The Cable

Former State Official Helped Delist the MEK As a Terror Threat. That Doesn’t Mean He Wants to Testify With Them.

A former State Department counterterror official is refusing to testify along side the president of an Iranian group once on the U.S. terror list.

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A controversial Iranian dissidents group may no longer be considered by the U.S. as a terror threat. But it has spooked a former State Department counterterror official who is refusing to testify at a House hearing where the group’s leader will also speak.

The April 29 hearing, in front of a House subcommittee on terrorism and nonproliferation, will focus on the threat from the Islamic State, which has overrun much of Syria and Iraq. Among the invited speakers is Maryam Rajavi, president of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which is the umbrella organization for groups that include Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).

Until 2012, the MEK was on the State Department’s terrorism list for killing six Americans in the 1970s. For years, the MEK  — which has been likened to a cult — filled campaign coffers of numerous lawmakers while paying steep speaking fees to officials like former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who were paid up to $30,000 for speeches supporting the MEK — which is dedicated to overthrowing Iran’s clerical regime.

Daniel Benjamin, formerly the State Department’s counterterror coordinator, also was slated to testify at the House hearing. But on Monday, Benjamin declared that “I will not appear at a hearing” about the Islamic State with the MEK’s defacto leader, because “I know of no substantive expertise that the MEK has developed on ISIS.” News of Benjamin’s cancellation was first mentioned on Twitter by ALM Congress Pulse.

In an email to Foreign Policy, Benjamin noted that the MEK’s “exclusive focus” of concern has for decades been Iran. “So one has to wonder what the purpose of Rajavi’s presence on this panel is,” said Benjamin, who is now director of an international studies program at Dartmouth University.

“Being delisted as a Foreign Terrorist Organization — a decision I took part in — doesn’t mean that this group … has suddenly … become trustworthy or worthy of engagement,” he said.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who sits on the House panel, disputed that, and said the group should no longer be vilified since it is no longer on the U.S. list of foreign terror threats.

“Former is former,” Sherman told FP Monday afternoon, referring to the State Department list. He said the group helped uncover Iran’s secretive nuclear facility at Natanz.

However, other claims by the group have been less reliable. The Obama administration believed the MEK was providing misinformation in an effort to derail recent nuclear talks with Iran. During negotiations MEK insisted Tehran was building underground nuclear facilities, an assertion dismissed by the State Department.

The MEK did not return multiple requests for comment. It last drew widespread attention in Washington in 2013, when members of the group were trapped at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. American supporters of the group sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to help the MEK members escape “premeditated mass murder planned at the highest level and executed by Iraqi forces and agents, using equipment and training provided by U.S. forces.”

Sherman also dismissed Benjamin’s rationale for pulling out of his appearance — that MEK had nothing to offer on the Islamic State threat.

“If people pulled out of hearings just because they thought the witnesses’ expertise was on a related issue but not on the official title of the hearing, we’d have a lot of empty chairs,” he said.

Photo Credit: Mehdi Fedouach/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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