Amir Hekmati was deemed liable for $20 million in reimbursement from a special US government fund after being released from Iranian detention in a 2016 agreement hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough.
But payday never came, leaving Hekmati perplexed.
Finally, the response has arrived: According to newly filed court papers checked by The Associated Press, the FBI believes he went to Iran to sell sensitive information, not to visit his grandmother as he claims. Hekmati denies the claims, has never been charged with a crime, and is contesting a special master’s ruling that he lied about his trip to Iran and thus is not entitled to the money.
The FBI investigation sheds light on why the government has been refusing to pay Hekmati for more than two years and muddies the story of a US citizen, Marine, and Iraq war veteran whose release was championed at the highest levels of the US government, including by Joe Biden, then-Vice President, and John Kerry, then-Secretary of State. The documents include wildly divergent accounts of Hekmati’s motivation for visiting Iran, as well as details of a simmering, behind-the-scenes dispute over whether he is eligible for compensation from a fund that compensates victims of international terrorism.
In a sworn statement, Hekmati called the claims that he tried to sell out to Iran “ridiculous and insulting.” His attorneys contend that the government’s allegations, which are outlined in FBI reports and letters from the fund’s special master refusing payments, are unfounded and focused on hearsay.
Scott Gilbert, a lawyer for Hekmati, said, “In this situation, the US government should put up or shut up.” “Indict Amir if the government thinks they have a case. Amir could be worth a shot. But you, the US government, can not do so because you are incapable of doing so. To do so, you don’t have enough factual evidence.”
Though Hekmati’s complaint for compensation is pending, Gilbert refused to make Hemkati available for an interview.
The FBI and Justice Department refused to comment, but hundreds of pages of documents filed in the case reveal information from the investigation.
According to the papers, the FBI began investigating Hekmati for espionage in 2011, the same year he was detained in Iran on suspicion of spying for the CIA.
After a short, unsatisfying stint as a Defense Department contractor performing intelligence analysis in Afghanistan, Hekmati, who was raised in Michigan and worked as an infantryman and translator in Iraq before being honorably discharged from the Marines in 2005, says he went to Iran to visit an ailing grandmother.
According to an unsigned five-page description of their investigation, the FBI concluded that he went there with the intent of selling Iran classified information.
According to the FBI, the assessment is based in part on accounts from four unidentified witnesses who claim Hekmati approached Iranian officials offering confidential details, as well as the fact that he unexpectedly resigned his contracting job before his contract was up and left for Iran without informing friends or colleagues. According to the papers, while in Afghanistan, he accessed hundreds of classified documents on Iran that agents claim were beyond the reach of his job duties, according to an FBI computer forensics search.
Hekmati, the son of Iranian immigrants, claims to have performed open research on Iran in order to gain an understanding of Iranian presence in Afghanistan. At a hearing last year, he said that “everyone knew” about the work he was doing and that his bosses didn’t impose any limitations. He claims he was not obliged to inform coworkers about his trip because he had already quit his job when he left for Iran. He said he never met with any Iranian officials or attempted to sell government secrets while in Iran.
The FBI’s suspicions, according to Hekmati’s attorneys, are difficult to reconcile with the treatment he received in jail, which included torture and being forced to record a coerced yet false confession. “You’d think the guy would have been a valuable asset, they really would have tried to do something about him” if he was spying for Iran, Gilbert said, rather than exploiting him.
He was originally sentenced to life in prison, but his term was reduced to ten years.
Senior officials backed Hekmati, including Kerry, who requested his release, and Biden, who visited his family in Michigan. He was released with several other American citizens, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, in January 2016, after four and a half years in prison, as the Obama administration entered its final year looking for signs of improved ties following the contentious nuclear deal with Iran.
Hekmati later sued Iran for torturing him. After Iran failed to appeal the charges, a federal judge in Washington entered a $63.5 million default judgment. Hekmati then applied to collect from a Justice Department-run terror victims’ fund, which is funded by funds recovered from US adversaries. According to his attorneys, he was paid the statutory limit of $20 million.
Kenneth Feinberg, the fund’s special master at the time, was best known for overseeing compensation to 9/11 victims. He approved an initial payment of more than $839,00 in December 2018.
But there was no money for months. The Justice Department cryptically suggested it was seeking a reconsideration of the award after Hekmati’s lawyers warned they would have to sue.
Feinberg officially removed Hekmati’s eligibility for the fund in January 2020, citing inconsistencies and omissions in his application as well as evidence from the Justice Department that backed the conclusion that Hekmati visited Iran with the purpose of selling sensitive information.
Hekmati gave “evasive, unreliable, and contradictory statements” during three FBI interviews, refused to “credibly refute” that any of the confidential information he accessed related to Iran, and “traveled to Iran for primary purposes other than to meet his family,” according to a second letter sent in December.
Feinberg said his decision “speaks for itself” and refused to comment.
The correspondence remained hidden until January, when Hekmati’s lawyers filed it as part of a complaint in Washington’s Court of Federal Claims. Hundreds of additional pages of papers detailing the investigation have since been filed.
The records contain summaries of FBI interviews conducted in Germany, on Hekmati’s way home from Iran, and in Michigan in 2016, in which FBI agents interrogated him with increasing skepticism.
According to one summary, when asked if he had ever accessed classified information on Iran, Hekmati declined to respond and said the FBI should find it out on its own. An agent challenged Hekmati with the FBI’s assessment that he went to Afghanistan to procure classified information that he could sell to Iran in a follow-up interview. Hekmati told the FBI that he accessed the material to become a subject matter expert on the subject after some back-and-forth.
The FBI interviews, according to Hekmati and his lawyers, should not be taken seriously since he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time.
The status of any investigation, as well as Hekmati’s chances of ever obtaining payment, are unknown. But Gilbert, Hekmati’s lawyer, says he hopes the decision gets a fresh look by the new Justice Department.
“I am hopeful that we will see the appropriate outcome here and be able to put this saga to bed.”