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The F.B.I. tried to recruit an Iranian scientist as an informant. When he balked, the payback was brutal.
Laura Secor |September 14, 2020 | The New Yorker
In the spring of 2017, an Iranian materials scientist named Sirous Asgari received a call from the United States consulate in Dubai. Two years earlier, he and his wife, Fatemeh, had applied for visas to visit America, where their children lived. The consulate informed him that their requests had finally been approved. The timing was strange: President Donald Trump had just issued an executive order banning Iranians from entering the U.S. on the very kind of visa that Asgari and his wife were granted. Maybe applications filed before the visa ban had been grandfathered through, or some career State Department official wanted to give families like his a last chance to reunite.
Asgari, who was then fifty-six years old, considered the U.S. a second home. In the nineties, he had attended graduate school at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, and he came to like America’s commonsense efficiency. His daughter Sara was born in the U.S., making her an American citizen. His two older children, Mohammad and Zahra, had attended American universities and stayed on. Asgari was now a professor at Sharif University of Technology, in Tehran, and former graduate students of his worked in top American laboratories; his scientific research, on metallurgy, sometimes took him to Cleveland, where he had close colleagues at Case Western Reserve University.
Asgari and Fatemeh boarded a flight to New York on June 21, 2017. They planned to see Mohammad, who lived in the city, and then proceed to California, where they would visit Zahra and meet the man she had married. But when the Asgaris stepped off the jet bridge at J.F.K. two officials accosted them.
The officials whisked the Asgaris into a room, where a phalanx of F.B.I. agents awaited them. Asgari was under arrest, the agents told him, accused of serious charges in a sealed indictment whose contents they couldn’t reveal at the airport. He could go with them to a hotel and look over the indictment, or he could go to a local detention center, and then be transferred to Cleveland, for an arraignment. In the turmoil of the moment, he barely registered that nobody had stamped his visa or returned his passport.
Asgari was fluent in English, but the word “indictment” was new to him. He’d never had a problem with the law. He was a high-spirited man accustomed to middle-class comforts, a professor’s lectern, and an easy repartee with people in authority. Surely, he figured, he was the subject of some misunderstanding, and so he would go to the hotel and quickly clear it up.
At the hotel, the agents handed Asgari a twelve-page indictment. It charged him with theft of trade secrets, visa fraud, and eleven counts of wire fraud. To Asgari, the indictment read like a spy thriller. It centered on a four-month visit that he had made to Case Western four years earlier, which the document presented as part of a scheme to defraud an American valve manufacturer of its intellectual property in order to benefit the Iranian government. The punishment, the agents made clear, could be many years in prison. Their evidence had been gathered from five years of wiretaps, which had swept up his e-mails before, during, and after the visit in question.
The charges were nonsense, Asgari said. The processes he’d studied at Case Western were well known to materials scientists—they were hardly trade secrets. If the government really meant to prosecute him, it would inevitably lose in court.
“We haven’t lost a case,” one agent told Asgari.
“This will be your first,” he replied.
Asgari didn’t realize it, but a vise was closing around him. He had never seen his visits to America through the prism of its tensions with Iran. “Science is wild and has no homeland,” an Iranian philosopher had once said, and Asgari believed this to be so. His scientific community spanned the globe, its instruments and findings universally accessible. That national boundaries and political intrigue should interfere with intellectual exchange seemed to him unnatural. He had confidence in the capacity of cool rationality to set matters right.
If he could just make the F.B.I. agents understand the science, Asgari told himself, they would see their mistake. He described the relationships and the laboratory equipment that had attracted him to Case Western, and explained how the properties of a material emanated from the arrangement of its atoms, and could be altered by engineers who understood that structure. But even as he talked he began to have a sinking feeling that an indictment was not something he could dissipate with words.
That night, Fatemeh went home with Mohammad, and two guards stayed in Asgari’s hotel room as he slept. In the morning, the agents drove Asgari to Cleveland, his wife and son following behind.
He was arraigned at the federal courthouse and delivered to the Lake County Adult Detention Facility, a maximum-security jail in Painesville, Ohio. For the first of the seventy-two days he would spend in that facility, Asgari occupied an isolated cell. Lying on his bed, he could hear other inmates screaming.
The F.B.I. had reason to be interested in a man like Asgari. Sharif University was Iran’s premier technical institution, and the instruments and insights of materials science could be used to build missiles and centrifuges as easily as to improve the iPhone or to better understand the properties of a gem. Asgari’s concerns fell squarely on the civilian side of the line. “I never intentionally worked for destructive purposes,” he told me, during a series of conversations that began in 2018. “If you have a pen, you can write a love letter, or you can write instructions for making a bomb. That’s not a problem with the pen.”
Asgari’s career was a love letter to the atom. He was dazzled the first time he discerned one with the aid of a transmission electron microscope, or tem: within the seemingly inert surfaces of objects was a kaleidoscope of churning activity. Atoms cannot be seen with an ordinary optical microscope. A tem—which is about twice the size of an industrial refrigerator—is expensive, and so sensitive that it must be shielded from light, heat, cold, dust, the imperceptible shifting of buildings in wind, and the noise of distant galaxies.
Asgari was in charge of a tem that Sharif acquired in 1994. He ran an élite research team of Ph.D. students and adored teaching. Compact and clean-cut, with a heart-shaped face and wire-rimmed glasses, he spoke at volume, often insistently, with a charisma that occasionally verged on overbearing.
Professors at Sharif supplemented their salaries and financed their departments with industrial and government contracts. Asgari had one with Iran’s energy ministry, assessing and extending the longevity of gas-turbine parts; he was also conducting a feasibility study for a state-owned mining company, which was looking into producing high-performance, heat-resistant metals known as superalloys. The two contracts brought the university some four hundred thousand dollars, which helped support the work of Asgari and his students.
International sanctions had long been a fact of life in Iran. In the twenty-tens, in the run-up to nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers, the restrictions tightened: nothing that could be classified as “dual use,” or applicable to both military and civilian realms, could be imported to Iran. Materials science straddled that line almost by definition.
Asgari could not order parts or maintenance for Sharif’s tem, which was made in the U.S. and had cost about a million dollars, and so he and his students learned to patch the instrument with improvised fixes and secondhand components. In 2011, for want of a filament, the machine spent months off-line. That year, Asgari visited Pirouz Pirouz, a friend and colleague at Case Western. The materials-science lab there had a state-of-the-art tem, and a collection of instruments not often found in one facility. Asgari was eligible for a sabbatical the next year, and he hoped to return to Case.
He was eager for both the laboratory access and the opportunity to make some dollars: Iran’s currency was in free fall, and he had two children paying tuition at U.S. universities. But his search for a position came up empty, and so he went to America on a visitor’s visa, in November, 2012, with a plan to spend time with his children while continuing to look for work. A few days after he landed in New York, he learned that a job had unexpectedly opened up at the materials-science lab at Case.
Arthur Heuer, the scientist then in charge of the lab, offered Asgari the position. The university would need to initiate paperwork to convert his visa to an H1B, which allowed employment in the U.S. In the meantime, he could work at Case as a volunteer. Asgari told me that he did so, with an informal promise of back pay once his status was straightened out. (Heuer said that he does not recall making such an arrangement.)
The work consisted mainly of preparing samples for the tem. But a few weeks into the job Heuer asked Asgari to analyze the atomic structure of stainless-steel samples from the university’s industrial partner, the Swagelok Company—a valve-and-tube-fittings manufacturer based in Ohio. In the mid-two-thousands, the company had generously funded the department’s lab, and it was now called the Swagelok Center for Surface Analysis of Materials. Case scholars worked independently on research projects and also with Swagelok scientists on technologies that could benefit the firm.
In 2000, Swagelok secured its first patent for low-temperature carburization, a process for introducing carbon atoms into stainless steel, to produce a surface that was both extraordinarily hard and resistant to corrosion. The samples that Asgari was preparing and analyzing had been subjected to this process, and although the company was seeking to improve its product, for Asgari the technique was primarily of intellectual interest. He wanted to know not how it worked but why. The carbon atoms diffused into the crystalline lattice of solid metal like a drop of ink permeating a glassful of water. The laws of thermodynamics would not have predicted that the resulting metal would be stable, but it was.
Asgari had been at Case Western for three months when he learned that the university was rescinding its formal job offer. In March, 2013, Heuer told him that his visa application had no chance of being approved. According to Asgari, he noted, “The U.S. government is concerned about your activities in the United States.” Asgari continued working while Case looked for a replacement, and Heuer paid him an honorarium from discretionary funds.
One day in April, Asgari noticed a business card stuck in the jamb of his apartment door. The card belonged to Special Agent Matthew Olson, of the F.B.I.; on the back, Olson had scrawled a note asking Asgari to call him. Where Asgari came from, a summons from an intelligence agency was trouble. He called Pirouz and another friend for advice, but their lines were busy, and Asgari, his mind spinning, became afraid that the Bureau had seized control of his phone and meant to arrest him. Finally, he called Olson, and the agent proposed meeting just a few minutes later, at a café across the street. As Asgari walked there, he imagined that people were watching him.
Olson was boyish and pleasant, and seemed mostly to want to make small talk. Like Asgari, he had three kids. Wasn’t it amazing how different each child was? Olson looked too young to have three kids, Asgari remarked. Olson said that he was thirty-five, adding, “When I was eighteen, the girls thought I was twelve.” He asked Asgari why he had come to Cleveland, and Asgari explained the sabbatical, the job offer, the lack of parts for his tem in Iran. He speculated to Olson that the F.B.I. had been behind the scuttling of his visa application. Four months’ work, and some twenty thousand dollars that he would never be paid: the U.S. government was responsible.
Olson seemed to take Asgari’s complaint to heart. He offered him five thousand dollars—if he would sign a paper, which he could get from another man in the café. Asgari realized that he’d walked into a trap. Olson was not there to arrest him. He was trying to recruit him as an informant.
Asgari looked at the man with the paper to sign and felt sick. He wouldn’t sign anything, he said, or take a penny from the F.B.I. Honorable people didn’t entertain such offers. Asgari soon finished up at Case and flew home to Iran, feeling that he had dispatched with the whole affair.
The man with the paper was Special Agent Timothy Boggs, a counterintelligence officer at the Cleveland field office of the F.B.I. His focus was Iran, a U.S. adversary whose nationals are of special interest to the Bureau, whether as suspected agents or as potential assets.
Iranians visiting or residing in the U.S. routinely hear from the Bureau. Half a dozen Iranian nationals and Iranian-Americans have described such approaches to me, and they have typically done so with trepidation, because the Iranian government sees any returning national who has had dealings with a U.S. intelligence agency as a potential spy. Some Iranians told me of polite conversations with federal agents, cards exchanged, refusals accepted. Others described repeated demands, veiled threats, and legal trouble lasting years. The Bureau recruits counterintelligence assets in much the same way it turns witnesses in domestic racketeering cases: agents look for vulnerabilities to use as leverage in pressuring people to become informants. They find discrepancies in immigration paperwork or identify petty sanctions violations, sometimes threatening an indictment to bolster their demands.
Late in 2012, Boggs got a tip from an informant at Case that an Iranian on a tourist visa was working at a lab there. Boggs must have sensed an opportunity: a professor from Sharif University undoubtedly would be acquainted with scientists working on military or nuclear engineering in Iran—and Asgari’s tourist visa was a vulnerability, as it didn’t authorize him to work for an American employer. Tellingly, Olson later testified in a court proceeding that when he met Asgari he did so to see if the scientist could be “potentially helpful for other areas.”
Boggs had been sizing up Asgari since December, and by questioning Arthur Heuer, the Case scientist, he learned that Asgari’s lab work was neither classified nor strictly proprietary. Still, Boggs examined the metadata for some of Asgari’s e-mails. He noted that Asgari had been in contact with Case staff well before his arrival, and that during his time in Cleveland he had kept in touch with multiple people at Sharif.
In February, Boggs asked an Ohio magistrate to grant him a search warrant for a wiretap, claiming probable cause to believe that Asgari was violating U.S. sanctions. In an affidavit, Boggs mentioned Asgari’s e-mails to Iran, and pointed out that Sharif University was partly funded by its home government. (Of course, all public schools are.) Part of the rationale for the search warrant was more insinuated than argued explicitly: the Swagelok Center, Boggs stressed, had received funding from the U.S. Navy for its work on low-temperature carburization, and researchers at Sharif University sometimes worked with the Iranian Navy. Boggs cited a paper written by a student at a branch of Sharif on the Persian Gulf island of Kish. The student, who hadn’t worked with Asgari, or even in the same department, had written about autonomous underwater vehicles—a topic completely outside Asgari’s area of expertise.
The magistrate granted the wiretap, which gave Boggs access to e-mails in Asgari’s Gmail account from as far back as 2011. In 2015, when the wiretap expired, the Bureau secured a new one. The application for the second warrant suggested that F.B.I. agents had found in Asgari’s e-mails probable cause to believe that he might have violated sanctions, stolen trade secrets, and committed visa fraud. The agents never found evidence of a sanctions violation, but they did come across a proposal that a student of Asgari’s had asked him to review: a request for a research institute attached to Iran’s petrochemical industry to fund a project on low-temperature carburization.
For Asgari, the student’s proposal had been a source of irritation, and a waste of time. But the F.B.I. fastened on the exchange as evidence of a conspiracy to expropriate Swagelok’s process for the benefit of Iran’s petrochemical industry. Asgari’s earlier e-mails to Pirouz, looking for work, could be characterized as prior intent, and the tourist visa as a ploy. Such was the beginning of the sealed indictment that greeted Asgari upon his return to New York in 2017.
Someone in the F.B.I. may have truly believed that Asgari was funnelling industrial secrets to Iran. But the way the agency conducted its investigation suggested a fishing expedition—and an attempt to push Asgari into becoming an informant.
During Asgari’s first days in the Lake County jail, in 2017, he emerged from his isolation cell only for meals. The prison population made him nervous—and the other inmates apparently felt the same way about him. The first one he befriended confided that a rumor had gone around the pod that Asgari was not to be messed with—he was an Iranian scientist who knew how to blow things up.
Asgari soon got to know many other inmates, in part by playing chess and cards, and he began to educate himself about racial division and drug addiction in the United States. He prided himself on being able to talk to anybody, and he was soon serving as a mediator between prisoners having disputes, and as a counsellor on matters of the heart. New prisoners often arrived after dinner had been served, and Asgari took up a collection for commissary items to feed them. He fought a rearguard battle against profanity, quitting a game of spades when his opponent exclaimed, “This motherfucker plays good!” Asgari had recently lost his mother, he explained, and would not be called that name. The inmate later apologized, asking, “Can I call you ‘fucking professor’ instead?”
Asgari taught physics to a small group of inmates. He explained how infrared detectors worked, and how optical scattering produced rainbows, advancing all the way to quantum mechanics. He found the greatest aptitude among the bank robbers and the racketeers. He had three such students: one Russian and two African-Americans.
He paid another inmate’s bail. “I knew the minute you walked through that door that you were different—special,” the inmate later wrote to Asgari, in a rounded, childlike hand. “You intrigued the hell out of me. I knew that when you talked or had something to say, I should just shut the hell up and listen.”
The first week of Asgari’s imprisonment, Fatemeh and Mohammad stayed in Cleveland, visiting the jail and looking for a lawyer. An attorney with a picture of Che Guevara in his office asked for half a million dollars up front, and when Mohammad said that he couldn’t afford it the lawyer suggested hitting up the Iranian government. The family went with public defenders.
The first lawyer on the case, a warm and voluble assistant federal public defender named Edward Bryan, tried to get Asgari released from Lake County on bond. The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Ohio suggested a proffer. Asgari would be temporarily released to a hotel lobby, where a team of F.B.I. agents and prosecutors would join him for a conversation, in the presence of his attorney.
“I said, ‘No way,’ ” Asgari recalled. “Talk to me in handcuffs and shackles—don’t play nice. You want to talk? Come here.”
They came. Daniel Riedl, a prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s office, was accompanied by agents from the F.B.I.’s Cleveland field office, as well as “some people from Washington,” according to Asgari.
In Bryan’s twenty-two years as a public defender, he had never witnessed a proffer like this. Normally, a defendant admitted to at least one of the charges against him and provided information about the crime, including details about others who may have helped commit it, in exchange for more lenient terms. Asgari had accepted none of the charges against him, and the information sought in the proffer was unrelated to his case: the agents wanted him to share general intelligence about Iran. “This was a counterintelligence case masquerading as a trade-secrets case,” Bryan told me.
The F.B.I. agents touched on the indictment, but asked mainly about projects that could be connected to Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities—research in which Asgari had played no part—and about colleagues at Sharif whose names the Bureau had culled from his e-mails. Asgari refused to answer these questions. Instead, he responded with a Persian parable. A man made friends with a bear because he believed that he needed a strong protector. One night, while the man slept, a fly landed on his face. The bear was indeed very protective—he crushed the fly with a boulder, killing the man. The moral? “Don’t make friends with stupid people, even if they’re very strong,” Asgari said.
After another proffer meeting ended in a stalemate, the government offered Asgari release on bond, on the condition that he submit to further questioning. Asgari took the offer, thinking that he had made his limits clear and would go on answering only questions strictly pertinent to the charges against him.
Upon his release, he reported to the Cleveland federal building, to be fitted with an ankle bracelet. But there he was arrested again—this time by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The indictment, Asgari was astonished to learn, wasn’t his only legal problem: his visa hadn’t been stamped at J.F.K., most likely because it wasn’t a real visa. “Unwitting silent parole” allows the F.B.I. to issue foreign nationals a document that looks to them like a visa but in fact grants them permission to enter the country only for the Bureau’s purposes. Once those purposes are served, the F.B.I. is required to hand the foreign national over to ice for removal.
The government petitioned ice to defer Asgari’s deportation until after he stood trial. While papers changed hands, Asgari remained in ice’s custody, at a facility in Geauga County. He shared an open dormitory with inmates from around the world, most of them seeking asylum or awaiting deportation. They fought less than the inmates at Lake County, and showed less interest in physics.
After eight days, an ice officer told Asgari that he would be released if he signed a form that committed him to coöperating with an expedited deportation to Iran after the resolution of his case. His only other option was remaining in jail. Asgari signed the form, and was released on bond, with an ankle bracelet and a curfew.
Asgari moved into a run-down high-rise in Cleveland, where he studied cosmology, taught himself to cook, and fed a rooftop colony of sparrows. Fatemeh lived there with him until October, when she returned to Iran. He worked frenetically through the winter to build his legal case and almost managed to conceal from himself that he felt lonely and found his ankle bracelet and “Offender I.D.” humiliating.
The prosecutors and the F.B.I. came to him for more proffer meetings. Each time, he refused to enter a guilty plea or to become an informant. The F.B.I. grew increasingly frustrated and angry with him—and he began to understand that rebuffing the Bureau’s overtures would cost him. The government was prepared to prosecute him, even with a threadbare indictment. Edward Bryan, Asgari’s defender, discussed the case with his boss, a slender ex-marine named Stephen Newman, and Newman stepped in as lead attorney.
Asgari felt that the indictment was a house of cards if you knew the science, but the amassed technical details did make for a sinister-looking tangle of acronyms and numbers. To win, Asgari’s attorneys needed to understand the context and the meaning of the data in his e-mails, and they also needed to grasp the basis of Asgari’s interest in this information. He offered them an illustration that later made its way into the courtroom. For thousands of years, humans have known that, when you boil an egg, it solidifies. But they have known for less than a hundred years why it does that, and why it does not revert to a liquid state when returned to room temperature. The first—the how—is the primary concern of engineers. The second—the why—is the province of science. Asgari stressed that, at Case, his interest was in the science.
The case was on the docket of the federal judge James Gwin. Appointed to Ohio’s Northern District by President Bill Clinton, in 1997, Gwin had a record of mixing it up with the conservative appellate judges on the Sixth Circuit. Gwin enjoined voter harassment and intimidation at Ohio polling stations during the 2016 election; the Sixth Circuit reversed him. In 2018, Gwin threatened ice with contempt if it deported a defendant who was awaiting sentencing; the Sixth Circuit reversed him again.
Before the proceedings began, Asgari and his attorneys obtained copies of the 2013 and 2015 search warrants, and they felt at once stunned and vindicated. As they saw it, the F.B.I. had secured the wiretap warrants based on little more than Asgari’s nationality. Boggs’s 2013 affidavit tantalizingly referred to a Bureau operation called Operation Clean Pitch—the pursuit of Asgari was somehow a component of it—but further detail was redacted. Asgari entered a motion to suppress all evidence from the wiretaps, on the ground that the warrants had lacked probable cause. His attorneys told him not to expect much: U.S. federal courts were not known for granting constitutional rulings in favor of foreign nationals.
Judge Gwin held a hearing on the motion on February 20, 2018, zeroing in on the 2013 affidavit’s insinuations about the Iranian Navy and the graduate-student paper from Kish. In his decision, Gwin called the citation of the paper “wildly misleading,” given the absence of any connection between Asgari and its author. “At its essence, the 2013 affidavit only says that Asgari worked as a metallurgy professor at an Iranian supported prominent engineering school,” Gwin wrote. “That is not enough to show probable cause of an Iran sanctions violation.” Concluding that Boggs had deliberately created a false impression of probable cause, Gwin granted the motion to suppress the wiretap evidence.
Asgari was riding high: the wiretaps were the whole case. But the U.S. Attorney’s office appealed Gwin’s ruling, and the Sixth Circuit reversed it, saying that, because “investigators operating in good faith reasonably could have thought the warrant was valid,” the evidence could not be suppressed. Moreover, the Sixth Circuit judges felt that Boggs had not intentionally misled the magistrate, and found the affidavit at least minimally persuasive: at the Swagelok Center, Asgari was working in a lab partly funded by U.S. military grants, at a time when Iran was under broad sanctions.
During the eighteen months that followed Gwin’s wiretap ruling, there were more hearings, motions, appeals, and reversals. Because Asgari only rarely needed to appear in court in Cleveland, he obtained permission to stay with Mohammad in New York, where he read books on the crystallography of precious stones, and then with Zahra in California, where he went on hikes and audited lectures at Stanford.VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKERThe Effort to De-mine Sacred Space in the Amazon
Until the conclusion of his trial, he couldn’t leave America: he had an ankle bracelet, supervision, and bond. If he was convicted, he’d go to jail; if he was acquitted, he’d be deported. He didn’t know what would await him in Iran. The regime would surely look askance at his contacts with the U.S. justice system, no matter how antagonistic they had been, and might not believe that he hadn’t let the F.B.I. recruit him. In the past, the Iranian government had negotiated prisoner swaps with the U.S., but Asgari told his wife to inform the Iranian foreign ministry that he did not want to be included in any such negotiations. He felt that he had a chance of a fair hearing before Judge Gwin, and didn’t want his case to be politicized.
The trial began on November 12, 2019. Asgari, wearing a charcoal suit without a tie, in the Iranian fashion, sat through the proceedings alert and birdlike. The case before the jurors was dizzyingly technical, but the big picture was strangely vacuous. He had allegedly stolen trade secrets, but from a company that had suffered no apparent injury, and to nobody’s profit. The supposed trade secrets had all been published in patents and scientific journals.
To support the trade-secrets charge, Daniel Riedl and the other prosecutors presented e-mails that Asgari had sent or received, some of which contained Swagelok data. But the data in the e-mails were either erroneous, banal, or in the public domain. The prosecution’s centerpiece was an e-mail that Asgari received from Sunniva Collins, a materials scientist at Swagelok who held several patents in low-temperature carburization. Prosecutors characterized the message, which detailed times and temperatures for a carburization process used on one of the samples Asgari was asked to analyze, as the “recipe” e-mail.
By the time Asgari showed up at Case in 2013, low-temperature carburization had been around for decades. Dozens of papers had been published on the subject. To steal a trade secret, a person has to knowingly expropriate intellectual property for the profit of someone other than the owner. And, for information to qualify as a trade secret, it has to be both economically valuable and confidential. The “recipe” e-mail met none of these criteria. The particular sample that Collins described had been treated in a trial run for a patent that Swagelok had already published. Asgari did not forward the times and temperatures to his Gmail account or to anybody else. In any case, the values were consistent with the published patent. Collins testified that the recipe was not a trade secret.
The prosecution further offered an e-mail that Asgari had forwarded from his Case account to his Gmail account. It contained data that he’d obtained from Swagelok about the chemical composition of the steel before it was treated with carbon. Asgari’s lawyers said that he had forwarded these data to himself out of puzzlement: the values for phosphorus and chromium did not match industry standards for the grades of steel Swagelok had ordered. Asgari had concluded that either the samples were defective or—more likely—Swagelok’s instruments were out of calibration.
Finally, the prosecution presented the proposal that Asgari’s student had made to a research institute connected to Iran’s petrochemical industry, suggesting a project on low-temperature carburization. The student had hyped his professor’s experience, boasting that, in America, Asgari had acquired knowledge of the process that nobody in Iran possessed. On the witness stand, the student made clear that he had sent Asgari the proposal only after submitting it to the institute. Asgari ultimately judged the project impracticable.
Such was the heart of the prosecution: a recipe Asgari never asked for and never used, a faulty data set, and a student’s amateurish grant proposal that went nowhere. The visa and wire-fraud counts were similarly flimsy. The defense filed a motion to dismiss all charges.
Gwin accepted the defense’s motion. But he wasn’t ready to dismiss the case just yet: he had found the arguments interesting, and hoped to write an opinion for the record. Until he had done so, he asked Asgari to remain in the country, on bond. Asgari’s lawyers assured the judge that, once the case was formally dismissed, he would self-deport, returning to Iran on a commercial flight.
He didn’t get the chance. The prosecution, evidently sensing that the case was not going its way, had quietly informed ice that it no longer wished to defer Asgari’s deportation: the agency could come collect its prisoner. No sooner had Judge Gwin departed the courtroom than a marshal seated in the gallery approached the defense table to haul Asgari into ice custody.
The turn of events was stunning. Asgari had just been acquitted in a fair trial before a federal judge, but would end the day in prison. By all appearances, the government was acting out of vindictiveness. (Riedl, the prosecutor, declined to be interviewed.)
“He’s going to self-deport!” Newman protested to the marshal.
“You’re coming with me,” the marshal told Asgari, and marched him from the courtroom.
Only the two legal teams remained, in a cavernous silence—the prosecutors with their backs to the defense, shuffling papers into briefcases while Bryan fumed and paced. Finally, he erupted. “This is bullshit,” he said. “It was always bullshit!”
The day Asgari was cleared of all charges, he began a seven-month descent down a spiral of squalor, into a vast carceral system beyond the reach of the U.S. judiciary. Within the realm of ice, there would be no public documents, no legal hearings. His federal defenders could not help him.
He was taken to the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a private prison, in Youngstown, that housed both convicted criminals and ice detainees. There were fears of a chicken-pox outbreak when he arrived, and high-security prisoners kicked their doors late into the night. The food sickened him, and he assumed a strict diet of ramen noodles with dried vegetable flakes, obtained from the commissary.
His pod held forty-odd ice inmates, many of them from Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh. He was impressed by their stories of migration—some had made months-long treks through jungles—and touched by the idealism of young men who had expected to find asylum in America. “They are really followers of Columbus,” Asgari told me. One was teaching him the Tamil language, others about Buddhism. “I told them if they want to learn anything in physics, I can help,” he said. Several times a week, he called me; we talked until his phone line mechanically disconnected. One day, I told him that I had gone to an electron-microscopy lab in New York, to view the instruments of his trade. That night, for the first time in two years, he dreamed that he was working with a tem. “I was doing all sorts of operations, chemical analysis, high resolution, and enjoying it like crazy,” he told me. “I woke up feeling so relaxed.”
He tried to befriend some of the high-security prisoners. One, from Myanmar, was so dejected that for entire days he sat on his cot with a blanket over his head. Asgari knocked on his window, waving a chess board, and soon he and the prisoner had a game going, Asgari outside the cell door, the Burmese man standing on a chair so that he could see the board and point to moves. The prisoner attempted suicide, and a guard asked Asgari to talk to him. He found the man stark naked, pounding on his door. “His face—he was gone,” Asgari told me.
Almost every week, he took on a new cause, and he amiably needled the corrections officers. When a guard confiscated the cartons of milk that detainees kept on their windowsills, it was explained to Asgari that drug dealers in a criminal pod had made holes in the windows to distribute their goods and hidden the holes behind the cartons. Asgari protested that the ice detainees had done nothing wrong and just wanted milk for their coffee. He argued that next the detainees would lose their hands—or, God forbid, other body parts—if inmates in another pod misused theirs. He won the milk cartons back.
After three months, Asgari was transferred, in the middle of the night, to Seneca County Jail, south of Toledo. Seneca was worse than Youngstown: some sixty beds in an open room, spaced about three feet apart; a single shower; three filthy toilets without stalls; unremitting noise and light. There were criminal convicts in the pod alongside ice detainees. All of that Asgari could have handled. But his first conversation with the officer in charge of the ice population brought him up short. The agency had apparently identified him as a leader who stirred up trouble. “I’ve been filled in about you,” she told him. “Don’t try to be a kingpin here.”
Asgari retreated to his cot in abject silence. His wheedling and agitating, his problem-solving and peacemaking, had sustained him in Youngstown. “After two or three years of legal fight on a nonsense case, I’m still paying,” he told me.
Nonetheless, he adjusted. Just a couple of weeks later, he joked, “If I have to be imprisoned by ice, send me here.” Mixing with the local prison population energized him. He felt sympathy for the desperation that had led the American inmates to drugs and crime. “They’re boys from the middle of nowhere,” Asgari told me. “There’s something about them I really like.” He was teaching again, this time about renewable energy: electric cars, lithium-ion batteries, solar cells. He even came to think of the officer who had warned him not to be a kingpin as his “close friend.” He told me, with affection, “She has a strict face and a golden heart.”
Given that Asgari had pledged to self-deport, his extended detention was almost impossible to fathom. His lawyers chalked it up to spite. Newman, the head of the defense team, said, “Our country had to have its pound of flesh.” Asgari ruminated ceaselessly on the injustice of it all. He hadn’t sneaked into the United States; he had obtained a visa and paid for it. Why was he being punished?
If there was ever a force equal to Asgari’s will, it was the bureaucratic inertia of ice. The immigration attorneys he consulted were largely stymied by the agency’s impenetrable structure. One said, “I’m just throwing shit at a wall, and every once in a while the wall throws something back.” Another fruitlessly chased Asgari’s paperwork from one office to another: ice’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, the F.B.I., Customs and Border Protection, the ice regional headquarters in Detroit, the local headquarters in Cleveland. At one point, Asgari urged me to call ice officials in Detroit and Cleveland who had signed documents addressed to him. None of them ever answered their phones.
ice occasionally sent representatives to meet with detainees and discuss their cases. They were just following procedures, they told Asgari, and had no authority to evaluate the logic or the justice of the measures they enforced. Asgari answered the representatives by telling them an Iranian joke. A man sees two groups of workers, one digging a trench along the road and the other following behind to fill it up and cover it. The bystander, confounded, asks the workers what they are doing. They say that the government hired three contractors: one to dig, one to install a pipeline, and the third to cover it. The second contractor never showed up, a worker says, adding, “So we are doing our job.” Such, Asgari concluded, was ice.
In January, he received a notice informing him that prisoners with a deportation order could request a custody review after ninety days, in the hope of winning release under supervision. His ninety days were up on February 13th. He was invited to submit documentation showing that he was neither a flight risk nor a danger to society. Asgari did so eagerly, pointing out that during the two years he’d awaited trial he’d obeyed every court order and kept every curfew, and that in court he’d been exonerated. On February 19th, he received a letter announcing that his request had been denied. The letter was dated February 3rd, ten days before the deadline—and before he had even submitted his supporting documents. Nobody had looked at his file, he realized. The reason that he was given for the refusal was even more baffling: ice said that it was waiting for Iran to issue him a travel document, even though the passport he’d surrendered to ice, in 2017, was valid through 2022.
The deciding officer assigned to his case was Scott Wichrowski. Asgari met with him twice at Seneca. How, Asgari asked, was waiting for a travel document a reason to incarcerate a person? What threat did he pose? Wichrowski, Asgari told me, just looked at his shoes. “If I were him, I would resign—I wouldn’t just watch people suffering for nothing,” Asgari grumbled. (Wichrowski declined interview requests.)
At the legal library in Seneca County Jail, Asgari happened on a quote from Robert Jackson, a Supreme Court Justice in the nineteen-forties and fifties: “Procedural fairness and regularity are of the indispensable essence of liberty. . . . Indeed, if put to the choice, one might well prefer to live under Soviet substantive law applied in good faith by our common-law procedures than under our substantive law enforced by Soviet procedural practices.” Asgari concluded that he was a victim of American law enforced by Soviet-style procedures.
The coronavirus cut a brutal swath through Iran in February before wracking the United States. Flights to Iran were suspended. At first, Asgari was merely irritated; then he began to panic. He was at high risk of a severe covid-19 infection. For six years, he’d suffered from repeated bouts of pneumonia, and he had a chronic liver condition and high blood pressure. Late that month, he developed a lung infection, but he took antibiotics and it cleared up, so he figured that it wasn’t covid-19. Then, as the pandemic worsened, ice began transferring him to one fetid prison after another.
His first transfer, on March 10th, took some twelve hours. He and other detainees, in shackles and chains, could hardly move their hands to eat, and some prisoners soiled themselves for lack of toilet access. They flew from base to base and finally landed in Alexandria, Louisiana, where ice had a deportation hub. When it was time to disembark, Asgari had a pounding headache and could hardly stand; when he reached the stairs descending from the plane, he fainted.
Asgari was told that detainees could be kept at the Alexandria Staging Facility for a maximum of one week. The place was correspondingly stark, without books or the camaraderie of a stable cohort. Asgari’s blood pressure spiked. After seven days, he was scheduled for deportation. He spent another sixteen hours in shackles—this time going north, to New Hampshire, then south, to New Jersey, and then west, to Texas. At every stop, the plane sat for hours on the tarmac as more prisoners boarded. In the end, Asgari’s flight to Iran was cancelled, because of the pandemic. The ice plane finally landed again at Alexandria at 10:45 p.m., with more than a hundred people on board—many of them, including Asgari, the same detainees who had left the facility that morning.
Asgari noticed that the corrections officers at Alexandria had taken to wearing masks, and he suspected that they knew something he didn’t. He had a mask in a suitcase that Mohammad had packed for his deportation, but he was forbidden to retrieve it. The transport hub was, as he put it, a viral bomb ready to detonate. Its population churned as other countries stopped accepting deportees. As most Americans began sheltering in place and tried to stay six feet apart on the street, the detainees in the Alexandria Staging Facility all but pickled in their shared breath.
On March 23rd, Asgari was put on another plane that flew hither and thither, collecting and disgorging inmates at every stop, and again he ended up back at the transport hub. Because he had left Alexandria for a day, ice had technically avoided housing him at the facility for more than a week. Mohammad, in New York, reached out to activists and lawyers with mounting panic that his father would not live to return to Iran. Fatemeh could not visit him: she had applied for a visa to go to America, but her request had been denied.
If only Asgari had been convicted of theft of trade secrets, he would be in the criminal-justice system in Ohio, where Stephen Newman was working tirelessly to win his clients compassionate release from virus-ridden prisons. “We can’t get in front of a judge for Professor Asgari,” Newman lamented to me. “We can’t do anything for him. For two years, we were able to help him—and now we can’t.”
At the end of March, Asgari was transferred to the Winn Correctional Center, a sprawling, privately operated complex near the Louisiana-Texas border. His first glimpse of the place was a gut punch. The pod was a concrete box, the air so humid that it soaked his bedsheets, the forty or so beds rusted. The few windows were covered in semi-opaque Plexiglas. It was the most depressing place he’d ever been. “Whenever I think I’ve seen the worst treatment by ice, they surprise me again,” he told me.
For all that, he was relieved to have left Alexandria. An inmate in his pod there had tested positive for covid-19, and so the entire pod had been sent to Winn, where its members would be isolated for fourteen days, their temperatures taken regularly. “A couple of us cried,” he said, of the group’s arrival. “They said, ‘Where the hell is this place?’ I told them, ‘Here, you are safer.’ ” Privately, Asgari told me that the facility was inhumane: “Nobody is talking to anybody. It is absolutely humiliating and disgusting to keep people here.” But within his quarantine pod a kind of fellowship emerged, even though the others mainly spoke Spanish, which Asgari did not.
As far as Asgari could tell, ice did not seem to take the quarantine very seriously. Within a few days, several Colombians in the pod had been deported, despite the pod’s known exposure to the coronavirus. Some detainees from El Salvador were also repatriated before the end of the quarantine. Asgari joined a habeas-corpus suit of Louisiana ice detainees at high risk of developing complications from covid-19.
On April 10th, he told me that three men elsewhere in the facility had tested positive. His blood pressure hit a hundred and fifty over a hundred. By this time, his pod had been isolated for more than fourteen days without anyone having fallen ill. But while we were speaking he saw a new detainee being brought into the pod—an exposure risk for those inside. “I’m going to fight this!” he said. Asgari hung up, then called back a few minutes later to tell me that if I didn’t hear from him within an hour he had likely been taken to an isolation cell, and I should then call his family. Ten minutes later, he was back on the line, against a background roar of inmates cheering.
Asgari had led the pod in mobbing the entryway. He told the guards that he was fighting for his life and would not give in. His cellmates backed him, and the newcomer was led away. “Now people are happy,” Asgari told me. “Not one showed weakness.” When a new shift of guards arrived, Asgari said, they thanked him: they, too, felt safer because of what he’d done. A prison staffer who had witnessed the scene later told Asgari that he had been thrilled when Asgari had vowed to fight for his life, and had asked the other detainees if they would fight for theirs, too. Everyone had yelled, “Yes!” The staffer told Asgari, “I felt like I was in a movie.”
Asgari’s high spirits lasted only about three days. His right leg began to swell, purpled with bruises along a bone that he’d never injured. It became agonizing to walk the hundred feet from his bed to the pod door, where medicines were disbursed, or to the toilet. He was denied a wheelchair; a nurse offered him ice instead. At last, he saw a doctor, who suspected a blood clot and had him rushed to a hospital for an ultrasound. The doctor there also suspected clots, though they were too small to show on the ultrasound, and he told ice that Asgari should not fly. Asgari did not seem entirely sorry that plans for his deportation were again delayed. If he stayed in the U.S. a little while longer, he told me, he might be granted habeas. “I want to show these guys they were wrong,” he said.
Asgari was relentless in pursuit of a cause—and there was always a cause. The hospital gave him crutches, but using them hurt his back, and within two days he’d sent them to a nurse, with a note demanding a wheelchair. Protocol forbade it, he was told. In protest, he enlisted his cellmates to drag him to his destinations on a bedsheet. (At one point, he told me, laughing, “they dragged me on the floor so fast, my ass was set on fire.”) How else, he asked a nurse, was he to transport himself? One day, a guard quietly placed a wheelchair inside the pod. Asgari attributed such victories to what he called the “power of one.” He told me, “An innocent, independent, wise individual will prevail in any situation.”
At Winn, Asgari had time to reflect on his experience. He had always lived, in a way, at a crossroads. He’d arrived as a student in the University of Tehran’s department of metallurgical engineering in 1977, just as Iran’s revolutionary student movement gathered force, and his faculty was its epicenter. When the movement toppled the Shah and established the Islamic Republic, Asgari helped form an organization called the Jihad of Construction, an Iranian counterpart to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He coördinated crews to build roads, pipe water, and harvest wheat. The Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, and the engineering students turned to military logistics. To move tanks onto the Al-Faw Peninsula, they helped design a pontoon bridge that had to be installed underwater in the middle of the night and then buoyed to the surface with air tanks. Asgari took part in five offensives; he saw bodies ripped apart, and once a mortar shell landed just behind him, causing the surrounding mud to boil.
Asgari had been a revolutionary not because he was a religious ideologue but because he was an egalitarian. He believed that social justice took precedence over any theory of the state. What surprised him most, when he first came to America, in the nineties, was that such a calm, orderly society had risen from the cruel machinery of capitalism.
He believed that his time in detention had given him a more complete picture of American society than most citizens possessed. “I have friends in low places,” he often told me, with a chuckle. He’d spent two years in the federal court system and five months in the clutches of ice, all because the F.B.I. had tried and failed to recruit him, and because his visa—if it really was a visa—had never been stamped. Now, in an ice detention center on the Texas-Louisiana border, he was having a Tocqueville moment.
Asgari still viewed America with affection. He marvelled that, in every prison, he could pick up a phone and talk to journalists, and that journalists could publish what they wanted without fear of being censored. But what he appreciated most was the independence of the American judiciary.
“I appeared as an Iranian in front of an American judge,” he reflected. “This American judge ruled against an F.B.I. agent in my favor. I was privileged to witness the way he handled the trial, from jury selection to the end, the way he advocated impartiality and fairness. I believe these are global values that should be respected by all governments, including my own.” He added, “My attorneys, who put their heart into this thing—they were employees of the same government that was on the other side of this case.”
What a comedown it had been to pass out of the judiciary and into the hands of ice. There, he had been witness to values that appeared to stand in bald contrast to those of the courts. He was staggered by the number of detainees who, he felt, had no business being imprisoned, and by brutal treatment that seemed at odds with the liberality of American law. Asgari was convinced that a hidden profit motive lay behind the circulation of ice prisoners on desultory flights from one outpost to another. Otherwise, he simply could not understand it.
Who were he and the other ice detainees in the eyes of American law? The zone they occupied was murky to the point of darkness. To win release on supervision, people who had been imprisoned precisely because they were to be deported had first to prove that they weren’t flight risks. Their detention was considered administrative, not punitive, but they were housed in the same facilities as people convicted of crimes.
Prison was a crucible of human relations, and for the most part Asgari’s faith in them had emerged stronger from the experience. In a pod, you couldn’t hide behind an avatar, a bank account, or an accomplishment—not even behind the self-importance of a busy schedule. Governments might seek to dominate or obliterate one another, but human beings, forced into intimacy and the roughest equality, tended to be coöperative, Asgari had found. He had always been a scholar of microstructures, and now he understood that the atoms of a society—from which all its properties emanated—were people in their elemental state. The bonds among them were the structure’s deepest source of strength.
At Winn, time spun circles. New detainees would show up at the gate, and a lookout would whistle for pod members to mob the door and prevent entry. Asgari saw the doctor for new bruises on his leg, and, on his behalf, the doctor refused another flight—whether it was bound for Cleveland or Tehran, Asgari never knew. He asked for a plastic chair to bring into the shower so that he wouldn’t have to stand, and again he was battling protocol—a protocol whose logic no one remembered, or maybe ever knew. If only ice would release him to his daughter, Asgari said: “Let me have four days, and I’ll be at home watching TV and eating Persian food.”
In late April, Asgari’s pod lost its bid for isolation: the prisoners were forced into a new space with dozens of others. Asgari tested positive for covid-19 on April 25th. He awoke at night drenched in sweat. When we spoke, he sounded weak and coughed incessantly. He was placed in a “negative pressure” cell that kept infected air away from other detainees. He had no shower and limited access to a phone, and only a large black spider for company. At least his oxygen levels held steady. While Asgari was in the negative-pressure cell, a magistrate recommended that his habeas petition be denied, on the ground that Asgari was already infected, and therefore no longer at risk.
When his fever broke, he was placed in a pod of confirmed covid-19 patients. The outbreak ultimately affected nearly two hundred prisoners. Asgari was—for once—lucky. But upon his recovery he bridled more than ever at the filth and the irrationality of his circumstances. Every other avenue having failed, his wife started talking in earnest with the Iranian foreign ministry.
Iran and the U.S. had exchanged a pair of prisoners in December, and had since been discussing another. Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran sentenced to years in prison in Iran for allegedly insulting Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, was to be swapped for Matteo Taerri, a plastic surgeon in Florida charged with sanctions violations for smuggling a dual-use biological filter into Iran. The countries were to exchange the two men through Swiss intermediaries. In the spring, the Iranians decided to make Asgari’s deportation a precondition for the deal: they would honor their part of it only after ice sent Asgari back to Iran.
At the beginning of May, intimations of a swap leaked in the U.S. press, and some articles mentioned Asgari’s name. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, claimed to the Associated Press that the U.S. had been trying to deport Asgari since December, and that the Iranians had delayed confirming the validity of his passport until late February, when the pandemic struck, making international travel impossible.
In late May, a Louisiana court decided to approve Asgari’s habeas petition after all, and gave ice two weeks to release him on supervision. But before that could happen, in early June, after seven months in ice custody, he was finally deported. He called me from his country house, in Taleghan, in the mountains north of Tehran, on June 4th. He was jet-lagged, still feeling the shock of sudden freedom, and overwhelmed by the taste of food. High-ranking Iranian officials had received him. Local news media clamored for interviews, clearly eager to present him as an emblematic victim of American injustice. For now, he declined; he did not want to present his case in a political light. His story, he insisted, was really about the relationships that had sustained him. Still, memories of his incarceration, particularly at Winn and in Alexandria, intruded on his thoughts. He was sad to learn that a guard he’d known at Winn had died of covid-19. “He was a gentle guy,” he told me. “I never saw any aggressive behavior from him.”
Asgari had meant to return to Iran the way he had left it—as a cosmopolitan scientist, beholden to nothing more absolute than reason or more fundamental than the atom. “I do not like to be swapped,” Asgari had told me when the idea first arose, back at Winn. “I wanted to win this case in an American court, before an American judge and jury. Because I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the September 21, 2020, issue, with the headline “The Man Who Wouldn’t Spy.”