China, Iran use private investigators to spy on, oppress US dissidents

China and Iran have a history of setting up espionage networks in the US, often focusing on national security targets or on individual dissidents. 

 Private investigator (Illustrative). (photo credit: PEXELS)
Private investigator (Illustrative).
(photo credit: PEXELS)

Authoritarian regimes like Iran and China have found a new way to spy on dissidents living abroad in Western democracies like the US: Hiring private detectives.

This information, first reported in The New York Times, builds off several previous instances and reports on how Tehran and Beijing have used private investigators to reach across the world and have access to dissident voices against their regimes.

China and Iran have a history of setting up espionage networks in the US, often focusing on national security targets or on individual dissidents. 

How China has used private investigators to spy on, silence, and repatriate dissidents in the US

China in particular has been accused of trying to access American technology and push Chinese interests in the US.

However, there is also an apparent concerted effort to try and silence dissenting voices, even in the US.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security emblem is pictured at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) located just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia September 24, 2010. (credit: REUTERS)U.S. Department of Homeland Security emblem is pictured at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) located just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia September 24, 2010. (credit: REUTERS)

In one example from July 2022, Department of Homeland Security employee Craig Miller and retired DHS agent turned private investigator Derrick Taylor were arrested and charged by the US Justice Department for their role in a Chinese plot of "transnational repression" to silence dissidents.

This was made possible by Taylor allegedly spying on dissidents and gathering and disseminating negative information gained from law enforcement databases.

"As alleged, this case involves a multifaceted campaign to silence, harass, discredit and spy on US residents for exercising their freedom of speech – aided by a current federal law enforcement officer and a private investigator who provided confidential information about US residents from a restricted law enforcement database, and when confronted about their improper conduct, lied and destroyed evidence," United States Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement

For many dissidents, the fear of spies from their home country finding ways to monitor them even in the US is a real fear. 

"We operate under the assumption that no secret can be kept from the Chinese Communist Party, except maybe very sensitive ones," explained Queens-based Chinese American dissident and pro-democracy activist Chuangchuang Chen, according to ProPublica.

This isn't even the first time China would try to make use of locally-sourced private investigators for their espionage, whether these PIs knew about it or not.

In fact, this is part of Beijing's Operation Fox Hunt, ostensibly an anti-corruption initiative but which has been alleged for nearly seven years to be a scheme to target Chinese dissidents overseas and even force them to return back to China.

How Iran used private investigators to spy on, attempt to kidnap US dissidents

In another case from July 2021, Iranian nationals were indicted on a plot to try and kidnap Iranian dissident journalist and human rights activist Masih Alinejad living in the Brooklyn. This was also done with the help of private investigators, who gathered information that they would use for their planned kidnapping.

In this case, one of the private investigators hired by Iranian intelligence, 71-year-old Michael McKeever, was simply told that he was to monitor a woman identified as a missing person from Dubai who fled to avoid paying back debt, as described by The New York Times.

However, upon being contacted by the FBI, McKeever cooperated with US law enforcement, which helped lead to the Iranian operatives involved being arrested and the kidnapping thwarted, according to The New York Times.

But these cases are just the ones we know about. In fact, it is fairly easy for authoritarian regimes to use private investigators as a cheap and low-risk option for their actions. Making this worse is that with how much of the job is done over computers rather than face-to-face and an emphasis on discretion, investigators may find it hard to know exactly who their clients are. As private investigator Wes Bearden explained to The New York Times, "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."