The Mysterious Case of the Obama Administration Claiming State-Secrets Privilege in a Private Defamation Lawsuit

Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Victor Restis

An attempt to expose those behind an anti-Iran advocacy group faces the ultimate legal stonewalling now that the Obama administration has officially stepped into the matter.

The U.S. Department of Justice, under orders from Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., filed papers with a federal judge last week that a lawsuit against the organization, United Against Nuclear Iran, should be thrown out because the case could expose government secrets. The administration’s move has been described as unprecedented, because United Against Nuclear Iran is a private group and not a government agency.


It has always been court battles involving the latter in which a presidential administration has used its state-secrets privilege power, which cannot be questioned or challenged by a federal judge, Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times reported. In other words, the Obama administration is trying to quash the lawsuit by Greek shipping magnate Victor Restis, who was accused by the defendant of illegally doing business with Iran in violation of sanctions.


“There is no precedent, literally, for what the government is attempting to do,” Abbe Lowell, Restis’ attorney, told The Times.


Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who has fought the government in other cases involving classified information, said he had never seen anything like that. “If there’s something in their files that would disclose a state secret, is there any reason it should be in their files?” Wizner asked.


Restis has sought to reveal the donors behind United Against Nuclear Iran, which some say is linked to the Israeli government, as well as information the group collected about him.


The Justice Department might believe the group’s files include U.S. secrets that should not be exposed during a trial, which in itself raises questions about the defendant’s connections with Washington. Another possibility is that the administration is trying to protect relations with the Israeli government.


Ironically, Holder tightened rules about government use of the state-secret privilege, which the George W. Bush administration invoked to quash suits fighting the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. According to The Times, the attorney general must personally approve each case, and “only when genuine and significant harm to national defense or foreign relations is at stake.”

 -Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Holder Says Private Suit Risks State Secrets (by Matt Apuzzo, New York Times)

Billionaire Named in Suit Against Anti-Iran Group (by Matt Apuzzo, New York Times)

Restis et al v. American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc. et al (


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