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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.

Photo Credit: Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia Commons


On a Saturday afternoon last February, journalist Carl Bernstein got up on stage at the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and delivered a speech questioning the listing of an obscure Iranian group called the Mujahadin-e Khalq (MEK) on the U.S. government list of officially designated foreign terrorist organizations.

The speech, before a crowd an organizer put at 1,500, made Bernstein one of the few journalists who has appeared at events in a years-long campaign by MEK supporters to free the group from the official terrorist label and the legal sanctions that come with it. He told ProPublica that he was paid $12,000 for the appearance but that, “I was not there as an advocate.”

Bernstein told the crowd that, "I come here as an advocate of the best obtainable version of the truth" and as "someone who believes in basic human rights and their inalienable status." He also challenged the State Department, saying that if the agency “has evidence that the MEK is a terrorist organization, have a show-cause hearing in court, let them prove it.”

Joining him on stage at the Park Avenue hotel was a decorated group including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former congressman Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Bernstein's speech, reprinted on the website of another pro-MEK group under the title "The Kafkaesque Nature of Things," compared the presence of the MEK on the terrorist list to his parents' experience belonging to a group that was on a U.S. government list of subversive organizations during the McCarthy era.

“So I know, like you, what it means to be designated a certain way and your cause and your purpose misunderstood, twisted, and turned into something that it is not," he said. "When, in fact, the evil, the terrorism, the real terrorism, is in the heart of Tehran, not in this room."

In an interview, Bernstein told ProPublica that the pro-MEK events are “obviously … part of a lobbying campaign” but his speech was “largely about using the designation of terrorist and subversive organizations as a smokescreen for other things.” He said that stories focusing on speakers at pro-MEK events rather than on “the substance of what the controversy is” amounted to “journalistic McCarthyism.”

ProPublica reported in July that syndicated columnist Clarence Page had spoken at a large rally in Paris featuring MEK leader Maryam Rajavi; after we reached out to Page, he said he would reimburse his $20,000 speaker’s fee, and the Chicago Tribune reprimanded him for violating the company ethics code.

Bernstein is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and writes periodically for Newsweek. A Vanity Fair spokeswoman said the magazine does not have a policy governing outside work of its contributors. A Newsweek spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Bernstein has not written or spoken about MEK issues apart from the paid appearance at the Waldorf Astoria.

A news release issued after the event by the organizing group, the Global Initiative for Democracy, ran under the headline “Bipartisan Group of U.S. Leaders Calls on State Department to Remove Iranian Dissidents From Terror List" and quoted Bernstein.

“What is news here is [that the failure to delist] is serving the purpose of the Iranian regime.  That is news,” the release said, attributing the statement to “famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein."

In the past few years, pro-MEK groups have marshaled considerable financial resources to bring high-profile speakers to an unending stream of rallies and other events in the U.S. and Europe. The pro-MEK campaign has taken on new prominence against the backdrop of the nuclear standoff involving the U.S., Israel and Iran, whose government is a sworn enemy of the MEK.