Gaps in the Iran Plot Docket to Go Along with the Gaps in the Story

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer has some questions about the Iran plot, based partly on what his friend at DOJ said about the lack of record on the purported asassination plot at DOJ.

I did talk to one of my inside guys today and he’s saying that he thinks the same thing–you know why? Because he can’t find any real information and he’s got a clearance. So that tells him that there’s something going on that’s extraordinary by the fact that he’s an inside investigator, knows what’s going on, and yet–I’m gonna quote here, “There’s nothing on this within the DOJ beyond what they’ve talked about publicly,” which means to him there’s something very wrong with it.

The docket in Manssor Arbabsiar’s case at least partly confirms what Shaffer’s buddy said, because there are things that would normally be there but aren’t.

There are a couple of weird aspects to the docket (click to enlarge).

First (and this is what got me looking at the docket in the first place), the complaint is an amended complaint. That says there’s a previous complaint. But that complaint is not in the docket. Not only is it not in the docket, but the docket starts with the arrest on September 29 (notice the docket lists his arrest twice, on both September 29 and October 11), but the numbering starts with the amended complaint (normally, even if there were a sealed original complaint, it would be incorporated within the numbering, such that the docket might start with the amended complaint but start with number 8 or something).

Two things might explain this. First, that there was an earlier unrelated complaint–say on drug charges, but the charges are tied closely enough to this op such that this counts as an amended complaint. Alternately, that Arbabsiar was charged with a bunch of things when he was arrested on September 29, but then, after at least 12 days of cooperation (during which he waived Miranda rights each day), he was charged with something else and the new complaint incorporated Ali Gholam Shakuri’s involvement, based entirely on Arbabsiar’s confession and Shakuri’s coded conversations with Arbabsiar while the latter was in US custody.

Both of those scenarios suggest that what we see–the WMD and terror charges–might be totally different charges than what the original complaint included (or just focused less closely on Arbabsiar). In any case, the presence of an original complaint, even putting the docket weirdness aside, makes it pretty likely that Arbabsiar decided to cooperate because of what was in that complaint.

Now look at his status. “Detention on consent without prejudice.” Arbabsiar wants to be in jail. Given that his cooperation and implication of the Qods Force has turned into an international incident, I don’t blame the guy.

All of which does sort of make you wonder what medical attention the court ordered for Arbabsiar.

Now we may find there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why an already funky complaint that goes to great lengths to pretend the spooks weren’t involved in the case when they played an explicitly critical role has some oddities in its docket. But I would suggest–and I hope to at more length tomorrow–that DOJ’s records system might be the wrong place to look for background information on Manssor Arbabsiar.

And at the very least, the gaps in the docket mean that DOJ is currently unwilling to tell us when and on what charges Arbabsiar was first charged, and on what basis he cooperated with the authorities.

Update: This post was tweaked for clarity.

Update: As I was responding to EH, I realized something. As I said to him, the least damning explanation for the two complaints is that the original complaint had the same charges–WMD, terrorism, etc.–but charging just Arbabsiar.

But that’s not right! Three of the four charges are conspiracy charges (the exception was Foreign Travel and Use of Interstate and Foreign Commerce Facilities in the Commission of Murder-for-Hire). Unless the government were preparing a really crazy prosecution theory, you don’t charge just one person with conspiracy. Which raises real questions about what the charges in the original complaint were, particularly given the only evidence they had were money transfers not tied directly to Qods Force. And some tapes (as well as some key conversations that were not taped). The missing tapes would be particularly problematic given that Arbabsiar claims he was not sent to do murder for hire, he was sent to do kidnapping, and those missing tapes might explain how the plot evolved).

Update: I think I finally got the August/September fix right. Thanks, MD.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

43 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    Note there are also two sealed items in the docket (numbers 2 and 3). That’s not unusual, particularly for a case like this.

    One thing you might expect to see, but don’t, is an arrest warrant. Not sure what else is hidden behind doors number 2 and 3 though.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Sure, this guy now wants to be in protective custody, er, jail. Is it because of what he did or because of what the government said it would say he did?

    This kind of threat – “Yea, we know you’re not cooperating (and maybe didn’t do anything), but we’ll tell the bad guys you are, so talk or we put you back on the street and will watch to see how long you last.” – is another staple of cop and spy films. It wouldn’t take much to manufacture a dim or even smart witness’ cooperation. Neither Mr. Obama’s nor Mr. Bush’s DoJ deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one.

  3. EH says:

    or just focused less closely on Arbabsiar

    John Doe(s), maybe?

    Love the UN hustle, though. “Quick, get other people to take it seriously before the problems are well-known.”

  4. emptywheel says:

    @EH: I think I was less than clear with that. The least suspicious explanation is that the original complaint said Arbabsiar was plotting WMD and terrorism. And then after they collected evidence on SHakuri via Arbabsiar’s cooperation, then they turned the charges into conspiracies on those four points.

  5. MadDog says:

    “…the docket starts with the arrest on August 29 (notice the docket lists his arrest twice, on both August 29 and October 11…”

    EW, both of the Augusts should be Septembers?

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @emptywheel: No idea, perhaps an exchange of motions that led to item 4, the order to unseal the complaint.

    The detention on consent w/o prejudice presumably means the defendant consented to be detained, deferring the need to address release on bail unless and until that consent is withdrawn.

    As do you, I wonder what the order regarding medication/medical attention relates to. I hope the defendant’s need for medication arose independently from the circumstances relating to his having been in custody for 12 days before formally being arrested and charged.

  7. Mary says:

    Unrelated to the docket, but wanted to toss this in before I go

    It’s worth keeping in mind that if “we” (Obama re-electioneers) want to take certain kinds of actions with respect to Iran – our platform in Iraq is not only dwindling, it’s losing immunity.

    Although they have now, very belatedly, decided to talking point it as “legal protection” instead of “immunity.” In any event, military/CIA etc. operations in Iraq, while they may still go on under some kind of de facto impunity, are going to be losing the cover they have had.

    Back to more OT –
    Giraldi points out what you have been hitting on about some of the non-docket gaps.
    “We have a missing chapter here, which is the past nine months, during which period the DEA informant was in contact with one of these gentlemen and we do not know to what extent the situation was manipulated by him to turn what may have started out as nothing and turn it into a case that could be exported by the government to make its case that is being tough on terrorism. ”

    Back to you other post in context of this one, his calls to Iran were post-thefirstarrest in August, with the missing first complaint maybe being from then or not, with no real docket entries – but pre-theseconarrest Oct 11, where an Amended complaint pops up without any reference to first Complaint, sealed or otherwise. hmmm.

  8. MadDog says:

    EW, you asked over at the last post on this subject, what was my evidence that the money came from a Qods Force account.

    Rather than having us both jumping back and forth, I’ll respond here. I’m trying to see if I can find where I got it from some Google searches, but I think that I didn’t read it online, but instead heard it on TV from one of the Intel reporters on either CBS (David Martin), CNN, or MSNBC (Pete Williams).

    That, you and I would both agree, does not make it “evidence”. It could even be that the Intel reporter misspoke as often happens.

    In any event, here’s a link to a Joby Warrick piece over at the WaPo with this info:

    “…Although the Justice Department eventually linked the plan to Iran’s elite Quds Force, almost nothing in the case bore the hallmarks of the notorious military unit that has trained and equipped terrorists and assassins around the world, the officials said.

    A wire transfer two months into the uncover probe–$100,000 in cash, moved in tell-tale fashion from Iranian bank accounts to an undercover agent in Mexico–finally persuaded American investigators that the assassination plan had high-level backing…”

  9. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And continuing my comment here because of the 2 link rule, here’s another link from a Reuter’s piece with similar info:

    “…U.S. authorities say that before his arrest, Arbabsiar facilitated two wire transfers, totaling just under $100,000 from overseas to a U.S. bank account controlled by American investigators.

    U.S. officials have declined to provide precise details regarding the money’s point of origin or how it was transferred to the United States. But they say that still-secret information about the wire transfers provides strong evidence corroborating the involvement of Quds Force operatives in the alleged plot.

    In addition to wire transfer evidence which pointed to Quds Force, U.S. officials said a significant body of intelligence was found corroborating the role of Shahlai, Arbabsiar’s cousin, as a Quds Force commander who had previously been involved in anti-U.S. operations in the region. This intelligence, which is still classified, helped convince skeptics inside the government that the plot was real…”

    And here’s another link to another Reuter’s piece with additional info on the money transfer (not evidence mind you *g*):

    “…U.S. officials said apart from their historical knowledge about how the Iranian leadership and Quds Force interact, they believed high-level Iranian government support for the plot was corroborated by the fact that Arbabsiar allegedly managed to arrange a $100,000 wire transfer to fund the plot.

    The money passed through at least one Asian financial haven, one official said, adding the Iranians were relatively sloppy in concealing the funds’ origin.”

  10. orionATL says:

    one scenario:

    arbabsiar, co-operating with the u.s. “intelligence” community for unknown reasons, visits iran and in the process asks his cousin to wire him some money ($100k), the money coming from some of the money he (arbabsi—) controlls in iran ($2 mill it has been speculated/gossiped).

    u.s. has targeted working with arbabsiar because it knows arbabsiars’ cousin is quds.

    operating on the likelihood that one cousin would gladly do a favor for another,
    u.s. intelligence proceeds to use the american cousin to mousetrap the qudscousine.

    How likely is this scenario? i haven’t a clue, but it does force a fit with some of the salient facts.

  11. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: That’s bullshit (not you, but the story Warrick is pitching).

    That would suggest that they have no way of monitoring the relations between Arbabsiar and his cousin. But there’s no way they’d let this plot get 3 years advanced (even assuming Arbabsiar just stumbled on a DEA informant, which is utterly ridiculous) without doing some kind of collections on Shakuri, if not the cousin. Which goes back to my whole point of their deliberate scrubbing of all mention of the obvious intel role here.

  12. MadDog says:


    “…Which goes back to my whole point of their deliberate scrubbing of all mention of the obvious intel role here.”

    Scrubbed from the complaint, but flubbed by Obama in his Q&A during the joint press conference with the South Korean Prez:

    “…PRESIDENT OBAMA: Okay. First of all, on the Iranian issue, the Attorney General has put forward the facts with respect to the case, and I’m going to let him comment on the details of those facts. What we can say is that there are individuals in the Iranian government who are aware of this plot. And had it not been for the outstanding intelligence work of our intelligence officials, this plot could have gone forward and resulted not only in the death of the Saudi ambassador, but also innocent civilians here in the United States…”

    (My Bold)

  13. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Uh, okay. So if he asked about explosives BEFORE that first May meeting then WHY THE FUCK didn’t the informant push the button to tape the conversation?

    Nuh uh. The government itself says that Arbabsiar was instructed to find a kidnapper. And to have allegations–but NO TAPE!!!, even with advance warning–that Arbabsiar had somehow ignored his orders and decided to go for an assassination. I’m sorry. That’s nutty. Even assuming that all the “back in Iran” stuff in my timeline happened between that May and those untaped June-July meetings, it doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t tape this from the beginning, if they had something real.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Well, it wasn’t scrubbed from the thankyous. Which is why it’s so odd they’ve scrubbed the actual complaint.

    That said, absent a separate thanks to DEA and FBI (as Monaco did), you could argue that he was referring to them, since both are members of the IC.

    But I think we all know that CIA was tracking this dude whenever he was out of the country, NSA was wiretapping whatever they could get, and SOCOM apparently has a role in tracking finance.

    Point is, why not admit that?

  15. ron says:

    The endless running down various CIA and related U.S. Security agencies activities has generated over the last 50 years not one change in their operations. Maybe all this selective leaking is really to keep folks like yourself busy while the major operations of these agencies goes undetected . Just a thought….

  16. GulfCoastPirate says:

    Wow, you folks are on the case as usual.However, I have a question. Would someone please tell me why Obama or anyone in the government thinks I should give a shit if an Iranian in Corpus Christi wants to hire a Mexican to kill a Saudi Arabian? Frankly, I don’t give a shit and if the government is so hard up for money that they have to take away grandma’s medicare or some kids college tuition then I don’t think they should be spending one dime on this nonsense.

  17. orionATL says:

    in the same vein as maddog,

    “follow the money” but with a very different way,

    all i need to be convinced is this:

    fbi comes under kleigs and says, cross my heart and hope to die,

    – this is the account that the money was wired from in iran. it belongs to xxxx ( the grand vizar? arbabsiar? cousine? quds? somebody else?

    – here is the “cut-out” account it went to. it belongs to yyyyy.

    – here is how the money got to —- in the western hemisphere. that account belongs to zzzzz.

    [now, on the top-top secret matter of the cia laundering money and doing other favors for the mexican cartels, so the mexican cartels can help the cia fight the iranian and afghani cartels …. one dare not speak a word]

  18. MadDog says:


    “…Point is, why not admit that?”

    I’m gonna take a stab at that here. As we all well know, the US government is always reluctant to bring the real IC folks (CIA, NSA, etc.) into court.

    I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that for the purposes of a law enforcement-based court case, that in monitoring Arbabsiar’s overseas phone calls, the US government relied on FISA warrants obtained under the Patriot Act submitted under the auspices of and by either the FBI and/or the DOJ.

    That isn’t to say there are not NSA recordings of these very same conversations, but that the US government sees no reason to bring them up or into the court case.

    Does that make sense?

    Secondly, while CIA and NSA intelligence operations may have been used to convince the US government that certain Iranians of rank and power were involved in the plot, the US government sees no reason to reveal this intelligence as they are confident that the FBI-acquired material will suffice (both the aforementioned FISA take as well as the material acquired in Arbabsiar’s confession).

    Basically what the US government is doing is what they typically do. Namely only providing the “law enforcement” gathered evidence and hiding the “intelligence organization” gathered material. Sources and methods, doncha know?

  19. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: See, that wouldn’t even convince me. Because it’s not inconceivable CIA has an op in QF. Not likely, but there have been some very funky things going on w/our Iran ops, and SOMEONE loaded up STUXNET, and SOMEONE is helping us kill Iran’s nuke scientists. We’ve clearly got some assets in Iran, which is why it’s too simple to say that If Iran > Iran sanction.

  20. orionATL says:


    gulfcoastpirate –

    you’re on to something.

    that’s why the white house is having this silly circus – so no one will pay attention to grandma’s cries when the catfood commision comes for her socsec check.

  21. MadDog says:

    FWIW and Caveat Emptor, this from CNN in the last half hour:

    U.S. official: ‘Multiple’ sources strengthen case against Iran

    “Multiple” sources have corroborated the report about an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, a scheme the administration is alleging is tied to Iran’s military, a U.S. official told CNN Thursday.

    When U.S. officials first learned of the alleged plot, “there were significant doubts there was any ‘there’ there,” the official said. But “multiple sources of independently verified information” corroborated the account, the official said. “It coalesced into a picture of something unusual but serious,” the official said.

    The official said a key indicator that the plot was real was the wire transfer of large sums of cash…”

  22. MadDog says:

    @rg: At the original DOJ press briefing, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara stated that it was because the money wire transfer went through a New York bank.

    I’m guessing the number of terrorist prosecutions that the SDNY has undertaken compared to the rest of the US played a role as well.

  23. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Nope. Makes no sense. BC in a lot of their entrapments they allude to just those things.

    Your second argument is stronger. But let’s be clear, what they did here is NOT what they normally do, which is allude to stuff that must have been collected via IC or PATRIOT powers, w/o saying so in the affy. Here they stripped even the certainty that we knew where Arb was overseas when he left Mexico. Hell, if I were Darrell Issa or someone, I’d take their silence on that front and turn it into a state case about leaving the homeland undefended.

    They do not write complaints like this normally–they don’t go to absurd lengths to hide the important details that were collected by intell. So why did they do so here?

  24. emptywheel says:

    @rg: Mostly not. He traveled to MX from TX for one day on May 24 (for an unrecorded meeting). And then leaves the country 6 days later (presumably traveling at least to Iran, though in bizarre obscurantism, they don’t tell us that). He returns to MX on June 23, then heads back to Iran on July 20. He appears to stay in Iran until he attempts to return to MX on September 28.

    That’s all laid out here. But the underlying import of it is most of the interesting conversations happened outside of the country, which wouldn’t preclude CIA involvement, among other things.

  25. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Ut oh! They realize their propaganda isn’t working! Roll out the reinforcements, after having already gotten ahead of themselves pushing this as if it is real!!!



  26. orionATL says:


    i really don’t understand the details of this circus, but i ain’t accepting nuttin’ from 1, 2, 3, 38, 73 federal sources or agencies until they lay out the money trail:

    – bank A with accnt#—-, owned by “certain terrorist” #1

    -sent $100k to bank B with acctn #—-, owned by actor ???

    – who transferred that $100k to bank C in the western hemisphere with accnt #—- , owned by actor???

    gimmee the money trail, boys

    in full detail,

    if you want me to buy your spooky tale.

  27. orionATL says:

    for the white house, the good news is tomorrow’s friday,

    and the day after that is saturday :)

    can you say “shirley sherrod”

    three times fast?

  28. MadDog says:

    @orionATL: Don’t be holdin’ your breath. We aren’t on the special briefing list like the Russians, the Chinese, the Turks, the Brits, ze Frenchies, and so forth.

    We apparently can’t be trusted with the information unlike all those mentioned above.

  29. jerryy says:

    @orionATL: Asuming that the $100K was confiscated at some point, it would be a good thing as that means a small, very small bit of the cash bundles that Shrub sent over there to the next door neighbors (Iraq) strapped to pallets that went suddenly missing has now been repatriated back here.

  30. orionATL says:



    after the first five words of yours i read, “pallet” popped into my mind.

    glad to see you mentioned them.

    probably the treas/cia/nsa/fbi are not trained/interested in following cash transfers by c-140’s.

    but small bills, e.g., 100k, we are on top of :)

  31. MadDog says:

    As an aside, the NYT’s Charlie Savage this evening mentions in his piece, the following:

    “…President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said Thursday in an interview that the developments showed why the administration strongly believes that terrorism suspects arrested inside the United States should be handled by the traditional system.

    “Both of these cases demonstrate that Miranda was not at all an impediment” to winning a conviction and eliciting intelligence during an initial interrogation, respectively, Mr. Brennan said. “The American people should feel reassured that we are handling these cases very effectively as well as consistent with our laws and our values…”

    Since the Brennan interview hasn’t yet been published, I’m guessing that we’ll see it in the NYT’s Sunday edition this weekend (likely available Saturday night).

  32. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @emptywheel: I don’t think of it as cynicism. I think of it as trusting this government to be true to its nature, as I trust the modern corporation to be true to its nature and the Catholic Church to be true to its. I expect them to act as large institutions built on compliance, power, and predation. I do not expect them to abide by the friendly anthropomorphic metaphors their propagandists use to describe themselves and their products. I do not expect them to act like an old friend or neighbor, to be willing to lend a hand or an ear or to keep a secret. And as someone who has read Wilde and Wilder, Christie and le Carre, Dominic Crossman and Thomas Aquinas, I don’t expect every neighbor to be good or to keep a secret.

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