A banned terrorist group is conducting what members of Congress describe as one of the most effective lobbying campaigns seen on Capitol Hill, winning support from politicians even in the face of a government investigation of its legality.
Former heads of the CIA, FBI, homeland security and the US military have joined members of Congress of both major parties in backing a legal action by the People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran, known as the MEK, to be removed from the US list of proscribed terrorist organisations.
But the openness of the campaign and the large amounts of money backing it, with donations to congressional campaign funds and large payments for speeches in support of the MEK, has prompted an investigation into potential breaches of laws against financial dealings with banned organisations and whether the campaign amounts to material support for terrorism.
Among those under investigation are the former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Hugh Shelton, the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Michael Mukasey, who, as attorney-general, oversaw the prosecution of terrorism cases.
The heavyweight political backing for the MEK has surprised some US officials because of the organisation's past as a Marxist-Islamist group responsible for the killing of Americans. At one time the MEK supported the Islamic revolution in Iran.
Later it allied itself with the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The group was banned in 1997.
The MEK has also been described as a "cult" by a leading US thinktank for practices such as forcing members to give up their children in order to dedicate more time to the cause. But it has won backing on Capitol Hill by projecting itself as a democratic alternative to the present Iranian government.
Among the group's strongest supporters in Congress is Dana Rohrabacher, an influential Republican member of the House of Representative foreign affairs committee and chairman of its oversight and investigations subcommittee.
"These guys have got one of the best PR campaigns and political campaigns that I've seen on Capitol Hill for a long time," he told the Guardian. "They're a very efficient and effective lobbying effort. People on both sides here have been recruited by these people who know how to work the system here in Washington."
Rohrabacher said he did not care that the MEK is listed as a terrorist organisation, arguing that it was only proscribed to appease the Iranian leadership at a time when Washington was attempting to improve relations with Tehran.
The group has won a court order requiring the state department, which draws up the terrorism list, to review the case and make a decision on its application to be removed. This month, the state department stalled by saying that it cannot make a decision until the MEK clears out of a camp in Iraq, Camp Ashraf, where the group was once an armed military force.
The organisation's supporters, including Rohrabacher, say that is a pretext because the state department fears that unbanning the MEK would outrage Tehran during delicate negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme.
Rohrabacher said the government investigation is not legitimate and designed to suppress support for what he calls the Iranian opposition.
"What we've got here is yet an escalation of a fundamentally dishonourable bargain that was made in the past, which should never have been made with the mullahs, and every step now they're having to protect that mistake. Now they're taking another step that is inconsistent with democratic government and agreeing that people can disagree," he said.
"This attempt to silence people so that the rotten deal with the mullahs won't be disclosed somewhere along the line should indicate to the American people that somebody has done something wrong."
At a hearing last week, all the members of Rohrabacher's subcommittee who attended spoke in favour of unbanning the MEK. Nearly 100 members of Congress have signed a resolution of support.
But some critics contend that if the MEK's supporters were not so powerful, they would face the same treatment as that meted out to less influential Americans jailed after being convicted of supporting terrorism for actions such as offering conflict resolution advice, donating money for schools and rebroadcasting a Hezbollah television station.
Reza Marashi, a former official on the US state department's Iran desk who was part of the team that reviewed evidence against the MEK and regards the terrorism designation as appropriate, said he is astonished that the group is able to operate so openly.
"My former government colleagues are bewildered by the freedom of movement that a designated terrorist organisation enjoys on Capitol Hill. They're disgusted by former US government officials willing to make a quick buck by shilling for the MEK," said Marashi, who is now research director for the National Iranian American Council. "Do we really want to open the door to other terrorist organisations to spend millions of dollars lobbying to get off the terrorist list?"
The MEK says that whatever its past, it has not done anything that fits the US definition of terrorism for at least a decade.
Among those campaigning for the MEK to be unbanned are former CIA director James Woolsey; former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani; ex-homeland security chief Tom Ridge; and Barack Obama's former national security adviser, James Jones.
"Why is the state department waiting so long?" asked Giuliani at a conference earlier this year. "What is it, two years now that they have been delaying in making this decision? These are terrorism experts … this group is not a terrorist group. Lift the designation and let's have our country on the right side."
The former Democratic party presidential candidate, Howard Dean, has called on the US government to recognise one of the MEK's founders, Maryam Rajavi, as the legitimate president of Iran.
The MEK also has supporters in the military including General George Casey, former chief of staff of the US army and commander in Iraq. Some former officers, such as Brigadier-General David Phillips, who commanded the US military police in Iraq and came into contact with the MEK as commander of Camp Ashraf, say they only receive expenses for speaking on behalf of the group. Others, such as Shelton, have taken substantial fees.
That has prompted an investigation by the US treasury department, which has issued subpoenas to gather information on fees paid to Shelton, Freeh and Mukasey. It has also seized records from the former Pennsylvania governor, Edward Rendell, who has received $160,000 for attending conferences in support of the MEK in the US, France, Switzerland and Belgium.
"I've been in politics 34 years, and I can tell you right now that I would not jeopardize my reputation for any amount of money," Rendell told the Washington Times. "If you indict me, I hope you know, you have to indict 67 other Americans who did the same thing, including seven generals."
Shelton has described himself as "pretty miffed" at the treasury investigation and has denied any wrongdoing. Ridge said he believes the funds paid to him come from "legitimate sources". Others have declined to comment.
The campaign in the US to unban the MEK is headed by an Iranian exile, Ali Safavi, who was for many years the group's official representative in Washington. He remains a member of the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) which portrays itself as a parliament in exile but which the state department calls the MEK's political arm and which is also banned.
The treasury investigation is in part intended to find the source of the funds for the pro-MEK campaign. Safavi said they come from Iranian Americans.
"The Iranian American community in the United States is a highly professional, highly educated community. There are many well-known businessmen and obviously these are law-abiding, tax-paying American citizens who want to use the money the way they want to," he said.
But there are some US officials who suspect that, because of the amounts involved, money is also coming from other sources, mostly likely Saudi Arabia or Israel. Those officials point to circumstantial but not definitive evidence that Israel may have used the MEK in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Safavi denies it. "If the pro-Tehran lobby in Washington doesn't like it, so be it. I think the question that really the treasury should pay attention that under its nose the Iranian regime lobby has engaged in a major campaign of demonisation and propaganda to try to tarnish the image of these Iranians who are American citizens," he said.
The MEK's campaign in the US follows a successful effort to be taken off terrorism lists in the UK, France and other European countries. In London, the MEK won a court case that Marashi said disturbed the British government.
"In the UK, it slipped through the cracks – that's the common perception in the US government. We weren't happy when it happened. They weren't happy. But it happened. Once it happened they were able to start to pump the money into the UK. Then you had an additional way to move money," he said.
Now some British politicians have thrown their weight behind the MEK cause in the US. A Conservative MP, David Amess, who is also a member of the British parliamentary committee for Iran freedom, this month described the MEK as "oppressed" and "wrongly labelled as terrorist".
In the House of Lords, Muriel Turner and Ken Magginis have backed the call for the group to be unbanned in the US.
Support for the MEK is in part prompted by the showdown with Iran over its nuclear programme. Several of the group's supporters have spoken of it as a government in exile, even though there is little evidence the MEK commands real support in Iran.
Rohrabacher said that the US needs to "take the shackles off" the MEK in order to "fight the mullah dictatorship".
Colonel Wesley Martin, who headed the US antiterrorism force in Iraq and got to know the MEK as the first US commander in charge of Camp Ashraf, said he saw no evidence of a terrorist organisation.
"Two of the spokesmen for the MEK today – James Woolsey and John Sano, the former director of the CIA and the former deputy director for clandestine operations – both are saying they're not a terrorist organisation. It's a resistance organisation.
"They're not after the power in Iran, they're after democracy in Iran. We need to start by delisting these people as terrorists and recognising them as a valid democratic movement, and work with them closely to help force things from within," said Martin, who is not being paid for his support of the MEK.
But Marashi, who as a state department official reviewed the evidence against the MEK, said it should remain on the terrorism list, although he said he is barred from talking about specifics.
"As somebody who's participated in the review process of their terrorist designation I can say unequivocally that the information exists to warrant the designation," he said. "The facts were so indisputable that nearly zero debate took place inside the state department and most neo-conservatives inside the Bush administration were unequivocal that a terrorist group is a terrorist group."
But many of the MEK's American supporters speak of the organisation almost with a reverence. Martin is among them.
"When I was in Iraq, and it was a combat zone and we were getting soldiers killed, the MEK was on our flank doing everything humanly possible to help us from getting soldiers killed. And when some of my soldiers got killed I saw the pain in their faces. They were very committed to working with us," he said.
"It's become more and more obvious to the Americans who've worked with the MEK, myself included, that this is not a terrorist organisation. As we peel back the onion, we find out they were not a terrorist organisation with the energy focussed toward the United States."
Free speech v support for terrorism
Martin sees his right to campaign on behalf of the MEK as a freedom of speech issue, whether or not the group is banned.
"We have the first amendment (to the constitution) protecting freedom of speech. The treasury department is in violation of our constitution," he said.
Rendell has made a similar argument. "You tell me that anyone has the right to restrict my freedom of speech and I'll tell you you're dead wrong," he said.
But critics say that Congress and some former officials are applying a double standard in having passed anti-terrorism legislation and vigorously applied laws that have sent people to prison for far less direct support of a banned group than that now being given to the MEK.
David Cole unsuccessfully challenged the Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, at the supreme court after members of a US humanitarian group gave advice on conflict resolution to two banned organisations, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
Cole argued that the project was promoting peace not violence and was in any case protected by a constitutional right to free speech. The court said even speech can amount to support for terrorism.
Cole said he believes that Americans should be free to speak in favour of unbanning the MEK. But he regards it as hypocritical for officials to criminalise similar actions by others.
"The MEK has demonstrated through very, very generous contracts that if you can get a lot of powerful people to speak up for you, you might succeed in getting yourself off the list," he said. "You need only compare this to the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation in Dallas, Texas, which was the largest Muslim charity in the United States prior to 9/11. By basically giving aid to build schools and provide healthcare to organisations that were not designated as terrorist, these individuals had committed the crime of supporting terrorism and are spending 65 years in prison.
"There are plenty of people sitting in jail today who were initially investigated by treasury but ultimately prosecuted by the justice department. That said, the people sitting in jail are not people with the power and the connections that Michael Mukasey, Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, Louis Freeh and Rudi Giuliani have.
"The reality is that people like that are very unlikely to be criminally prosecuted, whereas people without that power and without those connections will be prosecuted and have been. There's clearly a double standard."