(WASHINGTON) — Just a day after the Justice Department announced a series of indictments targeting the Chinese government’s alleged efforts to intimidate dissidents living in the U.S., senior FBI officials on Wednesday raised alarm about what they described as an “inflection point” in authoritarian regimes seeking to engage in similar acts of so-called “transnational repression” in America and other countries.
“We are really trying to emphasize this moment in time because … we have really seen an inflection point in the tactics and tools and the level of risk and the level of threat that has changed over the past few years,” a senior FBI counterintelligence official said in a background call with reporters.
The officials pointed to what they said were a number of recent cases with countries like China and Iran engaging in increasingly brazen attempts to intimidate or harass critics of their regimes inside the U.S.
In addition to the three indictments unsealed earlier this week that detailed, among other acts, how the U.S. says Chinese security officials had set up a “police station” in New York City that was allegedly used to spy on or intimidate Chinese dissidents — the FBI officials also pointed to a growing trend where officials in China and Iran have utilized private investigators inside the U.S. to spy on some of their countries’ most vocal critics.
China has called the U.S. accusations “groundless.”
The Justice Department earlier this year charged three men in an alleged murder-for-hire plot targeting Iranian American journalist Masih Alinejad, even after prosecutors the previous year exposed what they said was an Iranian plot to kidnap Alinejad that had utilized the services of a network of private investigators in the U.S.
And last year, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn unveiled charges against five people accused of acting as agents of China’s secret police for allegedly stalking critics of the People’s Republic of China. One of the men charged allegedly used a private investigator to try and dig up compromising information on a candidate for Congress in New York who was a former Tiananmen Square protester.
“A lot of these are new tactics and lines that are being crossed that we have not seen China and Iran do on U.S. soil in previous investigations,” one official said.
While the officials declined to characterize the number of transnational repression investigations currently ongoing, they said the recent ratcheting up in activity to target dissidents abroad appears more broadly to be “part of the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that has increased over the last few years.”
The officials said they are urging other members of dissident or diaspora communities who may have experienced similar harassment or intimidation to contact the FBI and visit the bureau’s website, where there is a threat intimidation guide that has been translated into over 60 languages that can help guide victims to the resources that are available to them.
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