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Uncle Sam’s Say-So Leads Judge|to Toss Murky Iran Defamation Case

MANHATTAN (CN) - In a possibly "unprecedented" expansion of the state-secrets doctrine, a federal judge honored the government's request to bury a Greek shipping magnate's lawsuit against United Against Nuclear Iran.

The ruling comes in a defamation lawsuit Greek shipping magnate Victor Restis filed roughly two years ago, after the anti-Iran group targeted him in its "name and shame" campaign as a "front-man" for the Islamic Republic's oil industry.

As his lawsuit headed toward discovery, the U.S. Attorney's office moved to intervene in the case and claimed that litigation would spill state secrets.

Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Restis with the Washington-based firm Chadbourne & Parke, immediately denounced the maneuver as "strange" and "unprecedented" in a case involving only private litigants.

Despite acknowledging that this secrecy may be "rare" and "drastic," government lawyers contended that the move was not a total outlier.

The two cases that they publicly cited - Fitzgerald v. Penthouse and Trulock v. Wen Ho Lee - involved military technology such as weaponized dolphins and nuclear information, respectively.

Several open-government groups said that those precedents were not analogous.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Constitution Project, the Sunlight Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation all supported Restis as friends-of-the-court.

Their arguments for transparency failed Monday, however, to sway U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos.

Basing his opinion on "a classified declaration by the head of the department which has control over the matter," Ramos concluded that Restis will "not get [his] day in court, but cannot be told why."

"Simply put, there is no intermediate solution that would allow this litigation to proceed while also safeguarding the secrets at issue," the 18-page opinion states. "In any event, while it may be that this case is rare because it involves purely private litigants, it is the nature of the information at issue that guides the state secrets analysis, not the nature or status of the litigants."

The explanation did little to appease Lowell, the attorney for Restis.

"We are disappointed that some secret relationship between UANI and the government allows UANI to hide from disclosing that association or to defend what has now been proven to be its false and defamatory allegations directed at Mr. Restis and his company," Lowell said in a statement.

Emphasizing that his team is still "mystified" about the U.S. government's interest in his client's case, Lowell said is group is also "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."

An attorney for United Against Nuclear Iran meanwhile countered that Lowell's statement seeks to "turn defeat into victory."

"Contrary to the wishful thinking of Mr. Restis's counsel, UANI's statements about Mr. Restis and EST have not been 'proven' to be 'false and defamatory,'" Lee Wolosky, of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said in a statement. "As hard as it appears for him to accept, Mr. Restis lost today - notwithstanding the vast resources he threw at a small not for profit organization."

Wolosky said the lawsuit against his clients had been "meritless." Its dismissal shows that intimidation will not stop those who work for his client from acting "courageously and patriotically in their efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," Wolosky added.

It is unclear whether Restis will appeal. His attorney noted only that for now they are leaving it to the "court of public opinion to set the record straight."

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