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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Baseless Claim on Iranian Execution

Donald Trump speculates on Twitter that Shahram Amiri — an Iranian nuclear scientist who defected to the U.S. and reportedly became a CIA spy — was executed in Iran recently “because of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails.” There is no evidence of that.

To the contrary, it had been widely reported for years that Amiri was a CIA informant. The first news story on Amiri providing the U.S. with information on Iran’s nuclear program appeared in March 2010 — nearly four months before Clinton’s aides at the State Department referenced Amiri (without naming him) in emails.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that Clinton’s emails were “hacked,” as Trump said.

The emails sent by Clinton’s aides in July 2010 were among the more than 30,000 work-related emails housed on Clinton’s private server and released by the State Department in batches since June 2015. An FBI investigation “did not find direct evidence that Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail domain … was successfully hacked,” FBI Director James Comey said on July 5, although he added that “it is possible that hostile actors gained access” to Clinton’s server.

Trump tweeted about Amiri’s execution Aug. 8 — a day after the Iranian government confirmed that the scientist-turned-spy was killed:

The bizarre case of Shahram Amiri became public in the fall of 2009, when Amiri disappeared during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. In an Oct. 8, 2009, article, the Associated Press wrote that the Iranians accused the U.S. of being involved in Amiri’s disappearance.

“The disappearance of an Iranian nuclear scientist on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June is raising questions about whether he defected and gave the West information on Iran’s nuclear program,” the AP wrote.

At the time, State Department spokesman Ian C. Kelly told reporters that he wasn’t aware of any State Department involvement in Amiri’s disappearance.

On March 31, 2010, ABC News reported that Amiri indeed had defected to the U.S. in what was described as an “intelligence coup.”

“Amiri has been extensively debriefed since his defection by the CIA, according to the people briefed on the situation. They say Amiri helped to confirm U.S. intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program,” ABC News reported. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to comment on the ABC News report.

In June 2010, Iranian state television showed a video of Amiri in which he claimed that he was captured by the U.S. in Saudi Arabia and brought to the U.S. against his will. An Associated Press article on June 7, 2010, quoted Amiri as saying he was “heavily tortured and pressured by U.S. intelligence.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denied that the U.S. had kidnapped Amiri. “We are not in the habit of going around the world and kidnapping people,” Crowley said at a June 8, 2010, press briefing.

A month later, Amiri turned up at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., requesting to return to Iran. In an AP story on July 13, 2010, unnamed U.S. officials said Amiri voluntarily defected to the U.S., and Clinton was quoted as saying that Amiri was free to go home.

“These are decisions that are his alone to make,” Clinton told reporters at the time.

The Washington Post reported on July 15, 2010, that Amiri “was paid more than $5 million by the agency to provide intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program,” citing unnamed U.S. officials. That same day the New York Times reported that Amiri had been a CIA informant for “several years,” even before he came to the U.S.

Amiri returned to Iran to what the Christian Science Monitor called “a hero’s welcome” on July 15, 2010, greeted by his family and senior Iranian officials.

It’s clear that this drama played out on a very public stage. So how can Trump blame “Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails” for Amiri’s recent execution?

After Iran announced Amiri was put to death, there were articles that correctly noted that Amiri was referenced in two of Clinton’s emails that had been released by the State Department. Both emails were mentioned in an Aug. 8 story by Fox News that carried the headline “Executed Iranian scientist discussed in Clinton server emails, fueling GOP accusations.”

The first email was sent by special envoy Richard Morningstar to senior adviser Jacob Sullivan on July 5, 2010 — which was a little more than three months after the ABC News article that identified Amiri as a CIA informant. The second email was sent by Sullivan to Clinton on July 12, 2010. Neither email identified Amiri by name, referring to him as “our person” and “the gentleman.”

Fox News, Aug. 8: The email by Richard Morningstar, a former State Department special envoy for Eurasian energy, concludes, “Our person won’t be able to do anything anyway. If he has to leave, so be it.”

Another email, sent by Sullivan on July 12, 2010, appears to obliquely refer to the scientist just hours before his appearance at the Pakistani Embassy became widely known.

“The gentleman … has apparently gone to his country’s interests section because he is unhappy with how much time it has taken to facilitate his departure,” Sullivan wrote. “This could lead to problematic news stories in the next 24 hours.”

The Fox News story noted that Amiri had been publicly identified as a U.S. spy “going back years,” so “it’s unclear whether those [email] references put him at any additional risk.”

On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Aug. 7, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas mentioned Clinton’s emails on Amiri while discussing the scientist’s execution, describing them as “highly classified.” We reviewed the emails that were released, and both were released by the State Department in full and without redaction.

Trump went even further in claiming that “many people are saying that the Iranians killed the scientist who helped the U.S. because of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails.” But any people who are, including Trump, are making accusations without having any evidence to back them up.