Private investigators throughout the United States are increasingly being hired, most often under false pretenses, by authoritarian governments such as Iran and China trying to surveil, threaten and even repatriate dissidents who are living lawfully in the United States, The New York Times reported on Sunday.
Law enforcement officials told the newspaper that over the past two years federal indictments and complaints have detailed numerous cases in which private investigators, mostly unwittingly, were drawn into such schemes in several states.
Many of these assignments come via the internet, with no face-to-face contact of any kind, said Wes Bearden, a Dallas-based private investigator and an officer of the World Association of Detectives, who explained to the Times that "if you've got somebody on the other side – an intelligence professional who can lie and create smoke and mirrors – sometimes it's hard to vet those clients correctly."
The FBI says it has been getting in touch with professional groups to warn them about these schemes.
"The more we can draw attention to it, the more we hope private investigators and others will learn to spot these red flags," said Roman Rozhavsky, an FBI counterintelligence official in New York.
The tactic comes amid a wave of repression by several foreign countries, officials said, including the poisoning of opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin; Saudi Arabia's luring in 2018 of Jamal Khasboggi, a journalist and prominent critic of its regime, to its Istanbul consulate where he was brutally killed and dismembered; and Turkey going after perceived enemies in at least 31 nations.
Although most of the American private investigators involved in these operations appear to have been used unwittingly, and later cooperated with the authorities when they were informed what was happening; a few, however, were charged.
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