have focused attention on the mysterious
role foreign money has come to play in
American politics. So what is one to say
about a U.S. senator who openly accepts
campaign money from a group the
State Department calls terrorists?
Robert Torricelli has never had a reputation for impeccableprobity. During his stint on the House Intelligence Committee he wasseveral times accused of publishing classified intelligenceinformation to suit his own political agenda. In 1996, he ran abitter, mud-slinging campaign to win the U.S. Senate seat in NewJersey vacated by Democrat Bill Bradley. But now a TAS investigationhas learned that in his thirst for campaign dollars Torricelli hasregularly sought and received contributions from foreign nationalswho are members of an international terrorist group and has promotedtheir cause with President Bill Clinton and Vice President AlGore.
Torricelli makes no bones of his ties to the group, theMujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), also known as the People's MujahedinOrganization of Iran (PMOI). Indeed, he has actively promoted thegroup with other members of Congress, despite repeated warnings fromthe State Department about its terrorist activities, which includethe killing of American servicemen in Iran in the 1970's, andparticipation in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran inNovember 1979. Under a new law, the State Department on October 8designated thirty groups as international terrorist organizations,making it illegal for them to raise funds in the United States anddenying their representatives U.S. visas. One of those groups wasTorricelli's buddies, the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran.
The State Department action has "opened the doors for the FBI andTreasury to investigate MEK fundraising activities in the UnitedStates," a State Department official told TAS. Many Iranian-Americanshave complained of being harassed by the group in its quest forfunds, and have identified a variety of "charities" and frontcompanies it uses for these purposes. TAS has learned that the FBIhad the group under investigation for eight years in the 1980's for avariety of criminal offenses, but was taken off the case followingIraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Intense lobbying from Congressplayed a part in the decision, FBI sources say, but so did a growingneed to focus FBI resources on possible Iraqi terrorist activities inthe U.S.
While the Mujahedin claims to oppose the ruling clerics in Tehran,they took part in the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, helped round up andexecute supporters of the former Shah, and actively backed theseizure of the U.S. embassy. In 1981 the group's leader, MassoudRajavi, called for the expulsion of Iranian Jews from the army andfor special restrictions to be placed on Jewish businesses in Iran.After splitting with the regime in June 1981, the Mujahedin migratedto Iraq and fought side by side with Iraqi troops during the1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Their embrace of Saddam Hussein -- whoprovided the MEK with weapons and training camps -- won them thecontempt of most Iranians, who today view the group as little morethan Iraqi collaborators. Most recently, the group has helped SaddamHussein in military operations against Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq.
The MEK is vowing to take the State Department to court over itsaction, and it has turned to Torricelli for help. A Torricellispokesperson, Sue Harvey, told TAS that the senator wrote toPresident Clinton shortly after the State Department designation toask him to take the group off the terrorism list. Why all thesolicitude for a terrorist group close to Saddam Hussein? As withmany things in the Clinton camp, the answer is money. Over the pastthree years, the MEK and its supporters have given Torricelli$136,000 in precious "hard money," according to Federal ElectionsCommission records. They also kicked in $23,000 in soft money to theDemocratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which helpedTorricelli in his successful Senate bid.
Torricelli has stood by these supporters. In his House days, hesponsored more than a half-dozen resolutions and letters of supportfor the organization, which he circulated among his colleagues fortheir signatures. In keeping with the MEK's tactics, the supportletters began with rousing condemnations of human rights violationsin Iran and the terrorist record of the regime. Only near the bottom(or in one case, in a separate statement that was not always includedwith the cover letter) was the group mentioned -- hyped as a"democratic alternative" to the Tehran regime. Said an aide to acongressman who signed such a letter in 1995: "Who wouldn't havesigned a letter calling on the President of the United States to takeharsher measures against Iranian state-sponsored terrorism? This isan apple pie issue." One embarrassed signer, Virginia Democrat JamesMoran, later issued a public retraction, explaining he'd been trickedinto signing the letter "under false pretenses" and that "it wasnever my intention to endorse or promote the National Council ofResistance of Iran, or the Iranian Community of Virginia, as theyidentified themselves to me."
Torricelli has not been the only recipient of Mujahedin largesse.Indeed, information collected from FEC records as well as fromIranian exiles and U.S. counter-intelligence officials suggests thatthe group ran a coordinated effort to win political favors. In thepast three years it donated more than $215,000 to six members ofCongress who have urged U.S. support for the group and its politicalfronts -- including the National Council of Resistance (NCR), whichmaintains a significant Washington presence.
But according to the Mujahedin themselves, Torricelli has donemore than just sponsor congressional letters on their behalf. In aPersian-language press release issued from their European officeoutside Paris on October 23, the group claimed that Torricelli hadintroduced three of their members to President Clinton at a DSCCfundraiser in Washington on October 21. According to the statement,Torricelli took them over to the president's table, where they askedClinton "to be more firm against the religious dictatorship in Iran"and to overturn the State Department ban.
While the White House confirmed that the president attended theDSCC event, it had no immediate comment on the alleged meeting withthe Iranians. But Torricelli spokesperson Sue Harvey immediatelydenied the Mujahedin's version of events. "Senator Torricelli did notinvite members of the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran to thisdinner," Harvey told TAS. "And Senator Torricelli did not introduceany Mujahedin members to the president."
As it happens, only a few months earlier, at a Labor Partyconference in Britain, an MEK member posed with two beaming"friends," prime minister Tony Blair and foreign secretary RobinCook. After the Mujahedin published the photograph in theirPersian-language weekly, Iran Zamin, claiming Blair's support fortheir cause (which Blair fiercely denied), the British governmentdeclared the group's co-leader, Maryam Rajavi, "undesirable" andbarred her from entering Britain. Expelled from France in June 1996,Mrs. Rajavi was trying to establish residence in Britain, rather thanreturn to Baghdad where her husband and his Mujahedin have theirbiggest base of support.
Certainly Torricelli didn't have to be tricked. Of the threeMujahedin representatives who attended the October 21 dinner, AlirezaJaafarzadeh and Hedayat Mostowfi were well known to Torricelli andhis staff as official representatives of the group's National Councilof Resistance front, while the third, Mona Samsani, is affiliatedwith the MEK's women's organization. The trio was also well known tothe DSCC. A committee spokesman told TAS that all three were "pastcontributors to the DSCC and are on our mailing list," and so wouldhave been invited to the dinner as a matter of course. In aClintonian dodge, Sue Harvey said that Torricelli could not haveintroduced the Mujahedin to Clinton "for the simple reason that thesenator had left the pre-dinner reception before the presidentarrived." But she also acknowledged that Torricelli introducedClinton "at the main event" -- precisely where the Mujahedin claimtheir own introductions took place.
This is an excerpt of "Torricelli's Terrorist List Friends" fromthe January 1998 issue of The American Spectator.
Kenneth R. Timmerman, a frequent contributor to TAS, is thepublisher of Iran Brief.