In new report published by the New York Times revealed how the governments of Iran and China have been using private detectives to spy on dissidents in America.
According to the report, 71-year-old Michael Mc Keever, a private investigator in New York, received a request to track down a debtor who had fled from Dubai and was believed to be in Brooklyn. McKeever was assigned to watch a house and photograph the people coming and going. “Kindly be discreet as they are on the lookout,” he was told.
However, when McKeever started his task, the FBI warned him that his clients were “bad people and are up to no good.”
The private investigator would later learn that he had been used by Iranian intelligence agents in a suspected plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad, a prominent Iranian journalist living in New York who has openly criticized Iran’s human rights abuses, discrimination against women, and imprisonment and torture of political opponents.
According to the former head of the FBI’s counterintelligence and cyber division in New York, James E. Dennehy, the agency was “afraid they were going to look to snatch and grab her, bring her home and probably kill her.”
Throughout the U.S., investigators are hired by a new kind of client — authoritarian governments like Iran and China attempting to surveil, harass, threaten, and even repatriate dissidents living lawfully on American soil, law enforcement officials said.
Counterterrorism experts note that authoritarian governments can hire investigators in regular transactions to learn detailed information about where a person lives, phone numbers, social security numbers, and work and home addresses, providing them the knowledge to a state security apparatus. In the case of Alinejad, New York federal prosecutors filed kidnapping conspiracy charges in July 2021 against an Iran intelligence official and three associates, all in Iran. While none are likely to be arrested if they remain there, officials say the goal beyond protecting potential victims was to expose and deter plots devised at the highest levels of a foreign government.
McKeever said that after being told of Iran’s role, he secretly cooperated with the bureau, providing access to his email account. FBI officials confirmed his cooperation. McKeever has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and he continues to operate his firm.
The Chinese government has similarly used private investigators. In New York, Michael McMahon, a 55-year-old retired New York Police Department sergeant who built a second career as a private investigator, was arrested in 2020 for charges of acting as an illegal agent for the Chinese government, stalking, and two conspiracy counts. Prosecutors say he was part of an effort to coerce a Chinese citizen living in New Jersey, identified only as John Doe-1, to return to that country.
McMahon said he was stunned and had no knowledge he was working for China. “When I read the complaint against me,” he said in an email to reporters, “I became sick to my stomach. As my background shows, I committed my life to uphold the law and never have — and never would — commit a crime.”
McMahon said in an interview that in 2016, he took a job from a woman who found him through his website. He said he was led to believe she was calling for a client from China who was seeking a person in New Jersey who had stolen money from a Chinese construction company. “We need to locate that person — is that something you do?” he recalled her asking. “Yeah, that’s what I do,” said McMahon.
The private investigator said the woman claimed to own a translation company and paid him with a check in the firm’s name. He said he conducted surveillance on five occasions in New Jersey in 2016 and 2017, each time notifying local police departments that he was parked outside a residence. McMahon explained that was evidence that he had nothing to hide. He said he hired two other investigators, both retired New York police detectives, to help.
The private investigator said he was awakened early one morning in October 2020 by his dog barking and someone banging on the door of his Bergen County, NJ, house. About a dozen FBI agents and police officers had come to arrest him. According to reports, Justice Department officials said McMahon and a group of other defendants, some in China, were part of an aggressive Chinese government campaign called Operation Fox Hunt. Brooklyn federal prosecutors have said McMahon was integral to the scheme.
Justice Department prosecutors have said McMahon knew John Doe-1 was being sought by the Chinese government, conducting surveillance, and emailing himself a link to an English-language Chinese newspaper page listing the man among 100 fugitives wanted in an anti-graft campaign. Officials have also said that McMahon, in a conversation with a co-defendant, a Chinese citizen who had lived in Queens, proposed they harass John Doe-1 by parking outside his house to “let him know we are there.”
McMahon’s attorney, Lawrence S. Lustberg, said that private firms often hire investigators to locate people who are simultaneously sought by the authorities and that his client’s harassment comment was just a suggestion that they engage in more overt surveillance – which he said never occurred. Lustberg noted that his client was not allowed an opportunity to cooperate with investigators.
As ongoing protests continue in Iran and the Chinese government expands its influence outside its borders, both governments will undoubtedly have interest in continuing to crackdown on dissidents abroad, silencing any opposition, according to experts.