WASHINGTON—A terrorist group based in U.S.-controlled Iraq continues to broadcast propaganda into Iran, purchase equipment and move about the country without interference from American authorities, despite a White House order banning any U.S. support for the group, according to senior administration officials.
The officials said the continued operations of the Mujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, could cost the United States an opportunity to negotiate a deal with Iran's theocratic regime to turn over five senior leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist network who are being held by Iranian authorities in what one American official described as "some kind of preventive detention."
Iranian envoys have approached U.S. intermediaries and offered to turn over the terrorism suspects—including Osama bin Laden's son Saad and Saif al Adel, who's wanted in connection with attacks that killed Americans in East Africa and Saudi Arabia—in exchange for putting the MEK out of business, the officials said.
Some Pentagon officials oppose negotiating any deal with Iran because they fear it might undercut an opportunity to overthrow the increasingly unpopular militant Islamic regime in Tehran, one senior official said.
U.S. authorities could try to shut down the MEK without cutting any deal with Iran, of course, but Pentagon officials may prefer turning a blind eye to the group because they like the pressure the MEK puts on the Iranian regime, other officials suggest.
"The fact is, we now have a group that we ourselves have declared a terrorist organization operating out of a country that we control, in direct violation of our own policy," one official said. "We said we would shut down the MEK, but they're still in business, we know they're in business and we haven't done anything about it."
A senior Defense Department official denied that, saying 4,200 MEK members are under U.S. control and are not broadcasting into Iran. The official also denied that the Defense Department plans to keep the MEK in business as an option to destabilize the government of Iran. That is "simply false. It is not true."
The officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is under fierce debate in the Bush administration and they aren't authorized government spokesmen.
However, their willingness to discuss the controversy illustrates how the long-standing battles among the Defense Department, the CIA and the State Department over control of intelligence and foreign policy have escalated to active sabotage of one another's plans by exposing them in the press.
The suspicion that some defense officials are reluctant to put the MEK out of business is one of a growing number of questions about a secretive Pentagon office that current and former officials charge has been devising its own policies and running its own intelligence and other operations, independent of the rest of the government.
The Office of Special Plans, which deals with policy toward Iran and Iraq, is under congressional scrutiny for lapses in postwar planning in Iraq; for relying too heavily on intelligence from Iraqi exiles and foreign governments; for allegations that it manipulated intelligence; and for employing a large number of like-minded advisers and consultants who, according to current and former employees, ignored the professional staff and kept their colleagues in the dark about what they were doing.
"I personally witnessed several cases of staff officers being told not to contact their counterparts at State or the National Security Council because that particular decision would be processed through a different channel," wrote Karen Kwiatkowski, a now-retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who worked in the Pentagon's Near East policy office until February. She recently wrote about her experience for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.
Two senior officials said some activities of the Special Plans Office bore a disturbing resemblance to the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, in which officials on the National Security Council staff shipped arms to Iran and funneled some of the proceeds to Nicaraguan opposition groups in violation of official policy and without the knowledge of most—although not all—other officials.
Similarly, these officials say, the Pentagon's Special Plans Office appears to have run its own operations independent of the rest of the government, with potentially disastrous results.
"This is a huge tar baby for the administration," said one senior official. "We're only beginning to find out what all was going on in there."
Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, is asking the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency, to conduct an inquiry into the Special Plans Office, a congressional aide said.
It's in the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's No. 3 civilian. Feith and his deputy, William Luti, called a news conference in June to deny reports that their office manipulated intelligence and planned to use the MEK, the Iraq-based terrorist group, to help overthrow the Iranian regime. "There never was such a plan. We will not do that," Feith said.
Other officials, however, said that while there might not have been a formal plan to use the MEK, some Pentagon officials urged that the United States covertly back the group's efforts to topple the Iranian regime.
However, President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, vetoed any discussion of cooperation with the MEK because it's a terrorist group. "A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist," Rice said in one meeting, according to an official who was present.
The MEK, which Saddam's regime supported and which had bases in Iraq along its border with Iran, has launched numerous anti-Western attacks as well as terrorist attacks on the Iranian regime's facilities worldwide, according to the State Department's annual terrorism report.
Nevertheless, MEK members in Iraq continue to make radio broadcasts into Iran for nine hours a day and militia members are driving around the country in SUVs making purchases that could be intended to support their terrorism campaign against Iran, several U.S. officials said. Iran and Great Britain have complained to the United States about the broadcasts, officials said.
It remains unclear how seriously the United States should take the Iranian offer, made through intermediaries in Washington and elsewhere, to turn over high-ranking al Qaida operatives—who are eagerly sought by U.S. intelligence agencies—and what the Iranians are demanding beyond disbanding the MEK.
In addition to al Adel, bin Laden's security chief and No. 3 on the CIA's list of wanted al Qaida leaders, and Saad bin Laden, intelligence officials said Iran was holding Abu Hafs "the Mauritanian"; Mohammed al Masri, who's believed to have been planning new terrorist attacks in East Africa; and Abu Musab Zarqawi, who's wanted in connection with the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan and who some U.S. officials have named as a link between Iraq and al Qaida.
Secretary of State Colin Powell was tight-lipped Friday when he was asked in an interview about the possibility of a deal to get the al Qaida operatives in return for disbanding the MEK.
"Using the appropriate interlocutors, we are in touch with the Iranians on both of those issues," Powell said. Asked if he was optimistic, Powell was noncommittal, saying simply: "Wait and see."
A defense official said trying to disband the MEK now could trigger more violence at a time when U.S. forces in Iraq already are fighting a guerrilla war in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's regime. American forces are continuing to interview and fingerprint members of the group, the official said.
But others said that fear of provoking more violence doesn't explain the latitude MEK members are getting.
"The question," said one senior official, "is whether somebody in the Defense Department, with or without proper authorization, doesn't want to put the MEK out of business because they still want to use it to help overthrow the regime in Iran."
(Joseph L. Galloway, Jonathan S. Landay and researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.