Once Held in Iranian Jail, Ex-Marine Fights Espionage Claims

WASHINGTON (AP) -
In this Jan. 21 file photo, Amir Hekmati waves after arriving on a private flight at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

After Amir Hekmati was released from Iranian custody in a 2016 deal trumpeted as a diplomatic breakthrough, he was declared eligible for $20 million in compensation from a special U.S. government fund.

But payday never arrived, leaving Hekmati to wonder why.

The answer has finally arrived: Newly filed court documents 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 vigorously disputes the allegations, has never faced criminal charges and is challenging a special master’s conclusion that he lied about his visit to Iran and is therefore not entitled to the money.

The FBI investigation helps explain the government’s refusal for more than two years to pay Hekmati and muddies the narrative around a U.S. citizen, Marine and Iraq war veteran whose release was championed at the U.S. government’s highest levels, including by Joe Biden, then the vice president, and John Kerry, then the secretary of state. The documents offer radically conflicting accounts of Hekmati’s purpose in visiting Iran and detail the simmering, behind-the-scenes dispute over whether he is entitled to access a fund that compensates victims of international terrorism.

Hekmati said in a sworn statement that allegations he sought to sell out 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 groundless and based on hearsay.

“In this case, the U.S. government should put up or shut up,” said Scott Gilbert, a lawyer for Hekmati. “If the government believes they have a case, indict Amir. Try Amir. But you, the U.S. government, won’t do that because you can’t do that. You don’t have sufficient factual evidence to do that.”

Gilbert declined to make Hemkati available for an interview while Hekmati’s lawsuit seeking compensation is pending.

The FBI and Justice Department declined to comment, but details from the investigation emerge in hundreds of pages of documents filed in the case.

The documents show the FBI opened an espionage investigation into Hekmati as far back as 2011, the same year he was detained in Iran on suspicion he was spying for the CIA.

Hekmati, who was raised in Michigan and served as an infantryman and interpreter in Iraq before being honorably discharged from the Marines in 2005, says he went to Iran to visit an ailing grandmother after a brief, unsatisfying stint as a Defense Department contractor conducting intelligence analysis in Afghanistan.

But the FBI concluded that he went there intent on selling Iran classified information, according to an unsigned five-page summary of their investigation.

The assessment is based partly on accounts from four independent but unnamed witnesses who say Hekmati approached Iranian officials offering classified information, as well as the fact he abruptly resigned his contracting position before his contract was up and left for Iran without telling friends and colleagues, the FBI says. An FBI computer forensics search concluded that while in Afghanistan, he accessed hundreds of classified documents on Iran that agents believe were outside the scope of his job responsibilities, the documents say.

He was initially sentenced to life, but the punishment was cut to 10 years.

Months later, Hekmati sued Iran over his torture. A federal judge in Washington entered a $63.5 million default judgment after Iran failed to contest the claims. Hekmati subsequently applied to collect through a Justice Department-run fund for terror victims financed by assets seized from U.S. adversaries. He was awarded the statutory maximum of $20 million, his lawyers say.

In January 2020, Feinberg formally revoked Hekmati’s eligibility for the fund, saying his application contained errors and omissions and that information from the Justice Department supported the conclusion that Hekmati visited Iran with the intent of selling classified information.

A second letter last December didn’t repeat that precise allegation, but said Hekmati had given “evasive, false and inconsistent statements” during three FBI interviews, failed to “credibly refute” that most of the classified information he accessed related to Iran and “traveled to Iran for primary purposes other than to visit his family.”