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Justice Dept. Moves to Shield Anti-Iran Group’s Files


Nov 4, 2012
Iran, Islamic Republic Of
United States
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has gone to court to protect the files of an influential anti-Iran advocacy group, saying they likely contain information the government does not want disclosed.

The highly unusual move by the Justice Department raises questions about the connections between the American government and the group, United Against Nuclear Iran, a hard-line voice seeking to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The group has a roster of prominent former government officials and a reputation for uncovering information about companies that sometimes do business with Iran, in violation of international sanctions.

The Justice Department has temporarily blocked the group from having to reveal its donor list and other internal documents in a defamation lawsuit filed by a Greek shipping magnate the group accused of doing business with Iran. Government lawyers said they had a “good faith basis to believe that certain information” would jeopardize law enforcement investigations, reveal investigative techniques or identify confidential sources if released.

Judge Edgardo Ramos of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York called the government’s involvement “very curious.” But since March, he has agreed not to force the group to reveal the information. The government has until Thursday to say whether it will formally claim law enforcement privilege and try to keep the information secret permanently.

The intervention by the Justice Department added a new layer of mystery to an already intriguing case. Lawyers for Victor Restis, who filed the defamation suit, have accused the group of being funded by unidentified foreign interests and are trying to force the testimony of Israeli’s former intelligence chief and a prominent Israeli businessman.

“This raises so many questions about what is going on behind the scenes,” said Abbe D. Lowell, a lawyer representing Mr. Restis.

There are no suggestions in the government’s court filings that United Against Nuclear Iran — also known as the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran Inc. — has done anything improper. And the Justice Department, which has cracked down on officials who reveal secrets to journalists, has not indicated any concern that the group has the information — only that it might become public.

If the group has information belonging to the American government, it is not clear how it obtained it. American intelligence agencies are prohibited from secretly working with organizations to influence American public opinion and media. If the information does not belong to the government, it is not clear what makes it so sensitive.

Either way, the court filings indicated close ties between the American government and a group that has proved adept at pressuring the government and corporations to isolate Iran economically. Tough economic sanctions are generally credited with forcing Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear future.

Nicole Navas, a Justice Department spokeswoman, would not answer questions about the case.

Mark D. Wallace, chief executive of United Against Nuclear Iran and a former Bush administration official, also would not discuss it. In court documents, the group’s lawyers call Mr. Restis’s lawsuit “little more than a thinly veiled effort to silence a U.S. organization’s efforts to prevent business transactions with Iran and thwart Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.”

Founded in 2008, United Against Nuclear Iran is run and advised by a long list of former government officials. Its advisers include Joseph I. Lieberman, the former Democratic senator from Connecticut; Francis Townsend, the former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush; Dennis B. Ross, a former Middle East adviser to both Republican and Democratic presidents; and former intelligence chiefs from Israel, Germany and Britain.

With about $1.7 million a year in donations, the group has lobbied Congress and helped draft legislation. But it is best known for its “name and shame” campaigns, which unearth information about Western companies suspected of doing business with Iran. Using news releases, letters, Facebook and its website, the group pressures them to stop.

Companies frequently respond by cutting ties with Iran. The group has directed letters to Caterpillar, Ingersoll Rand and the accounting firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young. But the response was different last year when Mr. Wallace sent a letter to Mr. Restis, accusing him and his company of being “frontmen for the illicit activities of the Iranian regime.” Mr. Restis sued for defamation in a Manhattan federal court.

The group said it had uncovered a letter proving there was a plan to do business in Iran. It also accused Mr. Restis of using his ships in support of Iran’s oil industry.

Mr. Restis said the letter was fraudulent, the illicit Iranian deal never existed, and his ships made only authorized humanitarian shipments. He accused the group of shaking down companies for donations; the group in turn accused him of being a “master criminal.”

The group said it based its accusations on “valid research, credible documents, distinguished relationships, and pre-eminent sourcing.” In court, Mr. Restis demanded that the group disclose those documents and its relationships.

Soon after that demand, Mr. Restis said he was approached by an Israeli businessman, Rami Ungar, with no direct connection to United Against Nuclear Iran.

According to court documents filed by Mr. Restis’s lawyers, Mr. Ungar knew details about the case and said he was “authorized to try to resolve the issues” on behalf of the group’s supporters.

It was not clear who those supporters were. Like many nonprofit groups, its donor list is secret. Mr. Restis’s lawyers said in a letter to the judge in April that they had uncovered information that United Against Nuclear Iran “is being funded by foreign interests.”

Mr. Ungar did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment. Mr. Restis has filed court documents seeking Mr. Ungar’s testimony. He is also seeking testimony from Meir Dagan, the former Israeli intelligence chief and an adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran, who Mr. Restis believes served as a conduit between the source and the group.

It is not unusual for lawyers to demand documents and lob unfounded allegations, particularly in the early stages of a case. The threat of embarrassing disclosures can make both sides eager to settle before a trial. But the Justice Department’s court appearance lent credibility to the idea that larger, hidden interests were at stake.

One of the government lawyers on the case, Anthony J. Coppolino, specializes in national security litigation. He has defeated challenges to the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program and President Obama’s authority to launch a drone attack on an American citizen.

If the Justice Department formally asserts the law-enforcement privilege this week, Judge Ramos has said he will have “a great number of questions” about how and why.

“I am particularly concerned,” he said in April, “that the defendants are able to utilize certain information in its public statements, and then not have to answer to their actions on the basis of a privilege.”


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