Michael Schaffer: Former Wall Street Journal Reporter Is Suing—Over the Email Hack That Got Him Fired

From a Michael Schaffer Capital City column on politico.com headlined “A Former WSJ Reporter Is Suing–Over the Emil Hack That Got Him Fired

Jay Solomon was abruptly fired from his job as the Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign correspondent in 2017 after the Associated Press reported on his alleged discussions of business deals with one of his key sources. It was one of the most high-profile examples of a prominent journalist being sacked for unethical behavior.

Now Solomon is suing, not over his firing or the unflattering news coverage that precipitated it — but over what he says was a multi-million-dollar criminal campaign by a foreign emirate’s American law firm that allegedly hired Indian mercenary hackers to turn up his correspondence.

The lawsuit, filed this month in federal court in Washington, makes for absolutely wild reading. It pulls back the curtain on the murky intersection of American media, international law firms, Persian Gulf politics and Beltway think tanks — and ought to discomfit anyone who thinks working in Washington protects them from hardball tactics that hold sway in other parts of the world.

According to Solomon’s rollicking 94-page complaint, the law firm Dechert LLP was at the center of a hack-and-smear operation that swiped emails between him and his source, an Iranian-born aviation magnate and sometime arms transporter named Farhad Azima, who filed his own separate suit against the firm in Manhattan two weeks ago alleging the same thing. The correspondence was then allegedly shopped around to media in a successful attempt to “de-platform” Solomon, the reporter behind unflattering coverage of Dechert’s client, the investment authority of the Gulf emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, and the emirate’s ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi.

A spokesperson for Dechert told me that “the claim against the firm is denied and will be defended,” and noted that the two Dechert attorneys named as parties in the suit are no longer with the firm. Requests for comment from the emirate, via both the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington and the RAK press office, were not returned.

The cast of characters named as co-defendants in the lawsuit is large, and includes the pair of former Dechert lawyers, private investigators in Israel and North Carolina, and a New York public affairs firm and its founder. It also includes Amir Handjani, who works at the New York firm but has been also a fellow at two Washington think tanks: the Atlantic Council, where he left the board in 2021, and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, where he remains a non-resident fellow. The emirate is not itself a defendant in the suit.

Handjani did not respond to messages. Both think tanks declined comment.

As laid out by Solomon’s attorneys, the plot to destroy Solomon took shape after the Wall Street Journal reporter started reporting on various schemes to help Iran evade economic sanctions in the early 2010s. One of those schemes involved the acquisition of properties in the country of Georgia, including a hotel owned by Sheikh Saud. Some of the sales were brokered by Azima, who also managed to be Solomon’s source. When his story ran, Georgia cracked down, and everyone involved faced risk of U.S. sanctions for helping Iran. Soon thereafter, the suit claims, Dechert was brought in to investigate fraud at RAKIA, the emirate’s investment authority. Before long, the firm and other co-defendants allegedly began focusing on the reporter behind the story.

Unfortunately for Solomon, he gave them a lot to focus on. In a Columbia Journalism Review essay, he opened up about the way his relationship with Azima turned into the sort of entanglement that, once exposed, would imperil his career. He came to like the tycoon, accepted invitations to spend a week on his yacht, allowed his name to be bandied about in emails about possible future arms business plans, and didn’t reply with a firm “no” when Azima asked him to pass some documents to a UAE diplomat. In the essay, he says he never had the slightest notion of doing business with him, and never passed along any documents, but also concedes that the optics were rotten and he ought to have kept his bosses in the loop (and not taken the yacht trip).

But the idea that the nitty-gritty of his emails with a source would wind up splashed across the media was a distant one back when Solomon first wrote about Iran’s efforts to evade sanctions, and the possibility that those efforts were getting an assist from the ruler of one of the seven United Arab Emirates. In those days, the reporter’s star was riding high. A report about the Obama administration organizing a shipment of pallets of money to Iran in connection with the nuclear deal got major attention. “Indeed, Mr. Azima was a source for Mr. Solomon, who had also exposed certain illegal dealings of the racketeering enterprise with Mr. Azima’s help,” the complaint explains.

Meanwhile, according to both lawsuits, a cinematic array of violent retaliations against critics of the RAK regime were afoot: kidnapping, robbery, torture, all allegedly designed in part to stop people from squealing about dealings with Iran. (The allegations are the subject of ongoing litigation on both sides of the Atlantic, and have been strenuously denied.)

The alleged career destruction of Solomon and targeting of Azima, in comparison, feels relatively tame — but in the context of how the Washington media and think-tank world typically works, it still feels shocking.

“The conspiracy took the form of a hack and dump scheme, in which the enterprise through a series of transactions retained multiple, separate teams of hackers” to target Azima, his complaint reads. One group of Indian hackers allegedly accessed his email and put it in an accessible location online; another team allegedly found it “independently,” enabling Dechert plausible deniability; a third downloaded it and got it to the firm. “This scheme was designed to create the appearance that those responsible for hacking Mr. Azima, those who located the emails and those who provided them to Defendants … were all disconnected, and at the same time, enable Defendants … to control and strategically determine which emails would be shared, when and with whom,” it concludes.

Handjani, who in addition to his think-tank positions served at a public affairs firm that worked for the emirate, allegedly helped disseminate the stuff to the media, among others, according to the complaint.

At any rate, Solomon’s correspondence with Azima eventually made its way to his editors at the Wall Street Journal. He kept his job at the time, but when the Associated Press reported on the correspondence six months later, he was given the gate. It’s easy to see why: In reviewing tens of thousands of pages over eight years, the reporters turned up emails that seemed to show the two men bandying about business ideas, with Solomon saying things like, “Our business opportunities are so promising” and Azima wishing him luck on his “first defense sale” when he was supposed to deliver a $725 million proposal to the UAE government. Solomon denied everything other than mismanaging a source relationship, but it wasn’t a good look.

These days, Solomon too is affiliated with a D.C. think tank, and isn’t trying to litigate his way back into journalism’s good graces. Instead, he’s calling the case a cautionary tale — not just for journalists who blur lines with sources, but for people who think working in Washington institutions means everything’s on the up-and-up.

“This case illustrates how powerful individuals and entities can deploy vast resources and spend vast sums with the aim of silencing a journalist,” Solomon said in a statement provided by his lawyer, Noel J. Nudelman. “And it’s a trend that’s becoming a greater threat to journalism and media, as digital surveillance and hacking technologies evolve and become more potent and pervasive. This is a major threat to the freedom of the press. And steps need to be taken to protect journalists and their ability to do their important work.”

But it’s probably a bit more complicated than that, and not just because Solomon’s email trail essentially provided his alleged tormentors the matches with which to torch his career. It wasn’t actually Solomon’s email that was accessed — it was that of a source who had spent a career involved in sensitive work in what amounts to a bad geopolitical neighborhood.

In the same way, the same month as Solomon’s firing, the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, was the subject of a celebrated hack that led to the release of his correspondence with a variety of Washington players, many of whom had once assumed that they, too, lived in a safe world.

“Jay and I came to the conclusion that we were both hit by the same mercenary hackers albeit hired by two different clients,” Otaiba told me this week.

Indeed, the hostility between Iran and its Gulf neighbors, and the related standoff pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia and UAE, has a way of spilling into Washington controversies, from the downfall of Brookings Institution President John Allen (investigated for having allegedly improperly done work for Qatar, a benefactor of the think tank, he was never charged but did lose his job, something that was cheered by many Beltway opponents of the emirate) to the release of emails of folks like Otaiba and Solomon (both of whom tend to be viewed with suspicion by many of Qatar’s stateside admirers and by folks in favor of rapprochement with Iran). The AP reported on Thursday that the FBI is probing an ex-CIA operative for allegedly spying on Qatar’s rivals, including U.S. figures who the emirate fears are out to damage its relationship with Washington.

Ironically, according to a researcher who has studied the increasingly prominent sorts of schemes like the one Solomon’s suit describes, the effect of all these email dumps may not be quite what their alleged sponsors hope.

“The different Gulf states at that point on different sides of the Gulf crisis, split between Qatar and some of the others, were really trying to engage in U.S. politics in a big way, because securing U.S. political support for their side of the controversy was highly valuable,” says James Shires, a senior research fellow in cybersecurity at Chatham House in London, who wrote a scholarly paper on the U.S. schemes that were publicly attributed to Gulf actors between 2016 and 2019, including the one that led to Solomon’s emails going public. “Some of the ways they tried to do this was to do hack-and-leak operations that smeared the other side. … This kind of backfired a lot. When they got third parties to do the hacking and leaking, often either PR firms or law firms, the story became about the hack-and-leak operation, not the content of the leak.”

Michael Schaffer is a senior editor at POLITICO. His Capital City column runs weekly in POLITICO Magazine.

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