Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: May 25, 2018
RICHARD ENGEL, MSNBC HOST: Good evening. Rachel is off tonight, and we`re ON ASSIGNMENT in Jerusalem.
Today, we all watched Harvey Weinstein led off in handcuffs. Obviously, that`s not how he wanted things to end.
And he took steps to prevent it. He hired a company based here in Israel called Black Cube. It`s a private intelligence firm, and its operatives try to track and manipulate Weinstein`s accusers, unsuccessfully, as he found out today.
Well, it turns out Black Cube doesn`t only try to protect the rich and powerful. The company had a political contract too, to try to influence U.S. foreign policy by defaming former American officials.
Just think about that for a second. A foreign company has hired to specifically demean and embarrass former U.S. government officials by targeting their families and friends to dig for information. It`s a brave new world, and we`ll have a lot on that story later in the show.
But first, another spy story. This one about real spies who carried out a really hard operation deep behind enemy lines. But was it all for show?
ENGEL: For Israeli spies Iran`s capital Tehran is both an inviting and a very dangerous target.
RONEN BERGMAN, STAFF WRITER, NEW YORK TIMES: Tehran is the hardest place for Mossad to act in. It`s highly guarded with secret police, regular police, different militias, including some forces of the Revolutionary Guard.
ENGEL: Ronen Bergman is one of the world`s leading experts on the Mossad, Israel`s famed intelligence agency.
BERGMAN: The Iranians are always under the impression that the Mossad is getting deeper and deeper into their ranks.
ENGEL: Are they right?
BERGMAN: Yes. Of course.
ENGEL: Over the past 15 years, the Israelis have reportedly used everything, from the assassination of scientists to cyberattacks to derail Iran`s nuclear program.
To infiltrate Iran, they have relied on an underground network of local dissidents.
How many operatives like this does the Mossad have in Iran?
BERGMAN: Many dozens.
ENGEL: Are they just gatherers? Are they assassins? I mean, what are they trained to do?
BERGMAN: Depends on the actual agent.
ENGEL: For years, those agents were tasked with proving that Iran was secretly developing nuclear weapons. But they found no evidence. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that program was shut down in 2003.
Still, when President Obama signed the nuclear deal in 2015, he didn`t take the Iranians at their word.
BARACK OBAMA, THEN-U.S. PRESIDENT: This deal is not built on trust. It is built on verification. Inspectors will have 24/7 access to Iran`s key nuclear facilities.
ENGEL: The Iranians had tens of thousands of old plans and designs, evidence of a program they had always denied, and they didn`t want the inspectors to find them.
BERGMAN: Apparently, they wanted to keep them for a better day, to the day that they will maybe relaunch the effort and the development to acquire nuclear weapon.
ENGEL: So they made plans to secretly move the entire archive to this shabby warehouse.
BERGMAN: The Mossad learned about that from human source in February 2016.
ENGEL: So, a human source. Someone in Iran who had knowledge and told the Mossad what`s going on?
ENGEL: That`s a good source.
BERGMAN: A wonderful source.
ENGEL: The Mossad, which used to have the biblical phrase "war by way of deception" as its motto, decided that it wasn`t going to waste such precious intelligence on the international inspectors. It also wasn`t going to just copy the documents. It was going to steal them.
BERGMAN: Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen ordered a physical break in the facilities so these documents would be able to go to any forensic examination by any foreign entity. The Germans, the French, the Americans, whoever wants to check the authenticity of these documents.
ENGEL: So it`s about credibility. We have these physical pieces of paper. Anyone who wants to look at them, fingerprint them, look at the ink, the paper.
BERGMAN: Yes, everything. Because the assumption was the Iranians would claim this is fabrication, this is fake.
ENGEL: So, after two years of planning, an audacious operation, part bank heist, part mission impossible, was launched. The plan was to break into the warehouse, get into these safes, and smuggle the enormous haul of documents all the way back to Israel.
BERGMAN: It was nighttime late January, they broke in.
ENGEL: Broke in literally with lock cutters --
ENGEL: Was the warehouse guarded?
BERGMAN: Following surveillance through many, many, many other nights they knew --
ENGEL: They knew at this particular time the guards were very likely -- unlikely to be there.
BERGMAN: Yes. One Mossad source told me, I`m not jealous of the guard who was there that night. He`s not going to be fired. He`s going to be fired at.
ENGEL: Once inside, the agents got to work.
BERGMAN: They pack the folders and the disks that they need into bags. And they throw this into a truck, a small truck, and they run away.
ENGEL: How long were they at the warehouse?
BERGMAN: Between half an hour and an hour, maybe even less.
ENGEL: Israeli sources are very cautious about revealing how the burglars got the documents out of Iran. Some reports have indicated that they took them across the border to Azerbaijan. But our sources suggest that they may have been smuggled out by sea. Bergman, who`s written several books about Israel`s covert operations is and has excellent sources, wouldn`t reveal the answer either.
BERGMAN: I`m not able to share the other details. The sources believed could be of risk to the agents.
ENGEL: So they went immediately for the border.
ENGEL: When did the Iranians realize it?
BERGMAN: So the Iranians according to one of the sources realized an hour and a half afterwards, and they started the chase. But they didn`t know what to chase. They tried to search all over Iran and find some traces who was there. Nothing.
ENGEL: Somehow somewhere the agents met up with their Israeli handlers and delivered the documents, more than a half ton of them, which were immediately shipped to Israel. Once the documents arrived here in Tel Aviv, a team of investigators and translators got to work, digging for every nugget of information about the Iranian nuclear program.
They secretly briefed American intelligence agencies and the White House. But then a few weeks ago, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did something dramatic.
He revealed the top secret files and the story of the daring raid to the whole world. Hard-won, raw intelligence turned into a prop for a low- budget PowerPoint presentation designed to deliver one clear message.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Tonight, I`m here to tell you one thing. Iran lied.
YJ FISCHER, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT DIPLOMAT: Yes, Iran lies. That is why we created a nuclear deal that is based on verification and not on trust.
ENGEL: YJ Fischer was one of the State Department negotiations with Iran and oversaw its implementation. She says the press conference was nothing more than political theater.
FISCHER: Prime Minister Netanyahu`s presentation seemed to be designed to mislead the international community and the American people. There was absolutely an element of fear-mongering.
NETANYAHU: You don`t have to read Farsi to see ten kilotons here. TNT.
FISCHER: There was absolutely an element of hysteria.
NETANYAHU: That`s like five Hiroshima bombs to be put on ballistic missiles.
ENGEL: The presentation came days before president Trump was due to announce whether he was going to pull out of the Iran deal altogether.
Netanyahu was careful to show respect.
NETANYAHU: I`m sure you`ll do the right thing, the right thing for the United States, the right thing for Israel, and the right thing for the peace of the world.
ENGEL: Some people have said he really had an audience of one, he was talking to President Trump.
BERGMAN: Not true. This was not in any way an attempt to pressure President Trump. This was his way to support a decision that President Trump has already taken. This was highly coordinated with the American administration.
ENGEL: Every good drama needs its big reveals. So, the president kept everyone, even members of his administration, guessing right up until 2-1/2 weeks ago, he finally addressed the nation.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
ENGEL: The one piece of intelligence the president said he relied on in making his decision was of course the nuclear archive.
TRUMP: Last week, Israel published intelligence documents long concealed by Iran conclusively showing the Iranians` regime and its history of pursuing nuclear weapons.
FISCHER: This was not an intelligence coup. This was not a revelation. This was not a basis for withdrawing from the deal. This was not some kind of presentation that was shocking or embarrassing to the Iranians. This was known, documented document by the U.S. intelligence community.
So, the idea that President Trump was relying on this to justify pulling the U.S. out of this agreement is not just questionable. It`s reckless.
ENGEL: We`re from NBC News.
But when I grabbed a rare moment with Yossi Cohen, the Mossad chief in Israel last week, he told me it was a victory.
YOSSI COHEN, MOSSAD DIRECTOR: I`m very proud of my organization, very happy that we did what we had to do. This is our pure obligation to the security of the state of Israel and maybe it has some implications to the security of the world as well.
ENGEL: One thing is for sure. Israel`s embattled prime minister who is facing multiple criminal investigations, scored points at home, even though he made the presentation in English.
BERGMAN: The fact that he is coming, proving, taking Mossad`s secretive documents, presenting them and making a statement that they know will rock the world in a minute`s time, that makes Israelis proud.
ENGEL: So, Netanyahu`s approval rating and his party`s approval rating went through the roof.
ENGEL: This must have been a huge moment for Netanyahu for Israel. A moment where they`re walking in lock-step with the United States, hearing their own intelligence fed back to them from the U.S. president.
BERGMAN: Netanyahu has the upper hand in that. There`s no doubt. And now he`s winning. He has convinced the American president with, among others, material from this daring raid of Mossad to step away from the deal and completely destroying Obama`s legacy.
ENGEL: Soon after the president announced a withdrawal from the deal, Israeli planes were already bombing Iranian targets in Syria -- another page in the prearranged script.
BERGMAN: Their bases in Syria were just wiped out by the Israeli air force, assassination, sabotage, bombing of warehouse, of convoys, of missiles. The Iranians do not forget and not forgive.
ENGEL: Fischer, who was part of Hillary Clinton`s transition team and has criticized many of the president`s foreign policy decisions, worries that this carefully scripted show could have a deadly final act.
FISCHER: President Trump has really filled his administration with people like national security adviser John Bolton, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. These are people who have an agenda. We know what their agenda is. And I think Trump is being led by them.
ENGEL: Are we heading toward a war?
BERGMAN: War is already in motion. Israel and Iran are at war. This is a low-intensity conflict. But this is a war.
FISCHER: The scary thing about Prime Minister Netanyahu is he clearly believes that now is the time to initiate a war because he thinks he`ll be able to drag the U.S. in with him.
ENGEL: So, the Mossad found intelligence and Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump used it to justify tearing up the Iran deal, and while you digest that, coming up, another spy story. Our investigation into Black Cube and how it targeted former U.S. officials.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was told by someone familiar with it, who I trust implicitly, that with a nudge and a wink, we`ve been hired by Trump.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ENGEL: Welcome back to Jerusalem.
Black Cube, even the name suggests something impenetrable. But after a long search, we managed to shine some light into that black box and speak to someone with direct knowledge of the company`s operations and how it set out to destroy the reputations of former U.S. government officials. And guess what? This was also aimed at undermining the Iran deal.
ENGEL: Even after he agreed to meet with us.
Hey, how are you? Richard Engel, nice to meet you. Thanks for doing this.
Even after he agreed to sit down with us for an interview, he wouldn`t allow us to show his face or use his voice.
Why are you disguising your identity?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because this is an incredibly toxic story that spans the globe. There are so many actors in the story who might react badly to someone who speaks out and exposes what`s been going on here.
ENGEL: What do you mean?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without trying to sound too paranoid, it could be anything, from going after you personally, making things difficult for your family, or just putting you in the glare of the spotlight.
ENGEL: This is the first time for anyone with direct knowledge of Black Cube`s operations to go on camera and talk about them without permission. So we went to great lengths to cross-reference his information with other sources.
How does Black Cube work? What do they do?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ultimately, it depends on what the client wants. So, if a client comes to them and says I just need information on my business rival, they`ll set up fake companies. They`ll maybe pose as journalists.
ENGEL: So they send operatives with fake identities befriending people, pretending to be someone they`re not.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You`re looking for back doors. You`re looking for vulnerability. You`re trying to find, is there someone I can approach and get close to?
ENGEL: You`ve got to cultivate a relationship.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You say in this example we`re interested in funding something at your child`s school.
ENGEL: That is exactly what happened to Rebecca Kahl.
REBECCA KAHL, TARGETED BY BLACK CUBE: I was approached via e-mail by a woman claiming to work for an equity firm in the U.K. that was really interested in talking with me about our daughter`s school.
ENGEL: Actually, the e-mails were from Black Cube and their real target, according to internal documents we obtained, was Rebecca`s husband, Colin, and his colleague Ben Rhodes, both senior former Obama officials, both deeply involved in negotiating the Iran deal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Black Cube had been tasked to basically dig up dirt on Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, to look into their private lives, to look into whether there`s been any financial impropriety or sexual impropriety or anything really which showed that these two players and the fomenting of the Iran deal were somewhat corrupt and underhanded.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ben Rhodes` wife was also targeted. Internal briefs we obtained show that Black Cube had collected information on both former officials, including intimate details about them and their families.
KAHL: Do you have them?
COLIN KAHL, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Nice. At least they picked a good picture. Yes, this is essentially what was --
R. KAHL: This is like your bio. That`s my Facebook profile picture.
C. KAHL: That`s nice.
R. KAHL: They got our daughter`s birthday wrong.
C. KAHL: They did.
This has a plan of how to go after me.
R. KAHL: My parents` names are on here. That`s a little strange, and our children`s names.
C. KAHL: It`s creepy to know someone was trying to dig up your profile and the names of your in-laws and kids and your wife and where you live.
ENGEL: It`s pretty creepy, though, going after somebody`s wife and sending them come-on e-mails and promising donations to their school.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, it`s incredibly creepy. The whole thing is. But if you exist in that world, you`re used to it. If you don`t exist in that world and you`re reading it or seeing it on TV for the first time, it`s like mind-blowing.
ENGEL: You`re looking to find weaknesses so you can hurt people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
ENGEL: Exploiting weaknesses is Black Cube`s special specialty. On its sleek Website, it promises that its team of veterans from Israeli elite intelligence units specializes in things like harvesting in the cyber world and a can-do dynamic approach to the social engineering field. Euphemisms that sell the private spy`s ability to penetrate computers and use deception and manipulation to infiltrate, intimidate, and control their targets.
Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein hired them to locate and gain the trust of the women who accused him of sexual assault.
ROSE MCGOWAN, ACTRESS & WEINSTEIN ACCUSER: I did have spies after me that were formally trained Mossad agents, you know, from Israel who were like the -- I think the best trained elite force in the world.
We are strong.
ENGEL: Actually, the woman who approached actress Rose McGowan pretending to be a women`s rights advocate was no former Mossad agent. She was instead an Israeli actress, Stella Penn Pechanac. This is her in a documentary from her time in the Israeli air force.
Because she was born in Serbia, she does not look or sound Israeli, making her a perfect choice for undercover operations. She`s been caught on camera at least once meeting with a Black Cube target in the States. Her true identity was revealed because Black Cube made two big mistakes that real spies rarely make.
For one thing, they missed one photo when they scrubbed the real Stella Penn Pechanac`s pictures from the Internet. For another, they used the same fake cover company that British equity firm for both the Weinstein operation and the investigation into the former Obama officials.
So, when that cover was blown, Black Cube`s involvement was revealed.
Last year in a rare appearance on Israeli TV, a Black Cube board member addressed the Weinstein scandal.
Of course we apologize, he said, to whoever was hurt. It`s too bad, he added, that we took that job.
But if anything, it appears the scandal gave Black Cube`s business a boost. The company recently moved its headquarters from this modest Tel Aviv office to the top floor of this gleaming tower.
Until recently, Black Cube was for the most part focused on aggressive but legitimate business investigations. But then about two years ago, according to our sources, the firewall that separated the legitimate operations from the part of the business that did that one source called political work was breached.
Several executives followed the head of legal affairs out the door, saying they didn`t want to be involved in that kind of work.
R. KAHL: Colin and I don`t really have much to hide, but it is also not OK with us that some firm is trying to use the fact that we care about our daughter`s elementary school to try to gain access to us and somehow -- you know, it`s just not OK.
ENGEL: The lady who wrote to the Kahls was offering a generous donation to their daughter`s school. But they suspected it was too good and too strange to be true and cut off the e-mail exchange. But that wasn`t the only way that Black Cube was coming after the former officials.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As far as I understand, people were contacted to see whether they themselves would reveal something nefarious about Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl but also can it lead us onto a trail where we can get closer and then ultimately find the dirt we`re looking for?
ENGEL: We obtained a recording of one of those calls to an Iran expert, Trita Parsi. The Black Cube operative who called him pretended to be a journalist. We`ve disguised his voice and bleeped his name.
TRITA PARSI: Trita Parsi.
CALLER: Hi, Dr. Parsi. (AUDIO DELETED) the journalist in London, that your colleague --
PARSI: How are you?
CALLER: I`m well, thanks. How are you?
PARSI: I`m doing well.
ENGEL: Parsi knows the two targeted officials and offered them his advice while they were negotiating the Iran deal. He says the phone call quickly took a strange turn.
CALLER: Basically, it`s to do with, you know, Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl.
CALLER: Just kind of -- sort of allegations of impropriety. I mean, it`s too strong to say in a corrupt sense. But certainly, I mean, they`re only allegations but it did sound quite serious. So --
PARSI: I don`t quite follow. What exactly was it that happened?
He wanted me to say the administration was cutting a deal in order to make sure that people in the administration would be able to put money in their pockets and making money off of this.
ENGEL: Is that true?
PARSI: It is absolutely not true. I`ve never seen anything even close to that.
ENGEL: How was he trying to get you to say that?
PARSI: And he was trying to corner me. He was trying to put words in my mouth and he was trying to take my answers and twist them into something else.
ENGEL: All this sounded suspicious to Parsi, and he ended the call. But then he had reason to be wary.
PARSI: I was warned sometime after the election, during the transition period, a person inside the U.S. intelligence services tells me through an intermediary that I should be very careful, that I`m on sort of target list and that the folks are going to come after me, they`re going to target me, they`re going to try to defame me, they`re going to try to slander me in order to take me off the field essentially.
And when I asked him, you know, what exactly do you mean the folks are going to come after you, I wasn`t sure what he meant, he said the Trump people.
ENGEL: He said the Trump people are going to come after you?
ENGEL: Is that a quote?
PARSI: That is a quote.
ENGEL: That Trump people --
PARSI: It was a quote, exactly.
ENGEL: No one is suggesting of course that anyone close to the president personally commissioned the hit job. That`s not the way that works.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You`ll never find their name on a contract anywhere, obviously, because even like with Harvey Weinstein, it`s his lawyer that signed the contract. So they can say he was never our client. You know?
ENGEL: What were you told?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was told by someone familiar with it who I trust implicitly that, with a nudge and a wink, we`ve been hired by Trump.
C. KAHL: There was this kind of fever dream that emerged among a number of senior aides to President Trump that Ben and I were responsible for kind of being the puppet masters behind the deep state conspiracy to undermine the president and leak things. And it sounds nuts because it`s kind of nuts. But nevertheless, there was this fixation on us.
ENGEL: The FBI is now looking into Black Cube`s contacts with the Kahls. But so far, the case is not under official investigation.
ENGEL: In a written statement, Black Cube said it has no relations whatsoever to the Trump administration, to anyone close to the administration, or to the Iran nuclear deal, and that anyone suggesting that Black Cube is targeting U.S. officials is misleading their readers and viewers.
Well, we never said Black Cube is targeting current U.S. officials but described how it targeted former U.S. officials. So, we`re glad we`re not misleading you.
Coming up, an interview with a former Mossad chief, who thinks it`s time to get companies like Black Cube under control.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unfortunately, I`m not sure that it does well to the protection of the state of Israel.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ENGEL: Welcome back to Jerusalem.
Tonight, we`ve talked a lot about spies. But what do the real veterans of the Mossad think about all of this? The ones who built its storied and fearsome reputation?
Well, we met one of them here and he was not impressed with President Trump`s decision to walk away from the Iran deal or with what some of the spies for hire in this country have been up to.
DANNY YATOM, FORMER MOSSAD DIRECTOR: It is highly, highly impressive and it shows a high level of profession.
ENGEL: As former head of Mossad, Danny Yatom knows what it took to pull off the daring Israeli raid in Tehran in January. But he was surprised to see the Israeli prime minister make it public.
YATOM: It is unusual. I don`t remember such cases or similar cases in the past.
ENGEL: Does it bother you?
YATOM: It did not bother me because this is the privilege of the prime minister, to decide how to use the information.
ENGEL: How necessary was this operation? A former U.S. State Department official tolls us it wasn`t really an intelligence coup at all.
YATOM: It was very, very important to have it because it will help the negotiators to negotiate with Iran in order to try and to achieve better deal.
ENGEL: It was political.
YATOM: Of course it was political. It was in order to achieve a political goal, which is the United States withdrawal from the agreement.
ENGEL: Right after that goal was achieved, Israel and Iran traded strikes over Syria. Yatom thinks further escalation isn`t out of the question.
YATOM: It will be rolling escalation until it might explode.
ENGEL: So you think there is a possibility now that there could be a war in the Middle East.
YATOM: We have to take it into consideration. Even though all the participants do not want war today, but it might escalate and deteriorate to a war due to the exchange of blows between us and Iranians.
ENGEL: Like many retired Israeli intelligence officers, Yatom now runs his own consultancy. Private intelligence companies are booming here but Yatom is worried that Black Cube is hurting the industry`s reputation.
YATOM: It is not a secret anymore. You know about what happened. I know about what happened. You cannot think people of the ministry of justice in Israel or people of ministry of defense in Israel do not know exactly the same knowledge as yours and mine about the activity of black cube. If there is something which is wrong they should take action.
ENGEL: What is this doing for the reputation of Israel?
YATOM: Unfortunately, I`m not sure that it does well to the reputation of the state of Israel. We have to have very clear distinctions between what is permitted and what is not permitted. There should be inspection. There should be supervision.
ENGEL: So no more uncontrolled intelligence agencies for hire.
YATOM: Exactly. They should be controlled, 100 percent they should be controlled.
ENGEL: And by the way, several more Israeli intelligence companies were in the media this week. They`re getting a lot of unwanted attention. And if it`s not already clear, President Trump has surrounded himself with quite a few Iran hawks. And before they came to the White House, several were getting paid by a group that was until recently classified as a terrorist organization.
Yes, I did just say that. And it wasn`t all about the money.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP`S LAWYER: What do you think is going to happen to that nuclear agreement?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ENGEL: Welcome back to Jerusalem.
The ayatollahs in Iran have dangerous enemies, and I don`t mean just Israel and the United States. One of the boldest and bizarre of them is called the Mujahedin-e Khalq, and you`ll be surprised to learn just how well connected they are and who they`ve been paying.
ENGEL: There`s nothing the MEK likes more than hearing from famous Americans.
So long, of course, as they stay right on message.
JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The overthrow of the mullahs` regime --
GIULIANI: Regime change in Iran --
BOLTON: Has to be regime change.
GIULIANI: Regime change.
ENGEL: The speakers are paid well.
GIULIANI: What do you think is going to happen to that nuclear agreement?
ENGEL: And they clearly relish the chance to share their strong opinions with a like-minded crowd.
The president`s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and national security adviser John Bolton were both regulars.
BOLTON: There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs.
GIULIANI: The regime is evil, and it must go. Free Iran!
ENGEL: The MEK doesn`t just want to free Iran. It wants to take over. And Giuliani seems to think it can.
GIULIANI: You`re the vision for the future. You are the vision for the future of Iran.
ENGEL: But that vision that vision is much darker than these public gatherings have revealed. The MEK has a sinister past and its promises of freedom and democracy sound hollow to those who know it best.
MASSOUD KHODABANDEH: You can`t trust this group. They don`t believe in democracy. I don`t think any decent intelligence officer in America will think that they are trustworthy.
ENGEL: Massoud Khodabandeh (ph) used to run the security detail for the group`s ruthless leader, Maryam Rajavi, who dreams of seizing power in Iran for herself.
How would you describe them if you could sum them up in a few sentences?
HODABANDE: I would put just two word: destructive cult. They control them financially. They control them physically. They control them emotionally.
ENGEL: Rajavi took over from her husband Massoud. They both started out as foot soldiers for the group, whose name means "holy warriors of the people". It fought against the shah, Iran`s pro-American leader, and killed six Americans, contractors and soldiers.
In 1979, MEK members participated in the storming of the U.S. embassy, where 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 long days. After the revolution, the ayatollahs took over and the MEK was forced to flee to nearby Iraq. From there, armed and supported by Saddam Hussein, it launched a deadly campaign against the Iranian regime. In 1997, the State Department designated the MEK a terrorist organization.
DANIEL BENJAMIN, JOHN SLOAN DICKEY CENTER, DARTMOUTH COLLEGE: There was a long trail of violence and bloodshed here, and the MEK really stood out as one of the very capable and dangerous organizations in the world at that time.
ENGEL: Daniel Benjamin was the Obama administration`s coordinator for counterterrorism.
BENJAMIN: It`s pretty remarkable that a group that has American blood on its hands, even if it`s now a former terrorist group, to have contacts like Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton.
ENGEL: But by 2012, Saddam was long gone and the Iraqi army was attacking the MEK`s base regularly. It was time to get them out of the country before they were all killed. They expected the U.S. to help them. But --
BENJAMIN: No one would take the MEK members as long as it was listed as a foreign terrorist organization.
ENGEL: So reluctantly, Benjamin`s department had them removed from the list. MEK operatives are still believed to be conducting covert operations inside Iran. But these days, they do most of their fighting on Capitol Hill, where their regime change message has been embraced by politicians from both parties.
JOANNE STOCKER, EDITOR, THE DEFENSE POST: They see this group who says they have popular support, who`s making all the right noises about overthrowing the mullahs. And they see that as a group that they can support.
ENGEL: Journalist Joanne Stocker has been investigating the MEK for nearly a decade. She showed me a database of campaign donations to American politicians from organizations tied to the MEK.
STOCKER: You`ve got people like George W. Bush, you know, was given $1,000 in 2004.
ENGEL: So, I see here John McCain. So, is this Republicans, Democrats?
STOCKER: It`s both. I mean, it goes across the aisle. So, you know, McCain got $2,400, $1,000. But then, I mean, Obama`s on here too.
ENGEL: Pretty small contribution.
STOCKER: Sure. But when you get them coming in from 10, 15 people every single year, they add up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
ENGEL: But the speaking circuit is where it`s really at.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is my great honor to present to you the most formidable list of American national security, military, political, and governmental leaders of my generation.
STOCKER: They pay people thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars, to go to their rallies and to speak in favor of them.
ENGEL: John Bolton never disclosed how much money the MEK paid him, but Stocker ventured an educated guess.
STOCKER: On the low end, $180,000. Just based on what other people were making.
ENGEL: A hundred and eighty. How do you come up with that number?
STOCKER: Because other people were paid. We seem to have narrowed it down to about $20,000 to $30,000 a speech.
ENGEL: No one really knows exactly where the MEK is getting all this money from, but Saudi Arabia is a pretty good place to start.
KHODABANDEH: I personally have brought money and gold from Saudi Arabia to Iraq for the Mojahedin --
ENGEL: You transported money and gold from Saudi Arabia? How did you do that?
KHODABANDEH: It was three trucks of gold.
ENGEL: Three trucks of gold?
KHODABANDEH: Three trucks of gold.
KHOBADANDEH: Yes. I would say about 20 each.
ENGEL: Now, the group`s tentacles of influence have reached the heart of the American government.
BENJAMIN: I personally find it pretty remarkable that anyone who could have had the ties to the MEK that John Bolton did could get a security clearance. I think it ought to cause people an awful lot of concern.
STOCKER: As far as the MEK is concerned, their guy is in the White House. They`re tied in this together.
ENGEL: Who`s their guy? John Bolton is their guy?
STOCKER: John Bolton is the MEK`s guy in the White House.
ENGEL: John Bolton made it very clear what he thinks the White House should do.
BOLTON: The declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs` regime in Tehran.
ENGEL: A recommendation he`s now in a position to shape into policy.
BOLTON: Before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran. Thank you very much.
ENGEL: Bolton`s office didn`t respond to our requests for comment. But Giuliani did. He remembered very specifically what his relationship with the MEK began. September 2008. But he said he doesn`t remember how much money they paid him over the years.
He called the group`s past designation as a foreign terrorist organization a mistake. But private citizens don`t get to make that call. And that`s not even the only issue here. The people who give President Trump advice on how to deal with Iran, they get their advice from the zealots you just heard about in that story.
It`s an uncomfortable thought, especially since the stakes are so high. But the president, he likes high stakes. He`s always been a gambler. And he hasn`t always won. So the question is, can we as a nation cover his bets if they go south?
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, our host here at Trump Castle, Mr. Donald Trump.
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ENGEL: Welcome back to Jerusalem.
Just think what has happened in the past few weeks. The president moved the U.S. embassy to this city, he tore up the Iran deal and now, he`s playing chicken with North Korea over who wants the summit more. He`s betting big. He always has.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It`s time to play television`s non-stop game of knowledge, Trump card.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, our host here at Trump Castle, Mr. Donald Trump.
ENGEL: In the 1980s Manhattan real estate game, a young Donald Trump played the high roller.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take a look at my next guest, Donald Trump, 33 years old.
DONALD TRUMP, BUSINESSMAN: Primarily, our purchases have been in New York.
ENGEL: Then in 1990, the property mogul bet on the world of gambling itself and opened a string of casinos. His first venture was the flamboyant Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With revenue tapping $37 million a month, Donald`s biggest gamble is turning up aces.
ENGEL: In the casino business, they say the house always wins. Not in this case. Just over a year after it opened, the Taj Mahal folded, declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
But somehow, Trump was still able to come up Trumps by turning his hand to reality TV.
TRUMP: My name is Donald Trump and I`m the largest real estate developer in New York. About 13 years ago, I was seriously in trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back and won big league.
ENGEL: This time on "The Apprentice", he played the business genius he always wanted to be. That was the better hand. After 192 episodes over 15 seasons, Trump had earned millions of dollars and worldwide brand recognition.
TRUMP: We have an elevator that goes up to the suit and an elevator that goes down to the street.
ENGEL: Which help set him up for his biggest bet yet.
TRUMP: Ladies and gentlemen, I am officially running for president of the United States.
ENGEL: It was a massive long shot with all the cards stacked against him.
GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR: There`s not going to be a President Donald Trump.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Donald Trump will not become president.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA: He is not -- Donald Trump is not going to be president of the United States. Take it to the bank. I guarantee it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right. All right.
ENGEL: But against all odds, he pulled it off.
TRUMP: I`ll never forget the guy who was saying for months, there is no path to 270 for Donald Trump. But there was a path to 306.
ENGEL: The businessman-turned-president brought his hardball tactics with him to the White House.
TRUMP: The United States has been played beautifully, like a fiddle, because you had a different kind of a leader. We`re not going to be played. OK.
ENGEL: And when he was dealt a card he didn`t like, the Iran nuclear deal, he walked away.
TRUMP: I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them.
ENGEL: But that left us with no seat at the table. It`s one of the many risky moves he`s made in this, the ultimate, high-stakes game.
TRUMP: You know what gets you nuclear war? Weakness gets you nuclear war.
ENGEL: For decades no one knew whether the North Koreans were bluffing or showing their cards when they tested nukes and threatened to send them our way. But President Trump just went ahead and doubled down.
TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.
ENGEL: That gamble could pay off big. A historic summit, maybe even a Nobel Prize, but it could also backfire, the chips are on the table.
The president is betting the house we all live in. So, let`s just hope he`s got an ace up his sleeve.
ENGEL: Welcome back to Jerusalem.
So, there`s now a guessing game going on around the world. Yes, North Korea summit? No, North Korea summit? Yesterday, which seems like ancient history already, it seemed like no.
TRUMP: Based on the recent statement of North Korea, I have decided to terminate the planned summit in Singapore on June 12th.
ENGEL: It was this letter sent yesterday from President Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that appeared to send the upcoming nuclear summit to a halt. President Trump wrote that he objected to North Korea`s rhetoric ahead of the planned meeting, saying: Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed on your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate at this time to have this long- planned meeting.
World leaders were reportedly stunned by President Trump`s sudden decision to kill the summit. But today, there were signs of life again. The president told reporters the White House is back in touch with North Korea, discussions about rescheduling the summit are back under way.
The president saying, quote, we`d like to do it. We`ll see what happens.
ENGEL: And just tonight, there have been yet more developments. The president tweeted about an hour ago, we`re having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the summit, which if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the same date, June 12th, and if necessary, be extended beyond that date.
Oddly enough, North Korea doesn`t seem to mind all this back and forth. Maybe it`s how they negotiate too.
So, will the summit take place in two weeks? Who knows? But if it does, we`ll be covering it.
Follow us on Twitter @oarichardengel. And that`s all for tonight. Good night from Jerusalem.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END
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