National Security

Nuclear Fight Club

What would Jimmy Carter do?

I thank Harold Brown for his fascinating response to my recent post on Presidential Directive 59. Dr. Brown is generally critical of my article, but I believe we are in much closer accord on major points than he suggests.

For example, I agree that neither he nor anyone in the Carter administration had a concept of winning a nuclear war. While PD-59 was a program for capabilities to prosecute or "fight" a nuclear war if U.S. leaders concluded that one was unavoidable, no responsible official in the administration believed that it was possible to win such a horrible conflict (nor do I suggest that they did). Indeed, an important purpose of PD-59 was to avoid a nuclear war by establishing a more threatening, and therefore credible, deterrent force, a point which I make a number of times in a more detailed posting on the directive at the National Security Archive website.

I also agree with Dr. Brown that his annual reports as secretary of defense are important; they provide real insight into the substance of PD-59. In my full posting, I cite several of them in an endnote. All the same, public reports only go so far and important elements of the PD-59 discussion remained secret for many years. This is especially true of the dangerous launch-on-warning option that Dr. Brown, as secretary of defense, included in the directive despite objections from the White House.

Dr. Brown discusses the impact on U.S. nuclear planning of alleged Soviet beliefs about the possibility of surviving nuclear war: the United States threatened to target the Soviet leadership to "disabuse" them of the notion that nuclear war was winnable. That is how top U.S. officials thought, but it is worth recalling that when information on PD-59 leaked out (selectively), contemporary critics wondered whether it was destabilizing. In a crisis, Soviet leaders might have been tempted to launch nuclear forces first to reduce the threat of a U.S. strike on their command posts. That Sec. Brown codified a launch-on-warning option in PD-59 may have compounded the instability.

With respect to one of Dr. Brown's specific comments, when I wrote that the "drafters of PD-59" thought it possible to control escalation to avoid all-out nuclear war, I had William Odom specifically in mind. For example, in a memorandum dated March 22, 1980, Gen. Odom suggested the possibility of avoiding "rapid escalation" with "days and weeks [passing] as we try to locate worthy targets." I take Dr. Brown's point that as secretary of defense he was skeptical about the possibility of controlling escalation and that he said so at the time.

Fortunately, the world survived the Cold War with that theory left untested, but Dr. Brown's comments suggest there were divisions within the government on the meaning of PD-59. That raises the question: what did President Jimmy Carter really think about the directive when he signed it? Was his thinking closer to the Odom view, or was he also skeptical about the concept of controlled escalation? President Carter's thinking on this matter was probably close to Brown's, but more declassifications may shed light on how he thought about PD-59. 

National Archives


Terrorists No More

An Iranian group's lobbying campaign to get removed from the U.S. list of terror organizations looks to be a success. But what does that say about the state of politics in Washington?

It's no secret how a group gets designated as terrorists in the eyes of the U.S. government. Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act enumerates the authorities of the secretary of state in listing a group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The act references the existing statutory definitions of terrorism, provides avenues for appeal of the classification, and otherwise lays out various processes for review.

Nowhere, however, does the act lay out the options for buying your way out of a designation. Luckily, the Iranian expat group Mojahedin e-Khalq (MEK) soon to be "delisted" as an FTO, according to multiple reports, has provided us with a roadmap. But first, a little background.

The MEK, an anti-shah, Islamist, Marxist Iranian opposition group that fell afoul of the Islamic Revolution early on, was designated -- put on the terrorist list -- in 1997. It earned the designation fair and square, having been involved in numerous attacks, including the hostage-taking and murder of Americans, according to a State Department report. Indeed, it was at times more hardline than the mullahs: The group reportedly condemned the new Iranian government's decision to release the American hostages in 1980 as "surrender."

More recently, the MEK has restricted its attacks to Iranian nationals. Those curious can check out this lengthy FBI report for all the gory details. Suffice it to say that these erstwhile Marxists have proven themselves remarkably adaptable: The leadership moved with ease from the shah's Iran, onward to France and, once ousted from Paris, to a congenial perch in Baghdad, where the MEK was reportedly involved in Saddam's extermination campaign against the Kurds and repression of Iraq's Shia.

But the world is now a different place -- Saddam is gone and the MEK claims it has reformed. Certainly, the embassy takeovers and the anti-American, anti-Israel rhetoric are gone. Now it appears that the MEK is merely a cult-like organization -- intensely devoted to its leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi and virulently opposed to the Islamic Republic. Reports from former members suggest that followers require permission from the Rajavis to marry, that parents are separated from children, that communication with outsiders is banned, and that more senior followers are required to divorce to commit themselves more fully to the fight.

The State Department has long resisted efforts to remove the MEK from the terrorist list. As of 2004, the FBI had evidence that the group was still planning attacks against Iranian targets around the world. In addition -- and this is no small caveat -- successive secretaries of state in both Republican and Democratic administrations have recognized that delisting the MEK could throw a monkey wrench into efforts toward rapprochement with Iran. For while most Iranians may loathe the system imposed on them by the ayatollahs and their loyal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, they also loathe the MEK.

Setting aside the fact that the MEK worked hand in glove with other masterminds of the Islamic Revolution, Iranians are rightly wary of the fact that the MEK sided with the hated Saddam in his war against Iran. Indeed, the MEK has never appeared as the voice of democratic hope for the Iranian people, but merely another dictatorship in waiting. Washington, however, has been more suggestible.

The recent history of the MEK -- also known in other guises such as the National Council of Resistance, the National Liberation Army, and the People's Mojahedin of Iran -- has featured various front groups that have lobbied aggressively for the removal of the MEK's terrorist designation. These lavishly resourced groups have pursued a sophisticated and multi-dimensional campaign that reached from the state-by-state field offices to the toniest K St. lobbying shops. And their efforts have gained substantial momentum in recent years, leaning on former senior government officials and journalists to make their case.

On Capitol Hill, the MEK emphasizes its credentials as an opponent of the Iranian regime, allowing wannabe masters of the "great game" to imagine that this enemy of our enemy is our friend. Among Republicans and Democrats alike, there is seemingly little curiosity as to the MEK's nature or its plans for Iran should it ever should come to power.

A who's who of former government officials have led the way in advocating for the MEK in Washington's corridors of power. There's former New York City mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean, President Barack Obama's former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, and the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democrat Lee Hamilton. There's also Mitt Romney advisor Mitchell Reiss and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Who says bipartisanship is dead in Washington?

Is every one of these men and women a principled supporter of the MEK, dedicated to the liberation of Iran from Islamist tyranny? Seems doubtful. As their own records in government will attest, most did nothing for the MEK when in a position to do so. The more likely explanation is that at least some of these folks have been persuaded with money, most of it coming in the form of speaking fees. And there is lots of it. Where does it come from? The FBI won't tell those on Capitol Hill who have asked; the MEK insists the money is from its donors.

 The ethics of accepting money for a speaking gig from a designated terrorist group is dubious -- but if it's happening through non-designated fronts, it's likely to be legally kosher. On the other hand, the Washington Post reported in July that some of these speakers are also taking part in regular briefings and negotiations regarding the fate of Camp Ashraf, the MEK camp inside Iraq that the government in Baghdad is disbanding.

According to State Department sources, participants in those calls were advocates on behalf of the MEK, and were being used to relay messages to and from the group. If so, these individuals were acting as unregistered foreign agents for the MEK. The law is specific on this question:  Acting on behalf of a foreign organization without properly registering with the U.S. government is a crime. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell for his MEK ties, but few are sanguine the probe will go anywhere.

So what's the lesson here? Pretty simple. Announce you've renounced terrorism. Buy a bunch of supporters. Lobby to get off the terrorism list. Et voila.

The tale of the MEK reflects poorly on all involved, from the State Department to Capitol Hill to undeclared lobbyists. Unfortunately, the designation of foreign terrorist organizations has become a highly politicized exercise in which some groups are designated for the right reasons (terrorism) and others are not labeled, despite clearly meeting the statute's requirements. For example, the Haqqani network in Pakistan was only designated in September despite its long association with other terrorist groups and its own terrorist activities. At the very least, however, we will soon find out whether, freed of the opprobrium of its terrorist designation, the MEK will make any difference in our long-running battle with Iran. Somehow, I doubt it.