On Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2023, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on transnational repression showing how authoritarian regimes are using this tactic to silence critics more and more in the United States and abroad. The worst part? It’s not even a crime in the United States.
The horror stories of transnational repression abroad — not the least of which was the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia ordering the brutal murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018 — have made front-page headlines. But, as the GAO report lays out, transnational repression is no longer just happening on foreign soil. Authoritarian regimes have begun exporting their repression to the United States.
For example, in April 2023, two men were arrested in New York City for operating what a Department of Justice official described as a Chinese illegal overseas police station “to aid its efforts to export repression and subvert our rule of law.” In 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) thwarted an Iranian plot to kidnap an Iranian journalist and activist critical of the autocratic Iranian regime, using a high-speed boat to transport her from Brooklyn to Venezuela and, ultimately, Iran. And it’s not just America’s adversaries. Purported “friends” of the United States have also been engaging in transnational repression on American soil, like Saudi Arabia hiring Twitter employees to spy on users critical of the Kingdom.
These cases — all of which led to FBI indictments — and the GAO report make clear that the US government is recognizing the problem of transnational repression and is using other laws to punish acts of transnational repression. Unfortunately, these efforts are hamstrung by the lack of a government-wide definition of what transnational repression is and, most importantly, how to prevent it and punish the perpetrators of it. In fact, the GAO report notes that “As of July 2023, no government-wide definition of transnational repression was established either by agencies or through legislation,” and “no US law specifically criminalizes transnational repression.” The only legislation that has been introduced in Congress that would have criminalized transnational repression was not even voted on.
Combating Transnational Repression
This scattershot approach to combating transnational repression has led to worrying gaps in the US government’s ability to respond to it. Most notably, the FBI informed the GAO that it has limited ability to address surveillance of US citizens by foreign powers and faces geographic limitations as most transnational repression perpetrators are overseas, where the FBI has limited reach. These are both notable vulnerabilities as these repressive regimes turn more and more to using social media platforms to criticize and intimidate their critics.
In my personal experience, it is rare to speak with a journalist seeking comment about Saudi Arabia or the UAE’s influence in the United States on open channels out of fear that these regimes would spy on our communications. Many are even skeptical of encrypted channels, and several go a step further, insisting that we meet in person without any electronic devices present.
US government officials, journalists, and even civil society groups whose work involves these authoritarian regimes are often the targets of these foreign surveillance schemes. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Israel have reportedly used the Pegasus software program to spy on thousands of regime critics, including activists and journalists in the United States. In my personal experience, it is rare to speak with a journalist seeking comment about Saudi Arabia or the UAE’s influence in the United States on open channels out of fear that these regimes would spy on our communications. Many are even skeptical of encrypted channels, and several go a step further, insisting that we meet in person without any electronic devices present.
Fortunately, the FBI and other US government agencies are aware of these limitations and are looking to do something about it. The GAO report indicates that the FBI is eager to work with Congress to resolve these limitations on its ability to punish acts of transnational repression, and government agencies are already working together to develop a “whole of government” approach to transnational repression.
Outside of government, Freedom House, a DC-based think tank, has worked extensively on the issue of transnational repression. A 2022 report on the topic laid out a number of policy recommendations governments, civil society groups, and social media companies can adopt to combat transnational repression. These recommendations include passing a bill like the Foreign Advanced Technology Surveillance Accountability Act that would crack down on foreign powers using surveillance as a tool of transnational repression and recommending that the United States restrict security assistance for states engaging in transnational repression.
Congress Needs to Take Transnational Repression Seriously
Ultimately, transnational repression is the most malign form of foreign influence. But, it’s critical to understand that the goals of transnational repression are not dissimilar from many other forms of foreign influence in America. Whether it’s through lobbyists, think tanks, sports, or even Hollywood, foreign powers spend billions to launder their reputations in the United States and, ultimately, to mold US foreign policy in their favor. This can lead to disastrous US foreign policy decisions like support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Yemen war and the current proposal for a US-Saudi security pact that could force US soldiers to risk their lives defending the despotic crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
The stakes could not be higher, which is why Congress should pass laws like the Stop Transnational Repression Act and the Foreign Advanced Technology Surveillance Accountability Act, which would give government agencies the tools they need to recognize and criminalize transnational repression in the United States and abroad.