Scary Iran Plot: Bipolar Disorder and Other Reasons to Dismiss

As the NYT and TPM have reported, Manssor Arbabsiar–the accused plotter in the Scary Iran Plot–has moved to have his indictment dismissed because he is bipolar. His lawyers are basing that motion on the diagnoses of Clinical Neuropsychologist Joel Morgan and Psychiatrist Michael First. First cites six passages from his interrogation (all redacted) to support his assertion that Arbabsiar was likely cycling in and out of manic episodes during his confession.

And while I highly doubt a judge is going to dismiss the case against the Scary Iran Plotter because he is bipolar, it is worth noting that the confession given–First says–while he was probably manic, is central to four out of five charges against Arbabsiar.

But I’m more interested in the other documents filed in the last few days. In addition to the doctors’ declarations, there are declarations addressing the other reasons–Arbabsiar’s team argues–why some of the evidence and possibly the entire indictment against him should be thrown out. A declaration from his public defender, Sabrina Shroff, references 5 exhibits (all redacted) describing why the judge should “dismiss the Indictment, or, in the alternative, to suppress statements made by Mr. Arbabsiar and other evidence improperly obtained by the government.” And then there’s a declaration from Arbabsiar himself, though its 29 paragraphs remain entirely sealed; it’s unlikely that Arbabsiar would submit a declaration to support his own bipolar diagnosis (and the declarations don’t reference any comments he made, though it does reference comments from his family). So it must offer other reasons to throw out the charges or some of the evidence.

So it’s not just that Arbabsiar’s lawyers are saying he’s mentally ill, and that illness influenced both his decision to waive his Miranda rights but also the confession that is critical to most of the charges against him. But there seem to be around 5 other reasons or pieces of evidence that Arbabsiar’s team alleges were improperly collected.

Of course, we’re not allowed to know what they are, cause that would make it more clear whether the government invented Scary Iran Plot entirely or just made a big deal out of another aspirational plot.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

22 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    Hmmm…according to Clinical Neuropsychologist Joel Morgan, Manssor Arbabsiar has a “IQ = 82, low average range”.

    Since my room temperature is 84° right now, it can truthfully be said that Arbabsiar has an IQ lower than room temperature.

    Makes the usefulness of Arbabsiar in the Scary Iran Plot all the more implausible.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: The whole diagnosis makes Arbabsiar like a bunch of other Muslim men (though he wasn’t practicing) who get recruited as dupes for a frame-up.

    Mind you, he may well have been recruited twice. But still one of those easy marks.

  3. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I agree. There’s no way this individual could dream up any part of this plot by himself.

    A interesting question that occurs to me is who requested these redactions? The prosecution or the defense? Who’s hiding what?

  4. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: I bring up the possibility of this being defense-requested redactions because it seems so unusual in filings by the defense in a case that has little (though some) nexus implicating national security stuff.

    Yeah, there’s wiretapping stuff with regard to Arbabsiar, Shakuri and the undercover informant, but it would seem unlikely that material was the subject of the redactions.

    And I wouldn’t mind some thoughts from one of the resident defense attorneys as to whether defense-requested redactions are among the tools of their trade.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Nah, it’s the prosecution. Defense has already complained, unsuccessfully, abt them withholding stuff under CIPA. They want disclosure uere.

  6. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And to further my speculation that these are defense-requested redactions, I refer to the filing of Dr. First and pages 6-8 where the redactions start in his filing:

    “…22. The FBI reports regarding the twelve-day period of detention following September 29, 2011 indicate that [redacted rest of the paragraph].

    23. These [redacted most of the rest of the sentence] suggesting that Mr. Arbabsair was experiencing pressured speech, paranoid and grandiose ideation, and was in a manic state. For example:

    a-f. [redaction of all of the examples]…”

    And so forth. This seems to be redactions involving parts of the transcripts of the FBI interrogations. Transcripts of material where perhaps Arbabsair was incriminating himself.

    It seems to me that therefore what we are not seeing is material that the defense would rather not become part of the public record. Makes sense?

  7. Jeff Kaye says:

    Well, having read through Morgan and First’s declarations (which are not the same as actual psychological or psychiatric reports), it would appear highly probably that Manssor Arbabsiar is, as they declare, seriously mentally ill. Whether he is actually bipolar or not, I can’t obviously know.

    If you read Morgan’s declaration (and if I were a government attorney), I would make much of the fact that Morgan’s assessment was problematic, for the reasons he states. Hence, the validity of his results are at question. I assume his results on the TOMMS indicated that Arbabsiar was not malingering. The failure on the Trailmaking A&B would indicate some organic damage, except… it appears instead the poor cognitive results were due to psychotic processes at work, not brain damage per se (despite the MRI results).

    But First gives enough information from interviews of family members to provide me some assurance that his diagnosis was probably correct.

    All this doesn’t mean that the court won’t make Arbabsiar stand trial, as the question of diminished capacity, mens rea, and all those other forensic niceties are what will count in a courtroom or to a judge, and I’m not expert in that area. Suffice it to say that whether or not someone is “bipolar” is not sufficient to throw out confessions or evidence, but it certainly could cause some problems for the government attorneys, assuming the judge lets this all go to trial.

    My guess is the judge will let the indictment stand.

    Note, MadDog, Arbabsiar’s IQ is likely not 82, which would make him quite limited, almost of borderline intelligence. Instead, the IQ measurement is most likely affected, from my reading of the two psychological/psychiatric declarations, compromised by the mental illness and problems with the test administrations, something Morgan should have clarified. For instance, the very poor showings on the Wechsler Memory Test and on Trailmaking and some other neuropsych instruments should have led Morgan to some neuropsychological diagnosis, as these are neuropsych and not purely psychiatric tests (as are the MMPI, for instance). But he seems to go with the bipolar diagnosis over some neuropsychological diagnosis, showing the neuropsych tests were compromised by the psychiatric condition of Mr. Arbabsiar (most likely).

  8. MadDog says:

    @Jeff Kaye:

    “…Note, MadDog, Arbabsiar’s IQ is likely not 82, which would make him quite limited, almost of borderline intelligence. Instead, the IQ measurement is most likely affected, from my reading of the two psychological/psychiatric declarations, compromised by the mental illness and problems with the test administrations, something Morgan should have clarified…”

    Ok, I defer to your expertise. It sure seemed like a relatively low IQ score, and that prompted my thoughts about how could this individual possibly be the mastermind behind this Scary Iran Plot.

    It may still be that he’s no mastermind, but not because of a room temperature IQ.

  9. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Here are the kinds of things they redacted, if I had to guess:

    1) Details that would give Shakuri some advantage
    2) Questions they asked abotu Shakuri
    3) Discussions of how this developed from a drug case to an assassination one
    4) Arbabsiar’s boasts about what the “code” on these calls were
    5) Details about his relationship with Narc and/or identifying details about Narc

    That’s just in the confession. As for the other things, part of it depends on whether Arbabsiar was–as I suspect–in some kind of relationship w/the govt. But even if he wasn’t, there are questions about bank account information, problems with taping, problematic warrants.

    This was a terrorism/foreign intelligence nexus, targeted named SDN people. They can use a whole slew of tools that the PDs in NY may find rather exotic.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Oh, I definitely believe the indictment will stand. The big question is whether they allow his Miranda waiver to stand. Cause if they don’t, their case either gets a lot crappier very quickly, or they’ll have to use all sorts of intelligence collected via very exotic means, which I’m sure they want to keep very well hidden.

    I still say it doesn’t hold anything up–after all, Arbabsiar is probably no more ill than half the other guys they entrap. But it should focus a lot of attention on the confession.

  11. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Two more reminders of the degree to which they consider this a NatSec case. First, the judge has already approved not sharing some of this information with the defense. Second, remember how squeamish they were with even the original complaint. This whole thing was at least significantly set up by intelligence (which may be the substance of some of the lawyers’ complaints–though if so the discussion is entirely in exhibits). And they’d like to hide that. Not to mention the identity and payoff for their Narc.

  12. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: You make some good points that I’ll ponder further, but don’t you agree the sense of the unredacted material seems to focus both on Arbabsiar’s behavior, and possibly his commentary during the FBI interrogations?

    That’s what leads me in the direction of defense redactions. Particularly the idea that the redacted material may be more incriminating to Arbabsiar’s defense that they wouldn’t want out in the public domain than what has been previously publicly released in the original prosecution material.

    As in “here Arbabsiar is babbling about X” and “here Arbabsiar is babbling about Y”.

    I admit I’m grasping at really thin straws here, but that’s just the way the filing seems to read to me.

  13. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Yes, I do agree there is that part of the case that has a national security nexus. My point however is that these filings seem to point away from that part of the case and focus on Arbabsiar’s behavior and commentary while undergoing FBI interrogation.

  14. Jeff Kaye says:

    @MadDog @Emptywheel Well, whoever hired Dr. First was going to the top authority in the psychiatric field (edited the DSM). If they can “prove” Arbabsiar was in a manic episode (psychotic) when he waived his Miranda rights, then I could imagine there might be a real problem for the gov’t. I’m not a forensic or legal expert, however.

    Bmaz?

  15. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: You’re suggesting the government never hides weaknesses or embarrassing details under the guise of NatSec secrecy?

    The confession is their case. As it was, they cherry picked details and ignored the language to make their case against Iran. Now that they have this protective order, they can do that with abandon.

    There is no reason–none–that a lawyer would want to hide the 5 pieces of evidence that, she says, were improperly collected on her client. But that’s what happened.

    The govt is clearly hiding the case against it. BC this involves spooks and informants, they have the authority to do that, unilaterally.

  16. Kathleen says:

    “Of course, we’re not allowed to know what they are, cause that would make it more clear whether the government invented Scary Iran Plot entirely or just made a big deal out of another aspirational plot.”

    “make it more clear whether the government invented Scary Iran Plot” That was all over the front page of newspapers across the nation, on Rachel Maddow’s etc. MSNBC helped pound on the go get Iran drums as much as any other MSM outlet. Sure seemed contrived. With the “Curveball”…”Niger Documents”…”mushroom clouds” and uncounted dead, injured and displaced in Iraq as well as 4500 American soldiers dead and tens of thousands injured from that invasion of Iraq based on a “pack of lies” no need to wonder why people would question the U.S. government

  17. Kathleen says:

    Over at Race for Iran

    Hillary Mann Leverett about Clinton’s visit to Egypt over at Race for Iran.
    “Egypt’s Post-Mubarak Evolution Challenges America’s Hegemonic Ambitions in the Middle East” Unable to link. Worth watching/listening
    We share above a panel discussion Hillary participated in yesterday on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story on the U.S.-Egyptian relationship and Secretary Clinton’s recent visit to Egypt. The discussion may be viewed by clicking on the video frame above or through the link here. Egypt’s future trajectory is critical to the strategic balance in the Middle East—and, thus, to both the United States and the Islamic Republic. The discussion suggests that Egypt’s post-Mubarak evolution is likely to be quite problematic for the United States—and, therefore, a strategic gain for Tehran and others who seek to push back against Washington’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.

    Clinton “I’m looking forward” while Israel keeps building and expanding illegal settlements and wipes out the possibility of a two state solution. Clinton “I’m looking forward”

    Hillary Mann Leverett whips it up during the discussion “Egypt has been subordinated to Israeli interest” for decades.

  18. mlnw says:

    These diagnoses should carry great weight. Dr. First is a top internationally recognized psychiatrist who is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University and practices at New York State Psychiatric Institute, two of the most prestigious psychiatric institutions.

    There have been so many frame ups created to target and taint the Iran and every other country in the Administration’s sights (e.g. Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, etc) that the government has less and less credibility with the public every time it cries wolf.

  19. bmaz says:

    @MadDog: My experience is a defense lawyer would simply file it under seal if they were particularly concerned, not engage in partial scattered redactions. So, I think it almost certain the redacting here was done by the prosecution and court security officer.

  20. bmaz says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Not a chance in hell of dismissal, and from best I can read the diagnoses/argument, next to no chance of insanity defense success (and diminished capacity isn’t going to be of any help in this type of prosecution).

    But, it is a pretty interesting argument for suppression. And a fairly compelling one to my eye (note, I am saying I like it, not that a court is going to). And Marcy is right, such a ruling would come very close to gutting the complaint.

  21. Cato says:

    Interesting post. Al the details about the off-limits court documents have spurred a lot of discussion. Speaking from a European pespective (biased?) the iran-saudi assassination plot story seemed highly dubious at the time. In the US it had a big media hit, and here too it was reported. Interestinly however, in the context of 1. the general war on terror, and 2. the desire of (pretty much) all states to be on good (oil-buying) terms with the Saudis, it was not ‘backed up’ by any European foreign ministers. There were reports that the US encouraged the UK to get in the mix, but even that never materialised. More pertinently, the Saudis didn’t seem to jump up and down too much; indeed they welcomed an Iranian government official to a subsequent Saudi society funeral shortly after the Islamic Republic lodged an official complaint with the US about the plot allegation. Of course, with little clarity about the case, it could well be that there is decent evidence, but the circumstantial has a whiff of dodge about it.
    And if there is such a whiff then the real problem is a media one, because if such a plot was – to an extent – a fabrication, or at least based on some form of unreliable entrapment – then it would contribute to a sense of mistrust in US reporting of these things.
    One caveat on the entrapment issue: there ar of course many types of entrapment, and some are reasonable. For example if you use entrapment to net something that was already or about to be aranged, or there was a danger of its arrangement, fine. But if you pick a susceptible, rackety and slightly unbalanced rogue off the street, ply him with booze/drugs and offer him money to do something which appeals to a certain crazy streak, but which he would never have the wherewithal or inclination otherwise to do. Well that’s different.

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