A federal judge, citing national security concerns, on Monday threw out a defamation lawsuit a wealthy Greek shipping magnate brought against a nonprofit organization seeking to prevent Iran's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos in Manhattan said the government had shown there was no solution that would let the litigation proceed while also safeguarding state secrets. He said he recognized dismissal of the 2013 lawsuit was a harsh result, especially since lawyers for billionaire Victor Restis weren't permitted to see materials the government submitted to him before he ruled.
Continue Reading Below
"It is particularly so in this case because plaintiffs not only do not get their day in court but cannot be told why," the judge wrote. "However, dismissal is nonetheless appropriate."
The ruling came in a lawsuit Restis brought against the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran. Seeking unspecified damages, Restis said the group had made "grave, inflammatory and extremely damaging accusations" against him and was trying to ruin his reputation by falsely claiming he did business with Iran.
Last year, the government sought to intervene in the lawsuit, saying the head of a federal agency had asserted a claim of privilege to information Restis demanded the nonprofit organization release. The government said disclosure of the information could seriously damage national security, though it did not explain how a private organization would have information that would cause such a threat.
At the time, the judge said he was concerned the coalition could make public statements and then "not have to answer to their actions on the basis of a privilege."
Lawyers for the New York-based group had said Restis was trying to distract from his criminal and civil troubles in Greece.
A lawyer for Restis, Abbe Lowell, said he was disappointed.
"We are mystified that the U.S. government has such a stake in this case that it would take such extraordinary steps to prevent full disclosure of the secret interest it has with UANI or others," Lowell said in a statement. "And, we are concerned that, in our court system, such a result could occur on the basis of sealed, one-sided filings and meetings in which we were not allowed to participate."
He said it would be left to "the court of public opinion to set the record straight" until attorneys decide how to proceed.
Attorney Dror Ladin, with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief in the case, said the ACLU was "deeply troubled" by the ruling.
"In past cases involving sensitive subject matters, such as torture and surveillance, the public had at least some basis for understanding the government's interest in trying to keep a case out of court," Ladin said. "The blanket secrecy here leaves the public completely in the dark not just about the government's reasons for blocking this case but also what the government's interest in the case even is."
A government spokeswoman declined to comment.