April 6, 2012
The site, some sixty-five miles northwest of Las
Vegas, was once used for nuclear testing, and now includes a
counterintelligence training facility and a private airport capable of
handling Boeing 737 aircraft. It’s a restricted area, and inhospitable - in
certain sections, the curious are warned that the site’s security personnel
are authorized to use deadly force, if necessary, against intruders.
The M.E.K. had its beginnings as a Marxist-Islamist student-led group and, in the nineteen-seventies, it was linked to the assassination of six American citizens. It was initially part of the broad-based revolution that led to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran. But, within a few years, the group was waging a bloody internal war with the ruling clerics, and, in 1997, it was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.
In 2002, the M.E.K. earned some international credibility by publicly revealing - accurately - that Iran had begun enriching uranium at a secret underground location.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who at the time was the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency, told me later that he had been informed that the information was supplied by the Mossad.
The M.E.K.’s ties with Western intelligence deepened after the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003, and JSOC began operating inside Iran in an effort to substantiate the Bush Administration’s fears that Iran was building the bomb at one or more secret underground locations.
Funds were covertly passed to a number of dissident organizations, for intelligence collection and, ultimately, for anti-regime terrorist activities.
Directly, or indirectly, the M.E.K. ended up with resources like
arms and intelligence. Some American-supported covert operations continue in
Iran today, according to past and present intelligence officials and
for J.S.O.C. said that “U.S. Special Operations Forces were neither aware of
nor involved in the training of M.E.K. members.”)
In a separate interview, a retired four-star general, who has advised the Bush and Obama Administrations on national-security issues, said that he had been privately briefed in 2005 about the training of Iranians associated with the M.E.K. in Nevada by an American involved in the program.
He also was told, he said, that the men doing the training were from JSOC, which, by 2005, had become a major instrument in the Bush Administration’s global war on terror.
It was the ad-hoc training that provoked the worried telephone calls to him, the former general said.
The site in Nevada was being utilized at the same time, he said, for advanced training of élite Iraqi combat units.
(The retired general said he only knew
of the one M.E.K.-affiliated group that went though the training course; the
former senior intelligence official said that he was aware of training that
went on through 2007.)
But such training, if true, he said, would be,
Robert Baer, a retired C.I.A. agent who is fluent in Arabic and had worked under cover in Kurdistan and throughout the Middle East in his career, initially had told me in early 2004 of being recruited by a private American company - working, so he believed, on behalf of the Bush Administration - to return to Iraq.
Baer, now living in
California, recalled that it was made clear to him at the time that the
operation was “a long-term thing - not just a one-shot deal.”
For the past decade, he and his English wife have run a support program for other defectors. Khodabandeh told me that he had heard from more recent defectors about the training in Nevada.
He was told that the communications training in Nevada involved more than teaching how to keep in contact during attacks - it also involved communication intercepts. The United States, he said, at one point found a way to penetrate some major Iranian communications systems.
At the time, he
said, the U.S. provided M.E.K. operatives with the ability to intercept
telephone calls and text messages inside Iran - which M.E.K. operatives
translated and shared with American signals intelligence experts. He does
not know whether this activity is ongoing.
NBC further quoted the Administration officials as denying any American involvement in the M.E.K. activities. The former senior intelligence official I spoke with seconded the NBC report that the Israelis were working with the M.E.K., adding that the operations benefitted from American intelligence.
He said that the targets were not “Einsteins”:
Attacks have also been carried out on pipelines.
He added that the operations are,
An adviser to the special-operations community told me that the links between the United States and M.E.K. activities inside Iran had been long-standing.
The sources I spoke to were unable to say whether the people trained in Nevada were now involved in operations in Iran or elsewhere.
But they pointed to the general benefit of American support.
In mid-January, a few days after an assassination by car bomb of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, at a town-hall meeting of soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, acknowledged that the U.S. government has,