The Recent Increase in Federal Authorities Targeting Those with Ties to Foreign Governments
The United States government faces security risks every day, many of which are unknown to the majority of citizens. To combat the efforts of foreign governments who may attempt to undermine U.S. interests, federal law makes it illegal to act as an agent of a foreign government without first providing notice to the United States government. Thus, regardless of whether a foreign party has only the best intentions at heart, they still must register with the U.S. Attorney General and comply with all applicable U.S. laws and protocols.
The United States Department of Justice announced two multi-count indictments against several foreign parties, all alleged to have violated the federal laws pertaining to agents of foreign governments.
These cases highlight the federal government’s renewed focus on enforcing national security measures. They also make clear that anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government must take special care to comply with all current laws and regulations to avoid inadvertently running into serious legal trouble.
Former Advisor to Then-Candidate Donald Trump Indicted on Charges of Acting as Agents of the United Arab Emirates
According to a Department of Justice press release, three defendants now face a multi-count indictment stemming from their “unlawful efforts to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates.” The conduct at issue occurred prior to the 2016 election.
Evidently, the three defendants were allegedly acting at the behest of senior United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials when they unlawfully attempted to influence the foreign policy decisions of then-candidate Donald J. Trump.
The allegations in the indictment are based on one of the defendants, Joseph Barrack, abusing his friendships with those who were close to Trump. Barrack was an outside advisor to the Trump administration and sought an appointment to a senior position in the U.S. government.
The indictment alleges that the defendants used Barrack’s status as a senior outside advisor to the campaign to advance the interests of the UAE without notifying the Attorney General that their actions were taken at the direction of senior UAE officials. It is also alleged that the defendants were passing information they obtained to UEA officials.
Barrack also allegedly made false statements to FBI special agents in 2019 after consenting to an interview. Barrack and another defendant, Matthew Grimes, are U.S. citizens and are currently in custody. At the time the DOJ issued its press release, the third defendant, Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, a UAE citizen, remains at large.
In the DOJ press release, the Department clearly states, “we are putting everyone — regardless of their wealth or perceived political power — on notice that the Department of Justice will enforce the prohibition of this sort of undisclosed foreign influence.”
DOJ Indicts Nine Defendants for Acting as Illegal Agents of the People’s Republic of China
In another recent DOJ press release, the Department described the recent indictment of nine defendants, all charged with acting and conspiring to act as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the United States.
According to the indictment, the defendants were acting under the direction of senior Chinese officials when they “conducted surveillance of and engaged in a campaign to harass, stalk and coerce certain residents of the United States to return to the PRC as part of a global, concerted and extralegal repatriation effort known as Operation Fox Hunt.”
Evidently, one of the defendants, a Chinese prosecutor with the Hanyang People’s Procuratorate, came to the United States with intent to initiate the harassment campaign. He also allegedly directed one of his co-conspirators to destroy inculpatory evidence that would likely have been used in the criminal case against the defendants.
Operation Fox Hunt is a Chinese effort to bring those charged with committing financial crimes in China back to Chinese soil so they can be prosecuted. The individuals sought by the defendants were referred to in the indictment at John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1.
John Doe #1 was wanted by the Chinese government for embezzlement, abuse of power and accepting bribes. These offenses carry a maximum possible penalty of death under Chinese law. Jane Doe #1 was wanted by the PRC government for accepting bribes, carrying a maximum possible penalty of life imprisonment under PRC law.
However, foreign law enforcement agents are not exempt from the registration requirements of foreign emissaries. They must disclose the fact that they are visiting U.S. soil for the purposes of advancing another nation’s interest. It is immaterial that the defendants in this case were attempting to enforce what the defendant would claim is a valid Chinese law.
In fact, in the eyes of the DOJ, this only increased the flagrancy of the purported violation. According to one of the lead DOJ prosecutors, “law enforcement officials around the world act according to a professional code of conduct… They act to enforce the law, not to violate it in such an egregious manner. That a prosecutor and police officer not only directed and participated in a criminal scheme on U.S. soil but then attempted to cover it up, is an affront to justice of the highest order.”
The indictment also outlines other specific acts allegedly carried out by the defendants, including:
Traveling to the United States and directing non-official operatives in the United States to engage in violations of U.S. criminal law, in an effort to repatriate two individuals who the PRC government had identified as fugitives;
Traveling to the United States to direct others to engage in unsanctioned and illegal conduct on behalf of the PRC to coerce the targeted victims to return to the PRC; and
Transporting John Doe #1’s elderly father from the PRC to the United States to convey a threat that John Doe #1’s family in the PRC would be harmed if he did not return to the PRC.
Delivering a note to John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1 explaining, “If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be alright. That’s the end of this matter!”
These efforts, according to the Department of Justice, were flagrant violations of federal law, extradition policies, and the general agreement between the U.S. and the PRC.
Parties Intending to Advance a Foreign Government’s Interests Must Register with the U.S. Attorney General
Any party, regardless of their residence or country of citizenship, must inform the U.S. government if they are working under the direction of a foreign country. Federal criminal defense lawyer Nick Oberheiden weighed in on the two recent DOJ indictments:
In each of these cases, the underlying conduct was at least arguably illegal under United States law. However, even if a party intends to conduct above-board business in the United States that is intended to advance the interests of a foreign country, they must register with the U.S. Attorney General. Failure to register with the Attorney General may serve as the basis for criminal charges. And, in the event that the underlying conduct is illegal, failing to register with the U.S. government will only add to the charges and potentially make the government’s case that much stronger.
Given the federal government’s recent emphasis on enforcing national security interests related to those carrying out business on behalf of foreign countries, anyone working with a foreign government should take all necessary precautions to ensure they are protected. If a party has any doubt that they should register with the U.S. Attorney General, it is better to be safe and consult with a federal defense lawyer than to take the chance of running afoul of the law.