism."

Freeh and Shelton are among 40 former senior U.S. government officials who have participated in a public lobbying campaign - including appearing at overseas conferences and speaking at public rallies - aimed at persuading the U.S. government to remove the MEK from the terror list.

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Greenwald, who has followed the story closely, wrote earlier this week:

[The Supreme Court ruling in Holder v. Humanitarian Law (pdf)] was one of the most severe erosions of free speech rights in decades because, as Justice Breyer (joined by Ginsberg and Sotomayor) pointed out in dissent, "all the activities" at issue, which the DOJ's interpretation would criminalize, "involve the communication and advocacy of political ideas and lawful means of achieving political ends." The dissent added that the DOJ's broad interpretation of the statute "gravely and without adequate justification injure[s] interests of the kind the First Amendment protects." As Georgetown Law Professor David Cole, who represented the plaintiffs, explained, this was literally "the first time ever" that "the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment permits the criminalization of pure speech advocating lawful, nonviolent activity." Thus, "the court rule[d] that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolent activity can be made a crime, and that any coordination with a blacklisted group can land a citizen in prison for 15 years." Then-Solicitor-General Elena Kagan argued the winning Obama DOJ position before the Court.

Whatever one's views are on this ruling, it is now binding law. To advocate on behalf of a designated Terrorist group constitutes the felony of "providing material support" if that advocacy is coordinated with the group.

And he notes the hypocrisy, referencing a previous post where he highlighted the many muslims who have been charged under the statute:

  • A Staten Island satellite TV salesman in 2009 was sentenced to five years in federal prison merely for including a Hezbollah TV channel as part of the satellite package he sold to customers;
  • a Massachusetts resident, Tarek Mehanna, is being prosecuted now "for posting pro-jihadist material on the internet";
  • a 24-year-old Pakistani legal resident living in Virginia, Jubair Ahmad, was indicted last September for uploading a 5-minute video to YouTube that was highly critical of U.S. actions in the Muslim world, an allegedly criminal act simply because prosecutors claim he discussed the video in advance with the son of a leader of a designated Terrorist organization (Lashkar-e-Tayyiba);
  • a Saudi Arabian graduate student, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, was prosecuted simply for maintaining a website with links "to groups that praised suicide bombings in Chechnya and in Israel" and "jihadist" sites that solicited donations for extremist groups (he was ultimately acquitted); and,
  • last July, a 22-year-old former Penn State student and son of an instructor at the school, Emerson Winfield Begolly, was indicted for -- in the FBI's words -- "repeatedly using the Internet to promote violent jihad against Americans" by posting comments on a "jihadist" Internet forum including "a comment online that praised the shootings" at a Marine Corps base, action which former Obama lawyer Marty Lederman said "does not at first glance appear to be different from the sort of advocacy of unlawful conduct that is entitled to substantial First Amendment protection."

Now, he writes, "we have the most well-connected national security and military officials in Washington doing far more than all of that right out in the open -- they're receiving large payments from a Terrorist group, meeting with its leaders, attending their meetings, and then advocating for them in very public forums; Howard Dean, after getting paid by the group, actually called for MEK's leader to be recognized as the legitimate President of Iran - and so far none have been prosecuted or even indicted. The Treasury Department investigation must at least scare them."

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Talking Points Memoadds:

TPM reached out to nearly two dozen high-profile speakers from past pro-MEK events, many of whom have acknowledged being paid, and who have advocated for taking the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq taken off the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Most didn't respond. Those who did, like former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, had no comment. And those we managed to get on the phone didn't have much to say either.

"I don't plan to comment on any of that," former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean told TPM. "It's unfortunate because there's been a lot of misinformation in the mainstream media out there. When the blogs start repeating Iranian propaganda, we've got a problem."

It's never been entirely clear who actually pays for the speeches, which are typically arranged through speaking agencies. Rendell told the New York Times he was under the impression that his speaking fees came from Iranian-American supporters of the MEK and not the group itself. That is in line with what TPM was told by an organizer of an August 2011 rally outside the State Department. "Some of them are paid, some of them aren't," Hamid Azimi told TPM, adding that people wouldn't even be asking about the payments if MEK wasn't on the list.

It is illegal for Americans to do business with designated terrorist groups or, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, advocate for positions in coordination with such organizations. The Treasury Department isn't commenting on the probe.

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