A new wrinkle in an already bizarre lawsuit is shaping up to potentially embarrass the Obama administration. If allegations made in a recent court filing are true, then the Justice Department, with an unprecedented assertion of the state secrets privilege, might be shielding from any accountability a group actively engaged in spreading false information.
The lawsuit revolves around an anti-Iran group called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a pro-sanctions outfit that takes a hard line against Iran and lodges name-and-shame campaigns against companies it says are doing business with Iran. The group is made up of former officials from the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as a host of academics, former diplomats and former intelligence officials from foreign countries, including Israel.
In May 2013, UANI accused Victor Restis of doing illegal business with Iran’s sanctioned energy sector and working with an associate to act as a “front-men” for the Iranian government. But Restis fought back: he sued for defamation in July 2013.
All seemed to be proceeding normally after Restis filed his suit. His lawyers asked for documents in an effort to get UANI to back up its allegations against their clients, as well as some general information about UANI. That’s when things got strange: in September, the Justice Department stepped in to block the release of the documents. Justice officials asserted the so-called state secrets privilege, claiming that national security secrets would be at risk of exposure if the disclosures proceeded. The government also suggested the court dismiss the suit. The Justice Department’s reasons for intervening remain a mystery and, unlike any case in the past where the government has intervened in a private suit to which it is not party, refused to even explain privately to the court its reasoning for asserting the privilege.
Last week, things got even weirder: in a motion filed on Wednesday, Restis’s lawyers suggested that UANI had leaked information to the Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post that resulted in a piece accusing Restis of doing more illegal business in Iran. The Post later retracted the article, citing “new information” that indicated the purportedly illegal shipping had been “legitimate and permitted,” and scrubbing the article from its website.
“Defendants appear to have provided The Jerusalem Post with false information purporting to show an American company’s legal and humanitarian cargo of soya beans to Iran aboard Plaintiffs’ vessel violated sanctions against Iran,” said a footnote in the filing from Restis’s lawyers. “Although it printed Defendants’ false allegations against Plaintiffs, The Jerusalem Post recognized the falsity of the allegations and issued a retraction and apology.”
Restis’s legal team contends that the acknowledgment by a media organization that the information—which Restis alleges was provided by UANI—was false shows a pattern by the group of making defamatory allegations and using the government’s intervention in the case to shield themselves.
“Defendants continue to say whatever they want and then, when their targets fight back, they run and hide behind the Government without ever having to defend their words or actions,” said the filing. (The Justice Department declined to comment for this story, and UANI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“We appreciate The Jerusalem Post recognizing the falsity of these claims and taking the responsible step of retracting the inaccuracies relating to Victor Restis and his company,” Restis’s lawyer Abbe Lowell told The Nation, “and we will continue to expose UANI’s tactics and lies for as long as they keep spreading them.”
If true, the alleged UANI leak of false information to The Jerusalem Post would contradict UANI lawyers’ assertion in an October hearing that “UANI has made no statements whatsoever about Victor Restis or his companies, about any subject, doing business with Iran or any subject since February of 2014.” The Jerusalem Post article also said that the information it revealed would be “raised… in an upcoming hearing in a US federal court.” UANI’s lawyers brought up the purported revelations the following day in the October 8 hearing. It has not been proven that UANI leaked information to The Jerusalem Post.
The October 29 filing by Restis’s lawyers containing the latest allegations came in an effort to compel the government to justify its assertion of states secrets and to oppose dismissal of the suit.
Iin a separate filing last Wednesday, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups spelled out how unusual the Justice Department intervention was. The groups submitted a friend of the court briefing—itself an unusual move, since amicus briefs are usually filed when cases reach the appellate stage—agreeing with Restis’s team.
“Never before has the government sought dismissal of a suit between private parties on state secrets grounds without providing the parties and the public any information about the government’s interest in the case,” the lawyers from the groups wrote. “It is hard to see why, unlike in every other state secrets case in history, meaningful public disclosure to the parties is not possible in this case.”
That UANI would allegedly strike out with false allegations even as it was receiving extraordinary protection from the Justice Department only underscores the mystery surrounding the government’s intervention.
The October 7 Jerusalem Post article in question, headlined “Evidence obtained by JPost shows alleged ongoing violation of Iran sanctions” and written by legal correspondent Yonah Jeremy Bob, went through several iterations online before being retracted. (Bob did not respond to requests for comment.)
The original version of the article purported to present evidence that Restis’s companies were continuing to violate Iran sanctions by pointing to information that a ship owned by Restis docked in Iran on September 27. (The article was amended without notice before being captured by a web archive on October 8.) Lowell, the lawyer for Restis, denied the charges to the Post at the time. “In September 2014, a major US-based food company made a legal shipment of soya beans from Argentina to Iran aboard the Helvetia One, a vessel owned by the Restis family,” Lowell told the paper. “The provision of food cargo to Iran is entirely legal and encouraged under the humanitarian carve-outs to international sanctions regimes.”
On October 22, the Post came around to Lowell’s perspective, scrubbing the story and issuing a “clarification and correction” that expressed regret for publishing the story. The Post said its assertions of illegal business were “contradicted by new information provided to us and therefore no allegations of misconduct should be concluded from the above article.”