Transnational Repression is Coming to a Town Near You

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.

Read the full piece in Inkstick Media.