US-Iranian man sentenced in case that revealed secret database of Americans’ calls

US State Department's major money laundering countries list
US State Department's major money laundering countries list

WASHINGTON – A U.S. citizen born in Iran whose federal prosecution helped expose the secret, decades-long collection of Americans’ outbound overseas calls was sentenced Monday to one year in prison for violating a U.S. ban on exports to Iran.

Shantia Hassanshahi, 61, pleaded guilty Sept. 14 in federal court in Washington, D.C., to one count of unlawfully conspiring to ship $1 million worth of electromechanical relay devices to protect Iran’s civilian power grid.

Hassanshahi’s attorneys, John Pierce of Washington and Saied Kashani of Los Angeles, sought a sentence of time served – 64 days in jail and 37 months under strict supervision – saying Hassanshahi’s crime involved purely nonmilitary and non-nuclear electrical equipment.

They said that by pleading guilty, Hassanshahi did the U.S. government a favor, sparing it the risk that an appeals court might someday throw out not only his case, but also other convictions that prosecutors won using the secret database of billions of calls.

“I accept full responsibility for my part in the conspiracy, and I am truly sorry for my conduct,” said Hassanshahi, a California businessman who immigrated in 1976. “I have tried to contribute to this country in every way I could.”

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras said the Iranian trade embargo was a pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and that one of the most immediate ways to erode a regime’s legitimacy with its public is to disrupt power supplies.

“This offense is serious,” the judge said. “A significant sentence is necessary to deter others who may be tempted by this lucrative” trade.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Yette had sought a three-year prison sentence, less than recommended under federal guidelines but in line with similar cases since a 2015 deal with Iran that lifted most sanctions in exchange for Iran’s mothballing its nuclear program.

Hassanshahi was arrested in 2013 in Los Angeles after agents said they used the database to link his phone to a call made to Iran. Hassanshahi admitting using his company, Hasston, to purchase devices from a Canadian manufacturer and to ship them for end users in Iran.

Under Contreras’ order, a Drug Enforcement Administration official submitted an affidavit in the case in 2015 acknowledging that until 2013, U.S. law enforcement periodically asked U.S. telecommunications service providers, which were not identified, for phone metadata – but not the actual conversations – on outbound overseas calls to a list of countries that also were not identified.

Civil liberties groups called the database a disturbing overreach of a 1988 anti-drugs law. They said authorities used a statute designed to allow limited subpoenas for information about drug trafficking and money laundering to carry out bulk collection of records about Americans’ calls overseas for more than 20 years, share such information with other government agencies, and investigate non-drug-related crimes.

The result was the first known effort to gather data on Americans in bulk without a warrant, a model for the massive terrorist phone surveillance effort the National Security Agency launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, although the Justice Department version was run with less oversight from Congress and the inspector general for Justice Department.

The Justice Department said the system was ultimately terminated after September 2013, a few months after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the NSA’s more-sweeping collection efforts, triggering a national debate about the scope of government surveillance.

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