OpinionOp-EdJustin Elliot’s folly and journalistic McCarthyism

Justin Elliot’s folly and journalistic McCarthyism


Stop Fundamentalism: Journalists are taught to be objective, impartial and balanced. But what do you call a so-called reporter who appears to have an axe to grind, and uses the guise of investigative journalism as a means to cover up his own agenda?


By Nima Sharif

Journalists are taught to be objective, impartial and balanced. But what do you call a so-called reporter who appears to have an axe to grind, and uses the guise of investigative journalism as a means to cover up his own agenda?

Justin Elliot has recently appeared to have taken a keen interest in Iranian politics under the guise of “investigative journalism.” But his crusade blurs the lines between objective journalism and personal commentary based on a hidden agenda.

His latest piece entitled, “Widely Cited Government Study on Iranian Spies ‘Pulled for Revisions’”, is the second article by Elliot criticizing a Pentagon report on the Iranian Intelligence Ministry (MOIS). The article concedes that an identified passage of the 64-page report is apparently being revisited. But, somehow Elliott’s coverage on this story turns into a rebuttal for two individuals that the report accused of as being agents for the MOIS: Anne Singleton and Massoud Khodabandeh.

The Pentagon report summarizes the operations of the MOIS as being focused on swaying US policy towards Iran through the use of subtle tactics. In order to convince American policy makers that the current regime (labeled the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in the world) should be tolerated and accepted by Washington, the MOIS launches systematic attacks on the Iranian opposition, namely the Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK), in order to discredit and demonize it.

Khodabandeh and Singleton are openly aligned with this MOIS mission by routinely and obsessively attacking the MEK “cult.” In his article, Elliot tries to vindicate them by providing quotes from them and links to their websites. The couple was quick to place Elliot’s piece (rebuttal) on the front page of their site, no doubt because of its “objectivity.”

But there is other information linking Elliott to a circle of individuals all intent on undermining the MEK and propping up the current regime.
Elliott quotes Gary Sick in his first article on the Pentagon report, which sought to undermine the claim put forward by the Pentagon report that the MOIS had 30,000 active members. Sick not only has a long history of pushing for an appeasement policy towards Iran, but he also had previously worked with James Dobbins on the American Foreign Policy Project. Dobbins himself was the author of a RAND report which targeted the MEK and insisted the United States should continue to treat them as a terrorist organization. In addition, Sick regularly disseminates Khodabandeh’s emails through his own Gulf 2000 network.

(The RAND report incidentally was enthusiastically re-tweeted by Elliott on November 29, 2011 ““RT @JasminRamsey: Latest RAND report on #Iran recommends against U.S. associating with unpopular groups like #MEK”).

Dobbins was also a participant and an “expert” in a coalition called “Campaign for a New Policy on Iran (CNAPI)”. CNAPI had lobbied to repeal the US sanctions against Iran, and to have Congress and the White House engage the Iranian government. Trita Parsi, the president of NIAC (National Iranian American Council) and his organization also played a key role in directing CNAPI, as well as having extensive ties to Gary Sick.

Elliot also re-tweeted Parsi on March 16, 2012, providing a platform for Parsi’s anti-MEK agenda. Parsi and NIAC led an anti-MEK campaign which lasted months, with the sole intent to keep them on the US FTO list.

To bring things full circle, NIAC also planned a joint event for Trita Parsi with Khodabandeh and Singleton in July of 2008 and this included payment from NIAC to Anne Singleton. The event was reportedly canceled after US Homeland Security blocked Singleton and Khodabandeh from entering the country.

Interestingly enough, Elliot’s article mentions that Khodabandeh and Singleton “are holding off on legal action at this point because of the potential expense involved, and the fact that the report does not name its author.” 

Or perhaps they have taken a lesson from their associate Trita Parsi, who sued an Iranian journalist for defamation after being accused of serving as the Iranian regimes lobbyist. Parsi not only lost on summary judgment, but was forced to surrender a plethora of incriminating documents during the discovery phase of litigation, including the emails which linked him to Khodabandeh. No doubt Khodabandeh is not anxious to repeat the same mistake.

Investigative Journalism or Hidden Agenda

By comparing the scrutiny and zeal he uses in investigating the MEK and its supporters to the passive manner in which he treats those accused of operating for the MOIS, we see some troubling contradictions.

Elliot has written one, two, three, four, five different articles about various officials and personalities supporting the MEK. He also sent out at least 20 tweets on the MEK.

Instead of highlighting deep-seated contradictions in the US policy on terrorism and advocacy, Elliott focused his ire on the MEK and anyone associated with them, ignoring the fact that the organization won its de-listing after several court decisions. These decisions stated that the State Department had violated due process in its initial enlistment, and then delayed the review of their de-listing for more than two years (because it had absolutely no evidence that the MEK engages in terrorism). Obviously to Elliott, those institutions did not need journalistic scrutiny or investigation, nor hardly any mention in most of his stories.

One of his articles was entitled, “Carl Bernstein’s Folly: Muckraking Journalist Caught Giving Paid Speeches to Iranian ‘Terrorist’ Group”, as if Bernstein had somehow been giving the speech in the dark of night and had been “caught” in the act. Bernstein responded to the overzealous nature of the articles against him by labeling them “journalistic McCarthyism.”

Without a hint of irony, Elliott engages in anti-MEK advocacy, under the guise of being an independent journalist, while simultaneously condemning those who openly supported the organization and its call for a free and democratic Iran.

The question remains, why is Elliot so intent on refuting accusations against the Iranian intelligence ministry while leaving no stone unturned in his reporting on the MEK. His attacks on the MEK stand in stark contrast to the passive manner in which he approaches the issues surrounding Khodabandeh or Parsi and other backers of the current regime. The facts demonstrate that Elliott clearly has an agenda in this regard. What that agenda is can be seen by looking at those who Elliot seeks to vindicate.


Nima Sharif is Director for Human Rights Issues, Near East Policy Research (www.neareastpolicy.com).


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