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Ex-federal officials investigated after advocating for terrorist group

Companies representing former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton have received federal subpoenas as part of a Treasury Department investigation into the source of payments to ex-federal officials who openly advocated for removing an Iranian dissident group from the State Department’s terror list, sources told NBC News.

The Treasury Department also sent a subpoena to a speaking company for former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, an MSNBC contributor, who made $160,000 throughout 2011 for appearing at conferences and rallies in places like Paris, Brussels and Geneva.

Federal investigators are looking to see if these officials took payments from the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a designated terrorist group, and thereby violating federal law barring financial dealings with terrorist groups, NBC’s Michael Isikoff reported.

Speakers often charged $30,000 or more per talk and took first-class flights. According to NBC’s anonymous sources, the speaking fees totalled hundreds of thousands of dollars. The former officials under investigation, however, say that they were told the payments came from wealthy American and foreign supporters of the MEK, not the group itself. They also say they resent any suggestion they are assisting a terrorist group.

Shelton argued that the MEK is a legitimate resistance group, working to overthrow the Iranian government, which he called “America’s number one enemy.”

John Sullivan, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, said in an email to Isikoff: “The MEK is a designated terrorist group, therefore U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with or providing services to this group. The Treasury Department takes sanctions enforcement seriously and routinely investigates potential violations of sanctions law.”

But why did the Treasury Department decide to investigate now? NBC News believes that one possible clue was an email sent by a small Pennsylvania-based firm called Speakers Access, inviting a Washington-based national security expert to speak at a conference in Geneva “on behalf of our client, National Council of Resistance of Iran, Foreign Affairs Committee” which is considered by the Treasury Department to be an alias of the MEK.

After the email was turned over to the FBI and federal officials, the Speakers Access executive who wrote it said it was a mistake, and that the client was actually the Committee for Human Rights in Iran, which is not a terror group. The executive also said Speakers Access has ceased any dealings with either group, and they turned over all records on the matter after receiving a subpoena months ago.

The MEK has had a long history of terrorist acts, according to U.S. officials. They have been involved in bombings and assassinations against Iranian leaders since the 1980s. At least six Americans have been killed in such attacks. More recently, U.S. officials have said the MEK is involved in attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists. U.S. officials also view the MEK with skepticism because of its cult-like following of its Paris-based leader, Maryan Rajavi.

“The MEK has a crazy edge to it. … It always struck me as a cult as much as a terrorist group,” said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and an NBC News consultant.

MEK supporters say the group has long renounced violence and that Rajavi supports democratic government. Shelton said, “They want the mullahs out of Iran and they want to replace them with a constitution based on the Declaration of Independence.”

The MEK has gained sympathy because they have been held by the U.S. military since 2003 at Camp Ashraf, a paramilitary camp on the Iran-Iraq border. U.S. officials have been seeking cooperation from the MEK in order to resettle the remaining 2,500 MEK members at Camp Ashraf to a new facility near the Baghdad airport.

The process has stalled, and MEK supporters fear the Iraqi government, under pressure from Iran, may move in to exterminate those at the camp. Rendell has said he is working with a core group of former U.S. senior officials in order to get the State Department to remove the MEK from the terror list and protect its members from possible attack at Iran’s behest.

The core group includes former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and State Department Ambassador Daniel Fried, the Special Advisor for Camp Ashraf.

According to NBC, “Freeh and Shelton are among 40 former senior U.S. government officials who have participated in a public lobbying campaign — including appearing at overseas conferences and speaking at public rallies — aimed at persuading the U.S. government to remove the MEK from the terror list.”

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