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Carl Bernstein's Folly: Muckraking Journalist Caught Giving Paid Speeches to Iranian 'Terrorist' Group

Bernstein was paid $12,000 to deliver a speech that was part of a years-long campaign to free an Iranian group from the official terrorist label.

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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.”