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. [Continue reading…]