Over a decade since he rose to prominence as a protagonist in an international drama of espionage and imprisonment, American journalist Shane Bauer and his family filed suit against Iran’s government in a Washington DC-based US District Court, seeking compensation for $10 million in damages resulting from his two year detention in Tehran.
The trio’s cases were filed in a Washington DC federal court with Judge Richard J. Leon – the same justice who ordered the Iranian government to pay the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian $180 million in damages for his 18-month detention in the country.
In 2011, an Iranian court sentenced Bauer and Fattal to a total of eight years in prison each after they were convicted of illegally crossing the country’s border and spying for the United States. The two each served a total of two years, while Shourd was granted a compassionate release from Iranian prison after 13 months of detention.
Before his imprisonment, Bauer trekked throughout Africa and the Middle East while working as an English teacher and roaming reporter, racking up an impressive collection of passport stamps. Following his 2011 release, he established himself as a journalist specializing in undercover investigations, working a stint as a senior reporter for Mother Jones magazine in between various freelance gigs.
Bauer simultaneously emerged as a prolific apologist for US-backed regime change operations from Syria to Nicaragua, while justifying the US assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. A relentless antagonist of anti-interventionist public figures, he has pushed for big tech platforms to censor media personalities that challenged Washington’s regime change agenda.
Bauer has even promoted a failed legal action against The Grayzone by a fellow journalist who had received a large sum of assets seized by the US government from Iran.
In 2018, Bauer’s book of undercover reporting, “American Prison,” which saw him take a job as a prison guard to gain inside access to a private prison, wound up on former President Barack Obama’s “Favorite Books of 2018.”
By the following year, as Bauer’s journalistic output declined, his attacks on anti-war media figures only escalated. Today, many of his most malicious tweets have been scrubbed, he is no longer employed by Mother Jones, and he says he is “working on a book about Americans in the Syrian war.” If Bauer scores a lucrative payout in US federal court, however, he may never need to worry about a freelance fee again.
And if successful, he and his former cellmates will ultimately be paid out with Iranian government assets seized by the United States through its international sanctions regime. In other words, the trio plans to benefit from looted public funds which Tehran could have otherwise used to purchase medicine, food, or fund social programs for its people.
Studies have found that the “Iranian economy and households are affected enormously” by sanctions targeting the country’s oil exports. In one particularly egregious instance of theft, the US government seized an Iranian oil tanker in 2021 and hauled it to Texas, where it sold the stolen crude for $110 million.
Before launching their lawsuits, Bauer and his ex-wife, Shourd, posed as staunch opponents of US sanctions against Iran and other nations. In 2016, for example, Bauer characterized Hillary Clinton’s call for Iran sanctions as “totally irresponsible.” Shourd, for her part, condemned sanctions against Iran for “hitting the poorest of Iranians the hardest.”
Bauer’s sudden bid for millions of dollars seized from the Iranian people by the US government raises new questions about a character whose journalistic career was shrouded in suspicion.
Long before his arrest in Iran, Bauer’s moves throughout Africa and the Middle East tracked closely with US foreign policy initiatives, and were sponsored by a US Department of Defense fellowship for several years.
To top it off, the lawyer Bauer enlisted to secure millions from Iran’s government counts one of Washington’s most infamous spies among her previous clients.
The background to Bauer’s lawsuit originates in a July 2009 expedition he, his then-girlfriend Sarah Shourd, and their friend Joshua Fattal took to the Iranian border, where they were subsequently arrested.
The three Bay Area natives and self-described social justice activists insisted that their incursion into Iran was the result of an honest mistake. They claimed to have crossed the border unknowingly during a hiking trip near the Ahmad Awa waterfall in Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah Province, a region which fell under control of US-backed Kurdish militias following the US invasion of 2003.
According to Bauer’s legal complaint, when Iranian border guards arrested him and his companions, “Shane and Mr. Fattal instead became limp, as they would often do when protesting.”
While in Iranian custody, Bauer’s captors discovered photographs on Shourd’s camera showing they had visited Tel Aviv, Israel. The two said they traveled to Israel to visit an American friend, Tristan Anderson, who had been badly wounded and hospitalized by an Israeli teargas canister during a protest against Israel’s apartheid wall.
During Bauer’s trial, an Iranian judge listed each of the entry stamps on his second passport. They included Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Israel.
Iran’s government was not the only party that rejected the trio’s excuses for their presence on the border. An Iraqi police officer claimed to the Iranian TV station Al-Alam the hikers were “working with the CIA.”
Meanwhile, a classified 2010 US military report stated that “the lack of coordination on the part of these hikers, particularly after being forewarned [of their proximity to the Iranian border], indicates an intent to agitate and create publicity regarding international policies on Iran.”
While Shourd denounced the US military assessment as “ridiculous,” her and her friends’ visit to the Iranian border came at a precarious time for the country’s government.
Indeed, their arrest occurred just weeks after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a firebrand personality considered hostile to the West, secured reelection by a nearly 30 percent margin. The result sparked massive demonstrations in Tehran and gave way to the so-called “Green Movement,” a sustained protest campaign against Ahmadinejad’s mandate that eventually aided the 2014 electoral victory of Iran’s reformist bloc.
Throughout the summer of 2009, Western media granted the “Green Movement” wall to wall coverage, crediting it with drawing the largest protest crowds since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. In her memoir of captivity, Shourd recounted that during a trip to Sweden, “Stockholm’s sizable expatriate Iranian community protested in solidarity with the uprising in their home country.”
“My brother, Alex, and I documented the anti-Iran rally in Sweden,” she recalled.
Shourd later wrote that while imprisoned in Iran, the Green Movement “made me want to participate in undermining the regime that was causing me and my family so much pain.”
When the story of “Three American Hikers Held Hostage in Iran” emerged in July 2009, their tale was presented as further proof of the embattled government in Tehran’s anti-American sentiment and lack of regard for human rights. Shourd later expressed gratitude to the Iranian government “for using us to further deepen your own crisis of legitimacy around the world and with your own people.”
Their detention also corresponded with the launch of President Barack Obama’s economic assault on Tehran, a strategy which saw Washington levy hefty financial sanctions against Iran’s government in a bid to force it to negotiate limits on its domestic nuclear program.
Bauer’s lawsuit accused the Iranian government of a slew of crimes against both himself and his family. Notably, it claims Bauer was subjected to torture, assault, and battery while in Iranian custody.
Bauer’s 2014 memoir, “A Sliver of Light,” which he co-authored with Shroud and Fattal, offers a strikingly different narrative, however. In the book, Bauer recalled taunting a prison guard to assault him and acknowledged that Iranian authorities were reluctant to do so.
“If he can’t frighten me, all he can do is hit me, and if he does that, he will be hurting himself,” Bauer explained.
“We are hostages, and hostages are currency, and currency is not to be damaged. Making him beat me is my only way to fight back,” he continued, after saying he repeatedly screamed at the guard: “Hit me!”
While Bauer’s lawsuit appeared to contradict the account offered in his memoir, it is far from an amateurish legal complaint. He and his family are represented by Emily P. Grim, a partner at the elite Gilbert, LLP law firm, which is located just blocks from the US Capitol.
Grim’s biography on Gilbert’s website boasts: “Her clients include Alan Gross, an American jailed in Cuba from 2009 to 2014 for his work on a U.S. Government project to increase Internet access in Cuba’s Jewish community, and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine imprisoned in Iran from 2011 to 2016 on false charges of espionage.”
Before he became Grim’s most famous client, Alan Gross was arrested by Cuban security officers in 2009. At the time, Gross was working for the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, a soft power arm of American foreign policy that has overseen countless destabilization plots around the globe. The USAID program that sponsored Gross’ work in Cuba was funded through the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a US law that explicitly called for regime change in Cuba.
When Cuban authorities apprehended Gross during his fifth trip to the country, they discovered his phone was linked to a SIM card that was distributed exclusively by the Pentagon and the CIA. The USAID employee had previously smuggled large amounts of illicit technology into Cuba, apparently as part of an effort to establish a network of covert internet access points throughout the country.
Amir Hekmati is the second-most notable client of Bauer’s lawyer, Emily Grim. A former marine, Hekmati helped develop a translation system financed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA. Iran jailed Hekmati and sentenced him to death after convicting him on espionage charges. Following the diplomatic breakthrough of the Iran-US nuclear deal, he was released in 2016 as part of a prisoner swap.
Though Hekmati was initially rewarded a $20 million payout of seized Iranian assets, the Department of Justice eventually cut him off when the FBI became suspicious that the American had traveled to Iran to sell classified information about US operations in Afghanistan to the government, and not to visit his grandmother as he claimed.
Gilbert LLP has not responded to multiple emailed requests from The Grayzone regarding Bauer’s lawsuit. Bauer and Shourd have also ignored requests for comment delivered by Twitter and email.
Shane Bauer has lashed out at anyone who has accused him of having worked with the US government. However, his memoir raised more questions about his relationship with Washington than it has answered.
In one particularly revealing section, Bauer recalled an interrogation he experienced at the hands of an English-speaking Iranian he nicknamed “Weasel.”
“In our other sessions, you listed twenty-four countries that you have been to. Who funded those trips?” Weasel asked Bauer, who was 29 at the time.
“I know what he is getting at,” Bauer recalled, “and it is a legitimate question. If I can’t account for my funds, how can I prove that I am not being funded by the CIA? The problem is, I don’t think my honest answer is that believable.”
Bauer ultimately told Weasel that he saved money while “working as a welder” until he was 19 before traveling “through Europe and the Middle East.”
“Does this asshole believe a word I’m saying?” Bauer recalled wondering.
The line of questioning proceeded with Weasel asking whether the US government paid for any of Bauer’s trips.
“Shit! He knows about the grant…” wrote Bauer. ‘No,’ I say.”
Bauer was referring to the Boren Award, a Department of Defense sponsored grant that covered his Arabic studies in Yemen and Syria. When “Weasel” asked who funded the program, Bauer once again admitted to lying, telling him it was the State Department.
Boren fellowship recipients are required to pay back their award through governmental service by “contributing to the national security of the United States in the Department of Defense, any element of the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Department of State.”
In less common instances, Boren recipients are allowed to fulfill their obligations to the US government in other departments. However, the overwhelming majority of grantees do so with the aforementioned agencies. Bauer never specified whether or not he fulfilled his obligation to the fellowship – or how he did it. He did claim, however, that the professor who encouraged him to apply for the grant stated none of their students actually went into government.
Yet when journalist David Ravicher inquired with a Boren representative about the program, he was informed “that 98 percent of its recipients fulfill this requirement and the rest receive deferments. Otherwise, the Treasury Department hunts them down.”
Shane Bauer entered journalism while enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley’s Peace and Conflict Studies program, which he graduated in 2007. It was at UC-Berkley where he met Shourd.
Bauer’s first dabbled in undercover journalism while in Yemen in 2005. At the time, the Houthi movement had just launched its insurgency against the Yemeni government. The civil conflict eventually triggered a brutal and ongoing military intervention by the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to crush the Houthi advance.
According to the UC-Berkeley Alumni Association’s newsletter, Bauer was employed in Yemen by “a pro-government, English-language paper.” While the Alumni Association did not say which paper that was, Bauer earned a byline in 2005 from the Yemen Observer, a paper founded by the longtime press secretary to then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Bauer eventually “decided to sneak into a city occupied by Houthi rebels which no Western journalist had visited,” the newsletter wrote. While disguised in local garb, Bauer and a British pal were detained by local authorities in the city of Saada and released a day later.
Bauer also spent two summers in the Darfur region of Sudan while enrolled at UC-Berkeley. At the time, between 2006-07, Darfur-based rebel groups from the Sudanese Liberation Army, or SLA, were facing international pressure to enact a peace deal with Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who was labeled a state sponsor of terror by the US.
In 2007, Bauer managed to score an interview with the vice intelligence director for SLA General Secretary Minni Minnawi, who had signed the deal. According to the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, a French think tank, Minnawi had been backed by the CIA as the only rebel faction leader to ink the agreement with Khartoum. He was later flown to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush. Today, he serves as the governor of Darfur while his forces fight in Libya under the command of Khalifa Haftar, another former CIA asset.
In his memoir of captivity in Iran, Bauer wrote that his interrogator demanded to know how he entered Sudan in 2007. The inquiry caused Bauer to worry that Iran may have been aware of his “history of government funding and my history of illegally crossing borders,” he recalled. Bauer told his interrogator that he “entered [Sudan] as a guest of the Sudanese Liberation Army.”
Not long after his jaunt into Darfur, Bauer arrived in Damascus, Syria with his then-girlfriend, Shourd, for several months. At the time, Washington was cultivating opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad through civil society networks around the country.
Bauer and Shourd said they studied Arabic at Damascus University, taught English to Iraqi refugees, and used the country as a base for reporting around the region. (On her personal webpage, Shourd says, “In 2007, I moved to Damascus, Syria…” In an interview with the Pulitzer Center, however, she states, “In 2008, I moved to Damascus, Syria…”)
A confidential November 2008 cable by Maura Connelly, then the Charges D’Affaires for the US Embassy in Damascus, identified English teachers and visiting Fulbright scholars in Syria as important cogs in US “public diplomacy” efforts against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The US embassy’s “English Language Fellow (ELF) for 2008-2009 remains in country and is using her numerous contacts among Syrian English teachers to conduct training in Damascus and country-wide,” Connelly noted.
Bauer and Shourd’s teacher in Damascus, Majid Rafizadeh, happened to have been on a Fulbright scholarship at the time. A Syrian-Iranian academic, Rafidzadeh has since emerged as a fervent supporter of Iranian regime change who has supplied testimony to Congress advancing the interventionist goals of hardline neoconservatives.
Bauer later reflected “how, back in 2009, my Syrian friends would fantasize about being rid of the dictator and his secret police, but no one could have imagined that the Arab Spring would come two years later.”
Years after the so-called Arab Spring swept through the region like a hurricane, leaving unimaginable ruin in its wake, Bauer was still pumping out online attacks against prominent critics of US meddling.
By 2019, his attacks on opponents of the US-backed dirty war on Syria had grown so unhinged, his detractors began to taunt him with the refrain: “Take a hike.”
Bauer also took aim at former US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for daring to criticize the US military occupation of northeastern Syria, insisting it was a noble anti-terrorist mission. In fact, Dana Stroul, a senior Biden Department of Defense official, has openly stated that the US military “owns” the “resource rich” region of Syria in order to exploit its wealth and starve Damascus into capitulating to the West’s agenda.
At the time, Bauer had recently returned from a visit to the US-occupied northeastern region of Syria for a series of field reports lamenting Washington’s refusal to remove Assad by force. Published in the May/June 2019 issue of Mother Jones, the series opened with a quote by a Kurdish border guard practically begging the US to plunder Syria’s natural wealth: “We have oil, so much oil. Let them stay and take the oil.”
Careful readers may be wondering whether Bauer entered the country legally or not. In fact, Syria’s government denied Bauer’s visa, prompting him to “sneak in” through the border controlled by the US military and its Kurdish allies.
Since Bauer’s reports from US-occupied Syria in 2019, he has produced only one article: a profile of a rogue local US police force for The New Yorker. That was nearly two years ago.
With no known sources of income apart from his two published books and the one apparently on the way, Bauer is turning to the US government and the funds it seized from the Iranian people for a potentially massive payday.
Read the full legal complaint, Shane Bauer v. the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, here.
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