President Bush irritated some of the government's top spies with recent comments about Iran's nuclear ambitions. At a March 16 press conference, the president said Iran's hidden nuclear program had been discovered not because of international inspections but "because a dissident group pointed it out to the world." White House aides acknowledge that the dissident group cited by the president is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). According to the State Department, this group is an alias for the controversial and cultlike Iranian militant organization Mujahedine Khalq (MEK). State Department records show the MEK was officially designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist group in 1997; its front, the NCRI, was added to the official terrorist list in August 2003. The NCRI got public credit when it announced in 2002 that it had discovered evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear facility at a place called Natanz. Intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK, however, that while the council's revelation may have been new to the public, U.S. agencies had reported the same information to policymakers, in classified form, well before the resistance group went public with it.
The president's seemingly favorable reference to the MEK affiliate raised questions among administration critics--including congressional foreign-policy experts--as to whether it signals change in official U.S. policy toward the group, which some hard-line Bush advisers have seen as a possible vehicle for U.S. covert action to undermine the theocratic regime in Tehran. (The administration is already under fire for listening to WMD claims from exile groups before invading Iraq.) The MEK has long had a bipartisan claque of supporters on Capitol Hill. But a White House spokesman says Bush's statement "does not represent a change in policy toward the MEK or NCRI but simply reflects that others outside the intelligence community believe that Iran has a covert nuclear-weapons program."