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Puppet strings tied to fingers attached to an investigator. Nation-states manipulate private investigators to carry out acts of transnational repression.

Illustration by Sara Gironi Carnevale

Nation-States Leverage Outside Investigators for Transnational Repression

Something didn’t quite make sense. A private investigator was hired in 2021 to surveil a residence in New York, tasked with monitoring the house and recording anyone coming or going. The client said that the resident owed a large sum of money as part of a business deal.

But then, the client—who claimed to be based in Dubai—started asking for high-definition images that depicted the resident’s emotional state, body language, habits, and interactions. The client also asked the investigator to set up a 24/7 livestreamed video surveillance feed of the residence, which seemed unusual information to need when simply trying to collect a debt.

At this point, the investigator was approached by FBI agents, and it quickly clicked that the whole assignment was fishy.

The investigator had been misled. The client was actually a group of Iranian nationals conspiring to kidnap Brooklyn-based journalist, author, and human rights activist Masih Alinejad, who has been outspoken in her opposition to the Iranian government. Law enforcement agents charged four Iranian nationals with conspiracy related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering in 2021.

“As alleged in this indictment, the government of Iran directed a number of state actors to plot to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist and American citizen, and to conduct surveillance on U.S. soil—all with the intention to lure our citizen back to Iran as retaliation for their freedom of expression,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler, Jr., of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, in a press release. “We will use all the tools at our disposal to aggressively investigate foreign activities by operatives who conspire to kidnap a U.S. citizen just because the government of Iran didn’t approve of the victim’s criticism of the regime.”

The use of private investigators and security personnel to carry out transnational repression has increased. Nation-state actors employ these individuals to pressure activists and dissidents into remaining silent or pulling them back to their homelands.

By working for an agent of a foreign government, an investigator or security professional assumes enormous risk.

James Dennehy, special agent in charge of the FBI New York Field Office’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division, says the Bureau defines transnational repression as “intelligence agencies from foreign countries who engage in disinformation, intimidation, and even imprisonment of their dissidents that would limit their free speech as a way of protecting their own national security interests.”

Nations that engage in these activities “want to protect the regime, and free speech doesn’t exist when it comes to the regime protecting itself,” Dennehy adds. “So as a result, they target individuals who want to capitalize on their freedoms here in the United States as U.S. persons who speak out against human rights abuses or other types of ideals that the regime fosters. And because of that, the regime feels threatened, so they do their best to go after those dissidents to intimidate in order to stop them from expressing their views.”

Multiple countries engage in transnational repression, including China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and the targeted individuals are not based solely in the United States. Additional threats have been detected in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries, Dennehy says.

“The Iranians in particular and the Chinese—both have been successful in getting their hands on those dissidents, either by luring them back to their home country, forcing them back to their home country, or in some instances literally snatching them and grabbing them and putting them on a plane back to their home country,” Dennehy says. “In a few examples, the Iranians have tried and convicted those individuals, who have then been sentenced to death or sentenced to life imprisonment.”

While the scope of transnational repression efforts is currently unknown, FBI officials have noticed a commonality: the use of private security professionals to conduct in-country dirty work. Investigators are usually participating unwittingly, but that does not necessarily shield them from consequences if they do not cooperate in law enforcement investigations or if they ignore red flags.

China is the most common actor in transnational repression schemes, Dennehy says. As part of a shadowy program dubbed Operation Fox Hunt, Chinese operatives target Chinese public officials and businesspeople accused of financial crimes. The charges might be legitimate, but often they are used to focus on dissidents and whistleblowers, including those living abroad. Fugitive hunters have stalked hundreds of people since 2014 as part of this program, U.S. national security officials told ProPublica in 2021.

“Undercover repatriation teams enter the country under false pretenses, enlist U.S.-based accomplices, and relentlessly hound their targets,” ProPublica reported. “To force them into returning, authorities subject their relatives in China to harassment, jail, torture, and other mistreatment, sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the United States. In countries like Vietnam and Australia, Chinese agents have simply abducted their prey, whether the targets were dissidents or people accused of corruption. But in the United States, where such kidnappings are more difficult, Fox Hunt teams have relied mainly on coercion.”

The Fox Hunt mission to pressure targeted people into returning to China has evolved, though. The new goal is to silence critics, Dennehy says.

In July 2022, five defendants—including one federal law enforcement officer and one retired law enforcement officer—were charged with various crimes related to a transnational repression scheme on behalf of the Chinese government. The scheme targeted U.S. residents whose political views and actions are disfavored by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and it involved a plot to destroy the PRC government-critical artwork of a Chinese national living in Los Angeles, California. Defendants in the case allegedly planted surveillance equipment in the artist’s workplace and car to enable PRC agents to spy on him from China.

In another brazen case, PRC agents targeted Yan Xiong, a Chinese dissident who immigrated to America and then ran for political office in New York. U.S.-based investigators were hired to look for derogatory information on Yan, but when none was available, the investigator was instructed to manufacture something—like staging a photo of the candidate with an escort—or arrange an act of violence like a car accident or physical attack that would prevent him from running for election, The New York Times reported in March 2022.

Foreign influence in politics happens regularly, but it steps into illegal territory when agents and proxies seek to malign politicians or seek out leverage to use to change politicians’ positions on certain issues. While it was unsurprising that the PRC targeted this individual, it was unexpected to see a PRC agent threaten Yan with physical harm, Dennehy says.

In this case, the U.S.-based investigator who was hired caught on quickly and worked with the FBI to collect additional information on the case and bring charges against the PRC agent. In the case of the Chinese national artist, however, private investigators did not come forward and continued to pursue the target on their client’s orders, leading to charges against them for their alleged activities.

“The bottom line is that by working for an agent of a foreign government, an investigator or security professional assumes enormous risk,” says Don Aviv, CPP, PCI, PSP, president of investigations firm Interfor. “You run the risk of being seen as an unregistered foreign agent by accepting such an assignment, thereby violating FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act).”

An essential element to this assignment process is conducting compliance and due diligence reviews of clients, he adds. There are rules and regulations an investigator must follow when it comes to accepting jobs—including avoiding working with banned governments or people on watchlists.

Organizations can also perform ethics reviews of the client and its request—is the job a legitimate pursuit, does it have a defensible rationale, and is it ethically appropriate? For example, Aviv says a request to investigate an accused sexual harasser’s alleged victims to uncover material that could be used to discredit them in court might be legal but could be unethical.

But performing this due diligence into prospective clients is not always easy. Clients might hide their affiliation to foreign governments, and they might have strong cover stories to explain who they are targeting for surveillance and why.

“Many investigators and security professionals in the United States receive large assignments from foreign entities and governments,” Aviv says. “It’s critical to know what is permissible and what is not. Foreign agents operating illicitly often use cut-outs or other third parties to shield themselves from scrutiny and transparency. For security professionals and PIs who receive proposals to work for foreign governments or entities, it is of utmost importance that that work is not accepted directly from unregistered agents acting on behalf of ‘problematic’ governments.”

Instead, investigators should ask if a U.S.-based attorney (or one based in the investigator’s nation) is representing the client.

“We recommend only accepting such cases through well-known and experienced counsel,” Aviv adds. “Even when a Western attorney is representing the client, conduct due diligence and [know your client] to ensure they are reputable. We always walk away from cases when an attorney refuses to name their end client—which happens more than you can imagine.”

You need to know the rules of the road in all the jurisdictions in which you operate.

Next, investigators should understand the laws that apply in the country of operation and what is or is not permissible. In the case of the United States, FARA will be a key source of violations.

“You need to know the rules of the road in all the jurisdictions in which you operate,” Aviv adds.

In addition, he cautions that security professionals should constantly consider how work came their way—whether from a trusted contact, an existing relationship, or from an unknown source.

Some nation-state actors have perused tradeshow floors and professional conferences to search for potential accomplices, using these events to cultivate relationships with private investigators or security professionals they could use in transnational repression activities.

“Always have your antenna up to foreign contact as it relates to cultivating those types of relationships,” Dennehy says. Defense and government contractors are continuously warned that they are foreign targets—either for influence, information, or other purposes—when they travel or attend conferences.

“Well, guess what, PIs are now targeted individuals, too,” he adds. “In general terms, whether they are traveling on personal travel, going to a conference, going overseas to conduct presentations as a private investigator, they should in general see themselves as somewhat of a target for approach. The idea is just to have your defense up and be prepared for that type of targeting—not believe everyone who approaches you.”

Beyond some pre-contract due diligence, security and investigative professionals can also be on the lookout for some client red flags. A client’s cover story might lack details, or the request might concern foreign nationals.

“Be cautious if the case appears to involve the interests of a foreign government adverse to the interests of your government, country, or the interests of private citizens,” Aviv says. “Also, they tend to require discreet forms of communication outside of normal channels.”

Initial requests could also be incredibly basic, such as conducting a standard due diligence review or collecting some open-source data, but the client offers double the pay to accomplish the task in a short turnaround time. This too-good-to-be-true offer is not always nefarious—sometimes law firms request outside assistance for simple tasks at a higher pay scale when they need results in a hurry for a case, Aviv says—but it should be cause for caution.

“There are many people in our industry who will gladly take those assignments—‘Hey, an easy assignment for double the rate? Sure! I’ll take it,’” he adds. “But once you start building that relationship, you quickly see that the requests get a little more complex, a little bit off the reservation, or a little bit concerning.”

As another red flag, the payment for those services could come through unusual channels, such as PayPal or multiple small deposits to avoid detection or effects from sanctions, Dennehy says. The client might also ask the investigator to perform activities that border on illegal, such as installing GPS devices on a vehicle.

Investigators or security personnel who suspect potential nation-state involvement in an assignment or are dubious about a client’s intentions are strongly encouraged to contact the FBI or other law enforcement agencies.

“There’s no harm in doing that whatsoever—we’re not going to start looking into complainants who provide this information to us, and it’s not like we’re now targeting you,” Dennehy says. “Don’t be deterred from having contact with the FBI for how that might impact you and your job. This is more about us protecting the American people, whether that person was born here or eventually immigrated here from China, Russia, or anywhere else.”