Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Clarence Page, who earlier this week got in hot water with his bosses at The Chicago Tribune for his appearance at a pro-MEK rally in Paris last month, told TPM on Thursday that his job “is safe for now.”
The MEK, an exiled Iranian opposition group, is on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, but is engaged in a multi-faceted push to be removed from the list. In recent years, the group’s supporters have recruited high-profile former lawmakers and officials from both major U.S. political parties to speak at events on the group’s behalf in both the U.S. and Europe. Many of these advocates have received thousands of dollars in exchange for their support. On Monday, ProPublica’s Justin Elliott reported that Page had received $20,000 and travel expenses for his speech at a large rally in Paris on June 23. Page, who said he had not known beforehand that the event was in support of the MEK, said he planned to return the money, and the Tribune later said it was reviewing the unauthorized speaking engagement.
On Thursday, Page said he was being “given another chance” by the Tribune.
“I have been informed by my editors that my job is safe for now,” Page said in an email. “A letter of reprimand will be placed in my personnel file but after some four decades of scandal-free work at the Tribune as a reporter and, since 1984, a columnist, my superiors are properly viewing this incident as an aberration. Essentially I am being given another chance and I am pleased with that. I have submitted my upcoming speeches, paid and unpaid, for approval and I shall continue to do so.”
In a subsequent interview with TPM, Page, who said he’d “much rather cover scandals than be in the middle of one,” described how he came to speak at the event, and why he decided to return the money. (He said ProPublica called him the morning he returned from vacation, before he had informed his editors about “this potential dust up.”) According to Page, the invitation to speak at the event did not come from the MEK directly, but instead from an agent for a group called the Organizing Committee for Convention for Democracy in Iran (OCCDI).
“It was described as an invitation to me and to others who have expressed a desire to defend the Iran community — or the exile community, rather — and regime change in Iran,” Page said. “That was basically how it was pitched. There was no mention of MEK, just the OCCDI. And I asked my agent to see if we [could] get some more information as to why me, what do they want me to talk about. What angle and all. And they really left it open.”
In the past, Page said, he has called for regime change in Iran, but he has never mentioned the MEK in his work. He imagined the event would be like past events he had attended with Cuban-Americans who support regime change in Cuba. Plus, Page said, the other high-profile attendees going to the event and affiliated with the OCCDI impressed him. (Other attendees at the June event included former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, and former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.)
“I Googled up OCCDI… I saw all these names,” Page said. “They also did tell me other people who had committed to coming. Rudy Guiliani, etc., etc., etc. You see that list of names and you say — you know, my reaction was, as my daddy used to say, ‘woah, I’m walking in tall cotton now.’”
Page said he knew about the MEK before making the trip, but that he hadn’t been aware that earlier this year the Treasury Department sent subpoenas to speaking firms that represent several of the MEK’s big backers.
“When I saw the way it was geared, I thought, ‘I’m getting into something I really shouldn’t be getting into here,’” he said. “Because it was obviously more explicitly political than I had thought before.”
The event on June 23 ran for much of the day that Saturday, and Page said he had time to talk to various attendees, including Guiliani and Rendell, plus former State Department and Defense Department staff — “a lot of brass,” he said.
“It’s very impressive, it was also surreal,” Page said of the event, overall. (The OCCDI has claimed that 100,000 people attended the event. That number could not be independently verified by TPM.)
“I personally compare it to, in my experience, to the build up of support for the Contra movement, the Nicaraguan Contras,” Page said. “A lot of the same neocons and others who say, ‘no, this is a viable alternative government,’ etc. There’s that same kind of fervor here.”
In Page’s opinion, the MEK has done a better job than the Contras did getting more Democrats on their side, but Page described the MEK supporters he met as “predominantly Republican.”
Still, Page would not call the rally “partisan,” instead saying that it was politically oriented, in that it was “really advancing one particular political movement.” Even so, Page said he thinks “the MEK should be dealt with fairly.”
Page also compared the MEK to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, who remained on a U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008.
“It’s harder to get off that list than it should be,” Page said. “I still think [the MEK is] going to get off… I didn’t say anything [at the event] I didn’t believe. It’s just that I should have run this past my superiors.”
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that it will order the MEK off the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations if the Department doesn’t make a decision to keep or remove the terrorist designation within the next four months.
The MEK disagrees with many of the charges leveled against it by the State Department and critics, and the group says it has renounced violence. (NBC News, meanwhile, has reported that the MEK has been involved in recent attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists.) The MEK’s opponents say that the group has little support within Iran itself, where people remember that the group sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and some have even described the MEK as a cult-like organization.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com