After Amir Hekmati was released from Iranian detention in a 2016 deal billed as a diplomatic breakthrough, it was declared eligible for $ 20 million in compensation from a special U.S. government fund.
But payday never came, leaving Hekmati wondering why.
The answer has finally arrived: Court documents recently filed and reviewed by the Associated Press reveal FBI suspicions that he traveled to Iran to sell classified secrets – not, as he says, to visit his Grandmother.
Hekmati, who strongly disputes the allegations, has never been the subject of criminal prosecution and disputes a special master’s finding that he lied about his visit to Iran and therefore is not entitled to the silver.
FBI investigation helps explain government refusal for more than two years to pay Hekmati and muddies the tale around an American citizen, Iraq war veteran and navy veteran whose release has been defended at the highest levels levels of US government, including by Joe Biden, then vice president. , and then Secretary of State John Kerry.
The documents offer radically contradictory accounts of Hekmati’s intention during his visit to Iran and detail the behind-the-scenes dispute over whether he has the right to access a fund that compensates victims of ” international terrorism.
Hekmati said in an affidavit that the allegations that he was seeking to sell to Iran are ridiculous and offensive. His lawyers say the government’s suspicions, detailed in FBI reports and letters from the fund’s special master denying payments, are baseless and based on hearsay.
“In this case, the US government should be quiet or shut up,” said Scott Gilbert, a lawyer for Hekmati. “If the government thinks it has a case, indict Amir. Try Amir. But you, the US government, won’t do it because you can’t. You do not have sufficient factual evidence to do so.
Gilbert has refused to make Hemkati available for an interview while Hekmati’s lawsuit for compensation is pending.
The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment, but details of the investigation emerge from hundreds of pages of documents filed in the case.
The documents show that the FBI opened a spy investigation into Hekmati as early as 2011, the same year he was detained in Iran on suspicion of CIA espionage.
Hekmati, who grew up in the US state of Michigan and served as an infantryman and interpreter in Iraq before being honorably released from the Marines in 2005, says he traveled to Iran to visit a grandmother ill after a brief unsatisfactory stint as the Department of Defense Contractor conducting intelligence analysis in Afghanistan.
But the FBI concluded he went there with the intention of selling classified information on Iran, according to an unsigned five-page summary of their investigation.
The assessment is based in part on accounts from four independent but unnamed witnesses who say Hekmati approached Iranian officials to offer them classified information, as well as the fact that he abruptly resigned his post in Afghanistan. before his contract ended and left for Iran without telling friends and colleagues, the FBI says.
An FBI computer search concluded that during his time in Afghanistan, he had accessed hundreds of classified documents about Iran that agents said fell outside his professional responsibilities, the documents said.
Hekmati, the son of Iranian immigrants, says he has openly researched Iran to cultivate his expertise on Iranian influence in Afghanistan. “Everyone was aware” of the work he was doing, he said in a hearing last year, and supervisors did not impose restrictions. He says he had already quit his job when he left for Iran, so he was under no obligation to inform his colleagues about his trip. At no time in Iran, he said, did he meet with Iranian officials or attempt to sell government secrets.
Hekmati’s lawyers say the FBI’s suspicions are impossible to reconcile with the treatment he suffered in prison, which they said included torture and being forced to record a forced but bogus confession. If he was actually spying for Iran, Gilbert said, “You would think the guy would have been a valuable asset, they actually wanted to do something with him” rather than mistreat him.
He was initially sentenced to life imprisonment, but the sentence was reduced to 10 years.
Hekmati enjoyed the support of senior officials, including Kerry, who demanded his release, and Biden, who met his family in Michigan. In January 2016, after four and a half years behind bars, he was released along with several other U.S. citizens, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, as the Obama administration entered its final year hungry for signs of improvement. relations after the nuclear controversy. deal with Iran.
Months later, Hekmati sued Iran for his torture. A federal judge in Washington, DC, issued a default judgment of $ 64 million after Iran did not dispute the claims. Hekmati then applied to raise through a fund run by the Justice Department for victims of terrorism funded by assets seized from US adversaries. He received the statutory maximum of $ 20 million, according to his lawyers.
The fund’s special master at the time was Kenneth Feinberg, renowned for overseeing payments to victims of the September 11 attacks. In December 2018, he authorized an upfront payment of over $ 839,000.
But for months no money came. After Hekmati’s lawyers warned they should take legal action, the Justice Department cryptically indicated that it was seeking to reconsider the sentence.
In January 2020, Feinberg formally revoked Hekmati’s eligibility for the fund, claiming that his application contained errors and omissions and that information from the Justice Department supported the conclusion that Hekmati had visited Iran in the intention to sell classified information.
A second letter from last December did not repeat this specific allegation, but said Hekmati made “evasive, false and inconsistent statements” in three interviews with the FBI, did not “credibly refute “That most of the classified information to which he had access concerned Iran and” traveled to Iran for primary purposes other than to visit his family. “
Feinberg declined to comment, saying his decision “spoke for itself.”
The correspondence was kept secret until January when Hekmati’s lawyers filed it in the Federal Claims Court in Washington in connection with his lawsuit. Since then, hundreds of additional pages of documents describing the investigation have been filed.
The documents include summaries of 2016 FBI interviews in Germany, on Hekmati’s way home from Iran and Michigan, which show FBI agents grumbling at him with growing suspicion.
A summary says Hekmati declined to answer when asked if he had ever had access to classified information about Iran and replied that the FBI could find out for themselves. In a follow-up interview, an agent confronted Hekmati with the FBI’s assessment that he had traveled to Afghanistan to obtain classified information that he could sell to Iran. After a back and forth, Hekmati told the FBI that he accessed the material to become a subject matter expert on the subject.
Hekmati and his attorneys say the FBI interviews should not be taken as credible, in part because he was suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder at the time.
The status of any investigation is unclear, as is Hekmati’s prospects of receiving payment. But Gilbert, Hekmati’s lawyer, says he hopes the ruling will be reviewed by the new Justice Department.
“Hopefully we’ll see the appropriate outcome here and be able to put this saga to bed.”