Steven Schneebaum received an unusual cry for help on Christmas Eve 2003. Representatives of Iranian American families asked Schneebaum, then a partner at Patton Boggs and an experienced human rights attorney, if he could help protect their relatives in Iraq. Over the next nine years, Schneebaum and other big-firm lawyers were able to go far beyond that initial request.
The Iranians in Iraq were members of the People's Mujahedin of Iran (or Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, aka "MEK"), a group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State. MEK members had fled Iran in 1981 after two years of conflict with its theocratic regime. Those clashes escalated into a 1981 MEKsponsored bombing that killed more than 70 leading Iranian officials in Tehran. MEK members eventually set up headquarters in 1986 in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, where they continued committing violent acts against Iran and were protected by Saddam Hussein's regime. MEK was placed on the U.S. terror list in 1997, but claimed to have renounced terrorism in 2001.
In December 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council, a provisional government set up by the occupying U.S. army that year, announced that it wanted MEK out of Iraq. MEK members "were going to be repatriated to Iran, and that would be a death sentence," Schneebaum says.
Because of the terror group designation, Schneebaum couldn't represent MEK. What he could do, however, was represent a group of Iranian-American citizens who weren't members of MEK but had relatives at Camp Ashraf. On behalf of the "U.S. Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents," Schneebaum, who joined Greenberg Traurig in 2004 and moved to Fox Rothschild last March, prepared position papers and made calls to U.S. officials informing them of the consequences of the Governing Council's decision.
In 2004, the United States stepped in and refused to turn over the Camp Ashraf residents to Iran. Once it was clear that the residents were out of immediate danger, Schneebaum and others took on an even tougher task: removing MEK from the terrorist list.
It was no small feat. Since the list was created in 1997, no group has successfully petitioned to be removed from it. Of the 60 groups that have been on the list, only seven have been delisted, but those groups were either defunct (such as the Khmer Rouge) or inactive (such as the Japanese Red Army). But on September 28, thanks to Schneebaum and lobbyists and litigators from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Bancroft, DLA Piper, and Mayer Brown, MEK became the first group to successfully petition to be removed from the U.S. list. And what's more remarkable is that it was accomplished by employing a rare litigation strategy.
MEK and its supporters pressed the case that it deserved to be delisted because it had not engaged in any terrorist activities in over five years, had voluntarily disarmed itself and renounced terrorism, and was not a threat to U.S. national security.
Schneebaum wasn't the only lawyer involved in this fight. MEK wielded its formidable Rolodex and called on prominent public figures of all stripes, including Republicans like Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, and Michael Mukasey and Democrats like Howard Dean, Ed Rendell, and Wesley Clark to fight for its cause.
Appealing State decision
Ultimately, however, it was MEK's litigation team, which included Schneebaum, Viet Dinh of Bancroft, and Andrew Frey and Miriam Nemetz of Mayer Brown, that was responsible for successfully getting MEK off the terrorist list.
In February 2009 Frey appealed the State Department's denial of its petition for delisting, successfully convincing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that MEK was unlawfully denied access to certain unclassified documents in the State Department's files. When the State Department continued to delay a decision on MEK's delisting petition, MEK filed in February for a writ of mandamusan exceedingly rare judicial remedy. Dinh argued for MEK before the D.C. Circuit, alleging that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had failed to respond to a petition for delisting within the 180 days as required under federal law.