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Iran and China Use Private Detectives to Spy on Dissidents in America

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The U.S. investigators are hired under false pretenses by authoritarian governments to do their “dirty work,” the F.B.I. says.

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A man in a tweed driving cap sits behind a car steering wheel.

Michael McKeever, a private investigator, was unwittingly hired to watch an Iranian dissident. F.B.I. agents were watching, too.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Published Nov. 13, 2022Updated Nov. 14, 2022

The job that came in through Michael McKeever’s website was unremarkable, the kind of request he often received in his decades working as a private investigator in New York.

An international client wanted his help tracking down a debtor who had fled from Dubai and was believed to be in Brooklyn. Mr. McKeever was to surveil a house and photograph the people coming and going. “Kindly be discreet as they are on the lookout,” he was told.

Mr. McKeever and an associate began taking turns conducting the surveillance, but they failed to notice another team watching the same address. They were F.B.I. agents, and one soon got in touch with a warning.

“Your client is not who you think they are,” the agent said, according to Mr. McKeever. “These are bad people, and they’re up to no good.”

Mr. McKeever, 71, would later learn that he had been used by Iranian intelligence agents in a suspected plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad, a prominent Iranian-American journalist who has been unsparing in her criticism of Iran’s human rights abuses, discrimination against women and imprisonment and torture of political opponents.

“We were afraid they were going to look to snatch and grab her, bring her home and probably kill her,” said James E. Dennehy, the former head of the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence and cyber division in New York, who now runs the bureau’s Newark office.

Across America, investigators are increasingly being hired by a new kind of client — authoritarian governments like Iran and China attempting to surveil, harass, threaten and even repatriate dissidents living lawfully in the United States, law enforcement officials said.

Federal indictments and complaints in the past two years detail cases in which private investigators were drawn into such schemes in New York, California and Indiana, and F.B.I. officials say they believe others have been as well. Most appear to have been used unwittingly, and later cooperated with the authorities; a few, however, were charged.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a government can hire an investigator in a routine transaction to learn detailed information about a person’s residence, cellphones, Social Security number, work address — and feed that knowledge to a state security apparatus.

“It strikes me as low-cost, low-risk state-sponsored terrorism in the 21st century,” Mr. Hoffman said.

The tactic comes amid a broad wave of repression, officials said, which has included the poisonings of opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Britain and elsewhere; Saudi Arabia’s involvement in luring Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic, to its Istanbul consulate where he was brutally killed and dismembered in 2018; and Turkey’s pursuit of perceived enemies in at least 31 countries, according to a 2021 report by Freedom House, which promotes democracy globally.

In the case involving Ms. Alinejad, Manhattan federal prosecutors filed kidnapping conspiracy charges in July 2021 against an Iranian intelligence official and three associates, all in Iran. None are likely to be apprehended if they remain there, but officials said the goal, beyond protecting potential victims, was to expose and deter plots devised at the highest levels of a foreign government.

For most private eyes, daily work is far from the glamorized depictions in film and literature, with jobs originating with law firms, insurance companies and aggrieved spouses. Today, many assignments come via the internet, with no face-to-face contact.

“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,” said Wes Bearden, a Dallas-based private investigator and an officer of the World Association of Detectives, which has about 1,000 members.

Many private investigators, some with backgrounds in law enforcement, are decidedly old school. Mr. McKeever’s website bears the motto “Delivering the truth … with honesty and proof,” and lists offerings like employment background checks and “Infidelity & Matrimonial Investigation.”

That sort of street-level legwork can also provide the basis of an intelligence operation, one that foreign governments can conduct cheaply at a safe remove.

“That’s their proxy that they use here on the ground in a very natural way to do a lot of their dirty work,” the F.B.I.’s Mr. Dennehy said.

Masih Alinejad, as a journalist in Iran, had frequently exposed malfeasance and corruption, and was threatened with arrest or worse.Credit…Cole Wilson for The New York Times

In Ms. Alinejad’s case, he said, the Iranians wanted to know her emotions, her state of mind — even her body language. Was she frantically looking over her shoulder or did she seem carefree?

Mr. McKeever said that after being told of Iran’s role, he secretly cooperated with the bureau, providing access to his email account. F.B.I. officials confirmed his cooperation. Mr. McKeever has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and he continues to operate his firm.

As private investigators fall victim to the sorts of schemes they usually unearth, the F.B.I. says it has been contacting professional groups to warn them.

“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 F.B.I. counterintelligence official in New York.

Not every private eye has avoided legal trouble. 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. He faces 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.

Mr. McMahon said that he was stunned and that he had no knowledge he was working for China.

“When I read the complaint against me,” he said in an email, “I became sick to my stomach. As my background shows, I committed my life to upholding the law and never have — and never would — commit a crime.”

Michael McMahon, a private investigator accused of working for China, said he would never commit a crime and had no idea his employer was a hostile foreign government.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Mr. 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.

“‘I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I do.’”

Mr. McMahon 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. That, Mr. McMahon said, was evidence that he had nothing to hide. He said he hired two other investigators, both retired New York police detectives, to help.

Mr. McMahon said he was awakened early one morning in October 2020 by his dog barking and someone banging on the door of his Bergen County, N.J., house. About a dozen F.B.I. agents and police officers had come to arrest him.

Justice Department officials said Mr. 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 Mr. McMahon was integral to the scheme.

“After multiple months of investigative work by the defendant Michael McMahon,” the indictment says, “the co-conspirators planned a specific rendition operation to stalk and repatriate John Doe-1 through psychological coercion.”

Prosecutors have said Mr. McMahon knew John Doe-1 was being sought by the Chinese government: While conducting surveillance, he emailed himself a link to an English-language Chinese newspaper page listing the man among 100 fugitives wanted in an anti-graft campaign.

They have also said that Mr. 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.”

Mr. McMahon’s lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg, said that investigators are often hired by private firms 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.

“I have not seen one piece of evidence — not one — that Mike had any idea that he was in any way working for the Chinese government,” Mr. Lustberg said.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment.

Mr. Lustberg noted that his client also was not given an opportunity to cooperate with investigators.

“There never comes a time before his arrest,” Mr. Lustberg said, “where the federal government goes to him and says, ‘Hey, do you realize what’s going on here? You are being played by the Chinese government.’”

Iran, a theocracy facing a cresting wave of protest at home, has also been eyeing its critics abroad for years and has taken advantage of American detectives. In July 2020, Mr. McKeever received the email asking that he watch the Brooklyn home that turned out to be Ms. Alinejad’s residence.

“I am contacting you on behalf of a client looking [for] a missing person from Dubai, U.A.E., who has fled to avoid debt repayment,” wrote the sender, Kiya Sadeghi, according to the indictment.

Ms. Alinejad, as a journalist in Iran, had frequently exposed malfeasance and corruption, and was threatened with arrest or worse for writing articles critical of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Her press pass was revoked and she was forced to flee in 2009. From Brooklyn, she has remained a high-profile presence in the news media. In July, a man was arrested with a loaded AK-47-style assault rifle outside her home.

Mr. McKeever said he knew nothing about Ms. Alinejad. Mr. Sadeghi’s email said his services were needed for surveillance on a “potential address” for the missing person, according to the indictment.

“Will need high quality pictures/video of persons living in the address and cars they drive,” one email said. The client wanted “photos of faces and cars” and their license plate numbers and, “if possible picture of envelopes in mailbox,” Mr. Sadeghi wrote in another message.

To Mr. McKeever, the assignment seemed straightforward: “I thought it might be a one-day job.”

The indictment identifies Mr. Sadeghi as an Iranian intelligence agent who researched and hired investigators in the United States, Canada and Britain to procure surveillance services for Iranian intelligence.

On July 22, 2020, Mr. McKeever emailed Mr. Sadeghi to report that surveillance had begun, and attached a photograph of the home.

In August and September, he was asked for additional days of work, including pictures and video. The client also wanted “pictures of faces of everyone visiting the address, even if they are marketers and salespeople,” one email said.

“Pictures of everything and everyone,” Mr. Sadeghi wrote in another message. “Client wants lots of content even if you may think it is not of value.”

In October 2020, Mr. McKeever received the call from the F.B.I. He agreed to cooperate.

“I was like, hey, whatever you need, I’m good,” Mr. McKeever said.

Mr. McKeever said he continued to communicate with Mr. Sadeghi with full knowledge of the F.B.I., and conducted additional surveillance in early 2021. At one point, Mr. Sadeghi asked whether it was possible to park in front of the house in a car outfitted with a camera to provide a live video feed. In all, Mr. McKeever was paid just under $6,000 for his services, the indictment says.

Looking back, he does not believe he ignored obvious red flags in the repeated requests from Mr. Sadeghi. But he acknowledged that he missed clues that might have raised suspicions, like the questions he had posed to Mr. Sadeghi that never generated satisfactory answers.

For example, he said he asked for the name of the supposed debtor, so he could determine whether a person by that name lived at the Brooklyn address. He was never told. He now believes the Iranians were trying to thwart any checking he might have done on his own.

“One of the things I could have done is run a trace on that house and said, ‘Who lives here?’” Mr. McKeever recalled. “And I could have Googled that woman’s name.” If he had learned her name, he said, his reaction would have been, “‘Whoa, wait a second.’”

Ms. Alinejad, in an interview, said she was furious when she learned of the extent of the surveillance.

“Miles away from my homeland,” Ms. Alinejad said, “I’m being watched and monitored by someone who has been hired by the Iranian regime.”

According to the indictment, the plotters had researched routes from Ms. Alinejad’s home to the Brooklyn waterfront, and methods of taking her by boat to Venezuela and on to Iran.

“No question in my mind that they could have done it,” Mr. McKeever said, adding, “I’m glad that it didn’t work out.”

Over his many years as a private eye, Mr. McKeever said, he always tried to be vigilant in scrutinizing the jobs he took. He did not believe he was naïve, but he knew clients could lie. If there was a lesson for private investigators, he said, it was to be careful not to be used.

“I was used,” he said.