To perform intelligence work effectively, an individual must sometimes assume a cover identity. The same is true for organizations.
The CIA has a long and fairly widely known history of using private sector “front companies” to do its work. These arrangements are useful when the U.S. government does not want to be publicly connected with, say, a flight between Europe and the Middle East or Central Asia. In the mid-2000s, The New York Times described how some private aircraft companies were CIA fronts, used in renditions and other intelligence activities. And while it is understandably hard to be precise on the topic, the use of private industry in the intelligence community has risen since 2001, though the practice was well-established during the Cold War.
But there have not been many well-known instances of the CIA using U.S. nonprofit organizations as covers for intelligence activities. The idea of this practice is even murkier when a nonprofit organization lobbies U.S. and foreign lawmakers for policy action, especially since the CIA is forbidden by law from domestic espionage. Of course, that didn’t stop the agency from spying on U.S. Senate staff. Still, if the CIA is using nonprofit groups that lobby legislators, it is a matter of concern for Americans.
That is part of the reason so many people took notice in late July when the Justice Department stepped in to shield the files of United Against Nuclear Iran, a nonprofit advocacy group.
While nonprofit groups are generally not required to reveal their donor lists, United Against Nuclear Iran is currently under scrutiny due to a defamation lawsuit filed by Victor Restis. Restis, a Greek shipping magnate, was a target of the nonprofit’s typical “name and shame” tactics when UANI accused him and his company of violating sanctions against Iran. Restis has said the letter the group cited as evidence was fraudulent and that he and his company have done nothing wrong.
Had it simply remained a dispute between a businessman and a private organization opposed to his alleged business activities, the case would not have been especially noteworthy. However, Restis’ lawyers claimed in court documents that “foreign interests” were funding UANI. What might have seemed like posturing to pressure the nonprofit to settle out of court became more mysterious when the Justice Department intervened. U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos of Manhattan called the government’s involvement “very curious,” according to The Times.
Speculation abounds, but there has been little light shed on why the U.S. government is concerned about shielding UANI’s information. Judge Ramos has said he will have “a great number of questions” for the Justice Department on the topic. Some observers have suggested that the reason the government is so concerned with keeping UANI’s privacy intact is because the government’s own information is at stake.
But is United Against Nuclear Iran really a front for the CIA, or another U.S. government agency? Or is it a front for Israel’s Mossad, as some suspect? We simply don’t know. From the looks of things, the Justice Department really doesn’t want us to find out, either.
Nobody with any sense relishes the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran. I certainly don’t. If our government, or Israel’s, or both, want to engage in a venture to prevent that outcome (especially without violence), I have no quarrel with it. That’s how Stuxnet got made, and the only fault I find with Stuxnet is that it did little more than delay the Iranian nuclear enterprise for a time.
But the Justice Department intervention in this particular suit is at best clumsy, and questionable at worst. If there is a real national security reason to intervene in this case, it should have been made clear to the judge and the parties, if not the public, months ago. The fact that it has not implies that Justice has a weak hand. It seems likely the Department is merely running interference for an intelligence operation, one that may have improperly crossed into the political arena, just as the CIA’s recent incursion into Senate computers crossed a line into political oversight where the agency had no legitimate business.
This incident, whether clumsy or questionable in the end, continues a pattern of Obama’s Justice Department running a political operation in which cases are brought, or quashed, neither according to the law nor to reasonable policy goals, but according to the political whims and needs of the president and his man at Justice, Eric Holder. Neither Obama nor Holder seem at all interested in holding the intelligence community to account for its excesses. We’ll have to wait and see where all this ends up, but experience and appearances would indicate that it is unlikely to be anywhere we really want to be.