In a series of conversations last September, senior Department of Justice officials worked with representatives of the Australian government to hammer out an arrangement to win the release of a pair of Australian bloggers imprisoned in Tehran.
At the same time those talks were taking place, Attorney General Bill Barr and his lieutenants were speaking to the Australians about another matter: getting their help as the Department of Justice looked into the origins of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Barr, like his boss, President Donald Trump, had long had a view of the Russia probe that bordered on hostile, and his review has been widely seen as an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation, which led to the indictment of multiple Trumpworld associates. Just days before the culmination of talks in September—which coincided with an official Australian state visit—Trump himself pushed Prime Minister Scott Morrison to help Barr with this inquiry.
Barr followed up about the Mueller re-investigation, two U.S. officials and a third individual familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast, even as American and Australian officials finalized their arrangement to try to free the pair jailed in Iran. According to four sources—including those two U.S. officials and one former U.S. official—the American government agreed to help facilitate the release of the Australian bloggers, in part by agreeing to pull back from pursuing the extradition of an Iranian scientist held in Australia.
“This story suggests that the president is continuing to use the authority of his office to pressure foreign leaders into assisting him in covering up Russia’s assistance with his 2016 victory. ”
— Prof. Claire Finkelstein
News of the arrangement didn’t reach the senior ranks of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs—the team in charge of coordinating the government’s diplomatic engagements on overseas hostage-related matters—until days after the deal was finalized, according to two officials with knowledge of the situation. Another individual familiar with the conversations said officials in the hostage affairs office were frustrated by the lack of communication from the Department of Justice, claiming they had been cut out of a process they would have normally helped lead. At the time, the team was in conversation with Americans whose family members were held hostage in Iran. The cohort was actively lobbying the Trump administration to raise public awareness of the hostages’ cases in the hopes that it may put pressure on Tehran.
The discussions between Washington and Canberra raise questions about why the Department of Justice engaged in a behind-the-scenes effort to help win the release of Australian hostages from Iran and whether the president’s request to have the country assist in Barr’s Russia inquiry influenced the department’s decision-making.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. The White House did not provide an on the record comment for this story. In an email to The Daily Beast, DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec said Barr himself did not have “any conversations with the Australians about Australian bloggers or an Iranian scientist.”
To Claire Finkelstein, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, “this story suggests that the president is continuing to use the authority of his office to pressure foreign leaders into assisting him in covering up Russia’s assistance with his 2016 victory. This is the same conduct for which Trump was impeached, and the reporting suggests that he is undeterred.”
She added, “If the administration engaged in this swap as part of a deal with the Australian government in which it would support Trump’s counter-narrative to the Mueller Report, then department officials are actively using U.S. diplomacy to undermine our U.S. national security interests.”
Since the first year of his administration, former and current aides say that they’ve seen Trump “light up,” in one former senior White House official’s words, when internally discussing his impending announcements of rescued hostages, and would press aides on unusually specific details of the operations or negotiations, including on how his count of released hostages compared to that of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
And when it comes to enlisting foreign powers to help the Trump administration probe the feds, the president views it as a top priority. A senior administration official said that they’ve heard Trump on multiple occasions mention that any ally of the United States should help, if they can—and that chasing leads on suspected origins of the Mueller investigation is a matter of “national security.”
Trump’s phone call and Barr’s subsequent conversations with the Australians came at a time when the White House was in the midst of fending off allegations that the president had engaged in a quid pro quo with Ukraine. Top Democrats had obtained a whistleblower complaint alleging in part that President Trump had withheld vital military aid from Kyiv to force the Ukrainians to announce a probe into his 2020 political rival, Joe Biden.
As an impeachment probe gathered steam on Capitol Hill, the Trump administration appears to have ramped up its efforts to find willing foreign partners such as Australia to help investigate Mueller’s probe while also offering to help Morrison get his citizens out of Iranian prison.
In May of last year, about a month after the release of the Mueller report, Barr tapped Connecticut’s top federal prosecutor John Durham to lead the department’s inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation. On May 24, President Trump lauded the department’s efforts, calling the Mueller investigation “the greatest hoax, probably, in the history of our country,” adding that he hoped the attorney general would “look at Australia.”
Mueller’s report on his Russia investigation laid out how Australia played a role in the origins of the FBI probe. Former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos has repeatedly claimed that he told Australia’s former foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, who was then high commissioner to the United Kingdom, that Russia had obtained negative information about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and that Downer informed U.S. law enforcement.
Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, wrote to Barr on May 28 to say Canberra “stand[s] ready to provide you with all relevant information to support your inquiries,” according to a copy of the letter published by Australian media outlets.
And in September, President Trump officially asked the Morrison government for help in his phone call with the prime minister. It’s unclear if Trump spoke with Morrison about the hostage situation during the conversation. (Although Trump later discussed the hostage arrangement with Barr and other senior officials in his administration, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.) But even before Australia’s state visit to Washington that month, members of the Morrison government and senior officials at the Department of Justice were in conversation about what the U.S. could do to help with the release of the two Australian bloggers.
In July of 2019, the Iran government arrested Jolie King and Mark Firkin, who were traveling through Iran, for flying a drone near an Iranian military installment. The two were transferred to Evin Prison, one of the most notorious detention facilities in the country.
During Morrison’s visit in September, senior officials at the Department of Justice and top representatives of Morrison’s government worked on the plan to bring the bloggers home. The U.S. would step back from pursuing an extradition order for an Iranian scientist held in Brisbane. That would allow for the scientist’s release back to Iran. In exchange, the Australians could get King and Firkin out of Evin Prison.
Reza Dehbashi Kivi—a 38-year-old Iranian scientist studying in Queensland, Australia—was accused of exporting military radar equipment to help the Iranian regime detect stealth planes. The U.S. sought his extradition on six counts, including conspiring to export special amplifiers classified as “defense articles” under the U.S. munitions list, according to one of Kivi’s former attorneys.
“The U.S. government alleged he had exported these devices and required some sort of export permit to do that,” said another individual with knowledge of Kivi’s case.
Kivi remained in prison while Australia’s Attorney General’s office decided whether or not to extradite him to the United States.
It wasn’t until the Australian team left the U.S. that senior State Department officials in the hostage affairs office learned from representatives of the Australian embassy in Washington of the discussions between the Department of Justice and the Morrison government. Officials at State were told that the attorney general’s office in Australia would work directly with Barr’s office on the timing of the releases.
“Political capital should be used, first and foremost, for American citizens and U.S. lawful permanent residents,” said one individual familiar with Iranian hostage affairs issues.
Although there isn’t always a clear blueprint for handling hostage negotiations, the State Department — specifically, the presidential envoy for hostage affairs — ordinarily helps run point. And while the Department of Justice does play a leading role in the extradition process, its bypassing of the State Department on the conversations with the Australians is alarming, former officials say.
“The hostage unit in the [State] department acts as a coordinator. They’re supposed to be in on this process,” one former U.S. official who worked on hostage affairs told The Daily Beast.
Kivi was released from prison and returned back to Iran on Sept. 29, 2019—nine days after the Australian state visit to Washington. On Oct. 5, the Australian government announced that Iran had released King and Firkin. (The two did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)
At the time, there was speculation that the two events might be linked. A person directly familiar with Kivi’s case said there’s no question about it. “I have no doubt that that communication had taken place between the U.S. and Australia which affected the release of Mr. Dehbhashi,” the person told The Daily Beast.
The Australian Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. But a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade acknowledged to The Daily Beast that Australia “made clear it was willing to assist with any U.S. inquiry into the origins of the Russia probe” but said that occurred well before King and Firkin were detained.
The spokesperson said former Australian ambassador Hockey “confirmed this willingness in a letter to Attorney-General Barr.” The spokesperson repeatedly dodged questions from The Daily Beast about the conversations that took place between U.S. and Australian officials during Morrison’s State visit in September.
The office of Australian Attorney General Christian Porter directed The Daily Beast to a statement when King and Firkin were released from prison.
“I considered that, in all the circumstances of this particular case, Mr Dehbashi Kivi should not ultimately be extradited to the United States,” Porter said at the time. “Ultimately the Attorney General can and should take into account a considerably broader set of considerations.”
As the discussions were underway in Washington in September 2019, State Department officials working on hostage affairs were in New York, meeting with the families of Americans detained in Iran.
Since Kivi, King and Firkin were freed, Americans with family members detained in Iran have continued to put pressure on both the U.S. and Iranian governments to facilitate their release.
For more than 13 years the Iranian government has consistently maintained that it is unaware of the whereabouts of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in the country in 2007. In the fall of 2019, a United Nations working group concluded that there was “an on-going case in the Public Prosecution and Revolutionary Court of Tehran for Levinson”—a possible sign that the former agent was alive and that the Iranians were working toward a solution to the situation.
But last month, Levinson’s family announced that they believed he had died in Iranian custody.
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng and Rachel Olding