China, Iran Recruiting ‘Pawns’ to Target Critics in US, Intelligence Agencies Warn

China, Iran Recruiting ‘Pawns’ to Target Critics in US, Intelligence Agencies Warn
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting at the Diaoyutai state guest house in Beijing, China on December 31, 2019. (Noel Celis-Pool/Getty Images)
Samantha Flom

China, Iran, and other repressive foreign governments are targeting their critics in the United States and recruiting “pawns” to help facilitate their schemes, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.

In a new bulletin titled “Don’t Be a Pawn of Repressive Foreign Governments,” the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) and the FBI warn individuals and organizations in the U.S. with access to personal data to be wary of “improper” efforts to obtain that information or other forms of support for “malicious foreign operations.”

“Foreign intelligence entities (FIEs) and elements working on behalf of repressive regimes have sought to use U.S.-based persons to facilitate their efforts to threaten or harm perceived critics and opponents in the United States,” notes the bulletin, which the NCSC shared via Twitter on March 28. “For instance, FIEs from the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and other nations have used U.S.-based persons to conduct surveillance against and collect personal information on individuals their regimes were targeting in the United States.”

One example the agencies provide is an incident that occurred in mid-2020, when Iranian intelligence officials employed a private investigator as part of a foiled plot to kidnap a critic of Iran from the United States.

More recently, in February 2022, the agencies noted that an individual—who was later charged as acting as an illegal agent of the Chinese regime—engaged the help of local U.S. law enforcement and a private investigator in an effort to forcibly repatriate targets of the Chinese Communist Party to China.

In addition to law enforcement and private investigators, other “pawns” malign actors might seek to recruit include social media employees and members of local diaspora communities, the agencies advised.

“Knowingly helping an FIE to target individuals in the United States could not only be illegal, but could also result in direct, physical, and emotional harm to targeted victims,” the bulletin warns, urging individuals to be wary of those soliciting others’ personal information and to report suspicious activity to their local FBI office.

Chinese Communist Threat

The new bulletin comes nearly two months after the U.S. government shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the Atlantic coast and amid increasing concerns over the security risks of TikTok, a popular Chinese-owned social media app.

At a March 23 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, TikTok CEO Chew Shou Zi attempted to distance TikTok’s parent company, the Chinese technology firm ByteDance, from the Chinese regime.

“ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said. “It is not owned or controlled by any government or state entity.”

But neither Republicans nor Democrats were convinced.

“Under PRC [People’s Republic of China] law, all Chinese companies, including TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, are ultimately required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services, should they be called upon to do so,” Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) noted in a joint statement following the hearing. “Nothing we heard from Mr. Chew today assuaged those concerns.”

Defending Democracy

Speaking Tuesday ahead of the 2023 Summit for Democracy, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco addressed the Justice Department’s role in defending against malicious plots from hostile governments, which she said aimed to “undermine the rule of law and subvert democracy.”
“Repressive regimes—including those in Iran, China, and Russia—are not satisfied with crushing dissent in their own cities and countrysides,” Monaco said in prepared remarks. “Instead, they are extending their authoritarian reach across the globe—including to our shores—to suppress dissidents and critics, who are exercising their fundamental rights to speak freely and to organize politically.”

As evidence, Monaco cited such recent schemes as an Iranian “murder-for-hire” plot targeting a prominent critic of the Iranian regime and the Chinese regime’s efforts to surveil democracy activists and undermine the U.S. congressional candidacy of a military veteran who led the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

“As alleged, these brazen acts of transnational repression violate U.S. law; they infringe on our sovereignty; and perhaps most critically, they are an attack on our most fundamental values,” Monaco said. “Make no mistake: we will use every tool to expose the repressive tactics of autocratic regimes and force their agents to answer for their unlawful behavior. And we will support our allies and partners in doing the same.”

Samantha Flom is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering U.S. politics and news. A graduate of Syracuse University, she has a background in journalism and nonprofit communications. Contact her at [email protected].