Justice Dept. invokes 'state secrets privilege' to block lawsuit

Government lawyers asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit by Greek shipping company owner Victor Restis.

Story highlights

  • Justice Department has invoked "state secrets privilege" in private dispute
  • Case involves man who says he was defamed by group United Against Nuclear Iran
  • Government lawyers filed classified document that may provide more info to judge
The Justice Department on Friday invoked the government's "state secrets privilege" to intervene in a private legal dispute between the owner of a Greek shipping company and a U.S. nonprofit that advocates against Iran's nuclear program.
In a court filing in New York, government lawyers asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit by Victor Restis against the group United Against Nuclear Iran. Restis claims he was defamed in a UANI campaign that alleged his company had ties to the Iranian government companies that are involved in Iran's nuclear program.
The government filing said an unnamed U.S. agency had determined the case risked revealing government secrets.
Restis' lawyers had sought to compel legal discovery -- the turning over of documents and other information -- from the group, its executives, and from Wall Street investor Thomas Kaplan, who Restis' lawyers claim is a funder of UANI.
UANI lawyers had sought to obtain a deposition of Restis to question him about alleged Iran ties.
Friday's government filing provided no detail of how UANI, Restis, or any others involved could have come to possess U.S. national security secrets. It said that "disclosure of the information at issue reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security."
Kaplan's lawyers have claimed he has no information relevant to the case. UANI has defended its free speech rights to campaign on the Iran issue.
Justice Department lawyers had previously attended hearings in the case and signaled the possibility the government may intervene, citing possible "law enforcement" secrets. The filing Friday goes beyond that, and by simply asserting "state secrets," the government limits what can be reviewed in the case.
Government lawyers also filed a classified court filing that ostensibly provided more information to the judge.
Before becoming president, Barack Obama had criticized the Bush administration for using the state secrets privilege and vowed more transparency. The Obama administration has used the privilege in several cases. Attorney General Eric Holder announced rules that he said would limit the government's use of the privilege, but leaves his discretion in such cases unaltered.
Government lawyers noted the unusual nature of intervening in a private dispute. "While the United States takes this position reluctantly and only after careful consideration, the only appropriate course in light of this privilege assertion is to dismiss this action in its entirety," the filing said.