Seymour Hersh writes: 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.” [Continue reading…]
Max Fisher writes: Even if Hersh is wrong, there is a long list of U.S. leaders and officials who would like to make him right. Members of the “MEK lobby,” as it’s often called, support at least removing the group from the list of officially designated terrorist groups, and often some combination of arming or funding the fighters. They include: two former CIA directors, a former FBI director, a former attorney general, Bush’s first homeland security chief, Obama’s first national security adviser, Rudy Giuliani, and Howard Dean. A House resolution calling for MEK to be de-listed as a terrorist group has 97 co-sponsors.
It’s not a coincidence that the pro-MEK position can seem confusing, even contradictory. The world is too complicated and interconnected for “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to work as a foreign policy mandate. It leads the U.S. to work against its own long-term interests, “solving” short-term problems by creating bigger, longer-term problems. For example: supporting Arab dictators to suppress the Arab Islamist parties that may soon take over, supporting Latin American rightist who ended up being murderous dictators, supporting anti-Soviet fighters who later turned against us, and so on. Sometimes, the U.S. even supports enemies-of-our-enemies who are actively and currently also our enemy: Afghan drug ring leader Ahmed Wali Karzai, for example, or, starting in 2003, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Still, let’s assume, for the purposes of discussion, that American MEK enthusiasts are right in arguing that the radical Marxist group, which assassinated six Americans in the 1970s, has since become, and always will be, as American as apple pie. Supporting this terrorist group is still likely to do far more harm than good.
The U.S. has a long history of arming rebels, insurgents, and outright terrorists who want to fight our enemies for us. Even when it works — and it often doesn’t — the U.S.-sponsored fighters often spread small arms, exacerbate anti-American attitudes, and entrench a cycle of violence that can continues for years and sometimes spin out of control. When Congress shoveled millions of dollars into CIA programs to support anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan, much of the guns and money by design went to the extremists. A December 1984 CIA memo identified “fundamentalists” such as Mujahideen leader (and current American enemy) Gulbidden Hekmatyar as “the best fighters” and thus best recipient of American backing. Even the Afghan extremists who didn’t turn against the U.S. did use their arms and money to rampage across Afghanistan, sowing the chaos, violence, mistrust, corruption, crime, and poverty that has plagued the country for now 30 years.