Federal Authorities are Targeting Individuals with Ties to Foreign Governments
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently issued two press releases highlighting cases against U.S. citizens and foreign nationals charged with acting as (or conspiring to act as) agents of foreign governments in the United States. It appears that several similar cases may be pending, and this could currently be among the top priorities at the DOJ, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and other federal law enforcement agencies.
The two cases highlighted in the DOJ’s press releases are notable for several reasons, from the nature of the alleged criminal conduct to the ways in which federal prosecutors have chosen to pursue charges against the defendants. These will be important cases to watch, as the outcomes of these cases could prove instructive for how similar cases will be handled in the future.
Former Advisor to Then-Candidate Trump Among Three Defendants Indicted on Charges of Acting as Agents of the UAE
On July 20, 2021, the DOJ announced a seven-count indictment against three defendants charged with acting as agents of the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The alleged activity took place in 2016 and 2018, and involved access to then Presidential candidate Trump (the press release refers to, “a candidate who was eventually elected President”). According to the DOJ, the defendants engaged in a series of criminal acts “at the direction of senior UAE officials” in an effort to:
“[Influence] the foreign policy positions of the campaign of a candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and, subsequently, the foreign policy positions of the U.S. government in the incoming administration, as well as . . . influence public opinion in favor of UAE interests.”
These alleged acts began during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign and continued through 2018. One of the defendants, Joseph Barrack, is also accused of making false statements to FBI special agents in 2019 after agreeing to speak with them voluntarily. Barrack and another defendant, Matthew Grimes, are U.S. citizens and have been taken into custody. At the time the DOJ issued its press release, the third defendant, Rashid Sultan Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi of the UAE, remained at large.
The DOJ’s press release details a long list of allegations against Barrack, Grimes, and Alshahhi. Some of the most-notable allegations include:
- “The defendants repeatedly capitalized on Barrack’s friendships and access to a candidate who was eventually elected President, high-ranking campaign and government officials, and the American media to advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true allegiances.”
- “[T]he defendants, using their positions of power and influence in a presidential election year, engaged in a conspiracy to illegally advance and promote the interests of the United Arab Emirates in this country, in flagrant violation of their obligation to notify the Attorney General of their activities and in derogation of the American people’s right to know when a foreign government seeks to influence the policies of our government and our public opinion.”
- “[I]n May 2016, Barrack inserted language praising the UAE into a campaign speech to be delivered by the candidate about U.S. energy policy in May 2016 and emailed an advance draft of the speech to Alshahhi for delivery to senior UAE officials.”
- “[T]hroughout 2016 and 2017, the defendants sought and received direction and feedback, including talking points, from senior UAE officials in connection with national press appearances Barrack used to promote the interests of the UAE.”
- “Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the defendants repeatedly acted at the direction of UAE officials to influence the foreign policy positions of the incoming administration in favor of UAE interests. For example, in December 2016, Barrack attended a meeting with Grimes, Alshahhi and senior UAE government officials, during which he advised them to create a “wish list” of U.S. foreign policy items that the UAE wanted accomplished . . . .”
- “In March 2017, Barrack and his co-defendants agreed to promote the candidacy of an individual favored by senior UAE officials for the position of U.S. Ambassador to the UAE. In May 2017, Barrack agreed to provide Alshahhi with non-public information about the views and reactions of senior U.S. government officials following a White House meeting between senior U.S. officials and senior UAE officials.”
- “In September 2017, Alshahhi communicated with Barrack about the opposition of the UAE to a proposed summit at Camp David to address an ongoing dispute between the State of Qatar, the UAE and other Middle Eastern governments, after which Barrack sought to advise the President of the United States against holding the Camp David summit. The summit never happened.”
Each of the defendants is facing multiple felony charges; and, if convicted, faces the potential for decades of federal imprisonment as well as substantial criminal fines.
DOJ Secures Indictment of Nine Defendants Charged with Acting as Illegal Agents of the People’s Republic of China
On July 22, 2021, the DOJ announced the indictments of nine individuals charged with acting and conspiring to act as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the United States. The defendants have also been charged with interstate and international stalking, and two of the defendants are facing additional charges for obstructing and conspiring to obstruct justice.
The case stems from allegations that the defendants, some of whom resided in China and some of whom resided in the United States, “acted at the direction and under the control of PRC government officials, 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 . . . .” The DOJ alleges that the defendants conducted these activities in violation of U.S. federal law by, among other things, failing to register with the U.S. Attorney General and failing adhere to U.S. laws and protocols regarding repatriation of foreign nationals (referred to as John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1) residing on U.S. soil.
Among other specific acts, the DOJ’s press release alleges that the defendants:
- “[T]raveled to the United States and directed 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.
- “[T]raveled to the United States and directed other[s] to engage in unsanctioned and illegal conduct on behalf of the PRC to coerce the targeted victims to return to the PRC.”
- “[Transported] John Doe #1’s elderly father from the PRC to the United States to convey a threat to John Doe #1 that his family in the PRC would be harmed if he did not return to the PRC.”
The defendants are individually facing multiple charges for acting as agents of the PRC, stalking, obstruction of justice, and other crimes. If convicted, they face similar sentences to the defendants charged in the UAE case discussed above.
When Is It Illegal to Act as an Agent of a Foreign Government in the U.S.
There is nothing inherently illegal about acting as an agent of a foreign government on U.S. soil. In fact, it happens all the time. The White House, Members of Congress, and other government offices and officials routinely host foreign leaders and other foreign nationals who are in the United States expressly for the purpose of discussing their countries’ agendas.
However, cases such as those discussed above present obvious national security concerns; and, it is for this reason that the types of conduct alleged in these cases are prohibited. It is also for this reason that FBI officials and DOJ prosecutors take these types of cases extremely seriously. The language used in the DOJ’s press releases makes this clear. For example, the July 22 press release quotes Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis as stating, “As alleged, the defendants, acting as agents of the PRC, carried out an illegal and clandestine campaign to harass and threaten targeted U.S. residents in order to force them to return to the PRC . . . . Unregistered, roving agents of a foreign power are not permitted to engage in secret surveillance of U.S. residents on American soil, and their illegal conduct will be met with the full force of U.S. law.”
When acting as agents of foreign governments in the United States, U.S. citizens and foreign nationals alike must register with the U.S. Attorney General and comply with all applicable U.S. laws and protocols. For official State visits, this is done as a matter of course. However, when foreign interests seek to have individuals act in the U.S. without invitation or authorization, their failure to strictly adhere to all legal requirements can lead to prosecution (and substantial penalties) for all individuals involved.
Contact the Senior Federal Defense Lawyers at Oberheiden P.C.
The senior federal defense lawyers and defense consultants at Oberheiden P.C. bring decades of DOJ and FBI experience to advising U.S. citizens and foreign nationals with regard to federal criminal matters. If you are in need of legal representation, you can call 888-680-1745 or contact us confidentially online for a complimentary consultation.
Dr. Nick Oberheiden, founder of Oberheiden P.C., focuses his litigation practice on white-collar criminal defense, government investigations, SEC & FCPA enforcement, and commercial litigation.