Speaking Out of Both Sides of Your Mouth

By W.D. Reasoner on February 13, 2013

The February 9-10, 2013, weekend print edition of The Wall Street Journal contained an interesting article entitled, "Iranian-American Speaks for Both Sides". The article laid out the story of two naturalized American citizens originally from Iran: Amir Mohamed Estakri and his brother, Amir Ahmad Estakri.

The gist is that the brothers, multilinguals fluent in English, Farsi (the primary language of Iran), and Dari (the primary language of Afghanistan) are interpreters and translators for extremely high-level government officials in the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran — a U.S. State Department-designated "state sponsor of terror".

The article is accompanied by pictures of the Estakris: in one photo posing with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, a holocaust denier who believes Israel has no right to exist; and in another with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Afghan officials.

According to the journalist who wrote the story, Jay Solomon, "A number of State Department and Pentagon officials privately voiced surprise that an interpreter could be working for both sides amid the Tehran-Washington conflict. 'We must not have many people who can actually speak these languages', said a Defense Department official who has worked in Afghanistan." Actually, we do. Immigration statistics bear out the number of individuals from both countries who have immigrated to this country in the decade from 2001 through 2010: almost 55,000 from Afghanistan, and over 285,000 from Iran. (For the exact figures, see Table 3 of my March 2012 Memorandum, "Brushbacks, Proxies, and Connecting the Dots: Our Immigration Policies Still Put Us at Risk in a Post-9/11 World".) There is no dearth of Dari or Farsi speakers to be found among our population; undoubtedly, many persons speak both languages, which are linguistically related.

Mr. Solomon tells us that an anonymous senior State Department official pooh-poohed "any concerns that Mr. Estakhri's activities represented a security threat" because he had "signed a standard agreement not to divulge any sensitive information derived from his work." Gosh, I feel better already. But then the nameless official goes on to say that he had no access to sensitive information because he didn't have a top-level security clearance. So which is it? He solemnly promises not to break his standard agreement, or he doesn't have access to sensitive information?

If Estakri doesn't have access to sensitive information, how is it that he "sat in the middle of secretive 2007 discussions between Iranian and American officials in Baghdad that sought to calm the violence in Iraq"?

And if Leon Panetta and other U.S. government leaders (including from State and Homeland Security Departments, according to a parallel online article) aren't engaging in serious discussions when these interpreters are required, what exactly are they talking about with their foreign counterparts? The World Cup outlook for various teams? Where the best restaurants are to be found in Tehran, Washington, New York, and Kabul?

Let's face it — that unnamed senior official was using carefully chosen weasel-words designed to deflect attention from the belated and embarrassing recognition that use of these fellows, whose motives and attachments are not at all clear, has become public knowledge.

Still and all, those are foreign policy and defense matters, and I write occasional blogs on immigration matters. Where's the connection? Glad you asked; I was just getting to that.

According to Solomon, "Last summer in Baghdad, [Mr. Estakhri] interviewed Iranian asylum seekers as part of a U.S. government task force." As a legal matter, I think Mr. Solomon meant "Iranian refugee applicants", not "asylum seekers". People who are inside the United States seek asylum; people who are outside the United States seek refugee status. (The refugee statute can be found in Section 207 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The corresponding asylum statute can be found in Section 208 of the Act.) But that is a mere technicality; in either case, the grounds are pretty much the same: Someone is seeking refuge from their own country because it persecutes them on account of various recognized grounds, often because of their political beliefs.

Anyone see a massive conflict of interest here? A person seeking refuge from the Islamic Republic of Iran is interviewed about the bonafides of his/her claim by a man who has photos taken of himself with his arm wrapped around the shoulder of the Iranian President? Wonder how they would feel about that? Suspicious and betrayed, probably — and quite possibly paralyzed with the fear that, if their identity has been revealed to the Iranian government, family members left behind will be subject to the whims and arbitrary arrest of the shadowy organizations within Iran that are responsible for enforcing religious and political orthodoxy.

There is also that small, nagging matter of national security. These individuals were interviewed as part of a "special project" because there was a concern that the refugee camps might be infiltrated by members of Al Quds or other radical organizations controlled by the Iranian government, whose responsibilities include assassination and terror.

Should we trust the Estakris to help us make that judgment, given their own apparently flawed judgment about Iranian leaders? Worse, what if they actively aided and abetted the Islamic Republic to place intelligence agents into the mix and then gave them the green light as part of the interview and vetting process? How can we know that they don't gauge their long-term interests to rest with that regime? If they did, they wouldn't be alone. A review of recent arrests and convictions among naturalized U.S. citizens for serious national security offenses includes a significant number of Iranian-Americans. (To see some specific examples of naturalized Iranians convicted of terrorism, espionage and related offenses, refer to the appendix of my January 2013 Backgrounder, "Upholding the Value of Our Citizenship: National Security Threats Should Be Denaturalized".)

Finally, it is also important to point out that both refugee and asylum claims are confidential as a matter of law and regulation. The State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual lays out the importance of confidentiality in no uncertain terms. Policy memoranda from Homeland Security's Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services do likewise.

There are obvious reasons for maintaining such applications in the strictest of confidence. Did the Estakris compromise that confidentiality? We don't know. Should this situation ever have arisen, given the clear conflict of interest? No, absolutely not. What could our government officials have been thinking? And now that they have been caught out, why are they, like the Estakris, speaking out of both sides of their mouths?