Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) is facing what could be the toughestelection campaign of his life, embroiled in a series ofcampaign-finance scandals that Republican challenger DouglasForrester skillfully has exploited.
The real surprise in this campaign is not Torricelli's sleazy NewJersey politics or his relationship to David Chang, the businessmanwho has admitted in court to making illegal campaign contributions tothe "Torch" [see "Takingon 'The Torch,'" Sept. 23]. It has come from revelations,first aired by the American Spectator magazine in 1998 andpicked up by the Forrester campaign, that Torricelli took more than$136,000 in hard campaign contributions from members and supportersof a group of thugs in the pay of Saddam Hussein.
Torricelli's friends are known as the People's Mujahedin Organizationof Iran, or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq). They want to overthrow theruling clerics in Iran and replace them with an even-more radicalIslamic-Marxist regime. The State Department has accused them ofmurdering Americans in Iran in the 1970s and, more recently, ofcarrying out dirty work for Saddam against legitimate antiregimegroups in Iraq.
By no rational accounting can they be called America's friends. AnFBI penetration agent who trained at the group's bases inside Iraqtells Insight the MEK also has helped Saddam hideweapons of mass destruction from U.N. weapons inspectors. Iraqiopposition sources in London claim that at Saddam's command the MEKrecently provided sanctuary to top al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri,who managed to escape from Afghanistan and flee across Iran under afalse identity.
Torricelli insists that he has never been duped by the group and thatthe violence they advocate will be necessary to overthrow the rulingclerics in Iran. During a Sept. 12 debate with Forrester, the senatorcontinued to defend his support for the MEK. Torricelli claimederroneously that all the money he had taken in campaign contributionsfrom members and supporters of the group had arrived before the MEKwas blacklisted by the State Department.
A Torricelli spokesman, Ken Snyder, ate those words the next day,noting that the Senator "misspokein the heat of the moment."
Over a three-year period from 1993-1996, Torricelli took $136,000 inprecious hard money from known MEK members and supporters, accordingto Federal Election Commission records. His MEK supporters alsokicked in $23,000 in soft money to the Democratic Senatorial CampaignCommittee (DSCC), which helped Torricelli in his successful U.S.Senate bid in 1996. In exchange, Torricelli became the group's mostoutspoken champion on Capitol Hill at a time when the StateDepartment had placed it on its blacklist of international terroristorganizations.
Perhaps Torricelli was just cynical and figured the "anything-goes"morality of the Clinton administration would excuse his owncampaign-finance lapses. But on June 21, 1994, just after the StateDepartment officially designated the MEK as an internationalterrorist organization, Torricelli wrote to then-assistant secretaryof state Robert Pelletreau, requesting that the State Department"consult" with the MEK.
Two weeks after his letter was sent, top MEK members ShahriarKiamanesh, Fazeleh Rassouli and Mansoureh Zamani paid him back withanother round of contributions that resulted in 11 checks -- each for$1,000 -- which his campaign logged in on July 5, 1994. A similarpattern -- letters of support by Torricelli to U.S. governmentagencies, followed by campaign contributions from MEK supporters toTorricelli -- continued for several years.
As the American Spectator wrote in its initial article, "Manyof these contributions are likely to be outright illegal, since theywere made directly by members of a foreign organization as part of acampaign to influence U.S. policy."
The FBI long has tracked MEK activitives in the United States,launching a penetration of the group, known as Operation Suture, inthe late 1980s. During the last two years, the FBI has broken upseveral rings of MEK document-forgers and smugglers operating in theUnited States. Despite this, the group continued to operate apublic-relations bureau out of the National Press Building inWashington, as well as numerous front companies posing ascomputer-service and communications companies in Fairfax and Loudoncounties in Virginia.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer forInsight magazine.