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Government Won’t Explain Why It Thinks ‘State Secrets’ at Risk in Lawsuit Against Anti-Iran Group

The Justice Department has informed a judge that it refuses to additionally explain why it believes “state secrets” are relevant or some how entwined in the defense of an anti-Iran advocacy group accused of defamation.

Greek businessman and ship owner Victor Restis alleges that United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) falsely and maliciously identified him as part of a the organization’s campaign to name and shame individuals and companies that do business in Iran. But the Justice Department has moved to invoke the state secret privilege.

Despite the fact that there does not appear to be any particular government activity implicated, the Justice Department has taken this extraordinary step and asked the judge hearing the case in the US District Court of the Southern District of New York to dismiss the private lawsuit.

The government is now also refusing to offer a public declaration or any additional details to ensure that due process rights are not trampled.

“No further discussion of the nature of the privileged information can safely be set forth on the public record, consistent with national security concerns,” Assistant US Attorney Michael Byars writes in a letter to Judge Edgardo Ramos [PDF]. “Determinations as to whether certain disclosures may risk harm to national security are necessarily predictive judgments vested in Executive Branch officials with substantive expertise, and entitled to ‘utmost deference.'”

The state secrets “doctrine,” Byars further argues, “warns against proceedings that might risk disclosure of the privileged information.” And, “Whether there can be any public discussion of the privileged matter turns on what is ‘possible’ and ‘practicable’ in the circumstances of the particular case.”

Last week, Abbe Lowell, an attorney representing Restis, protested the Justice Department’s decision to invoke “state secrets.” He wrote a letter to the judge [PDF] and raised critical questions related to the issue of why UANI even has “state secrets,” which require protection, when they are not a government agency or group.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."