How the government coerces people into becoming spies

However law-abiding a person we think we are, there are myriad laws on the books that all of us unwittingly break every single day. We are all secretly felons. Most of us go through life without being aware of this or prosecuted for our ‘offenses’ but that picture changes if for some reason the government wants you to doing something for them. Then they can use the threat of prosecution to coerce you into agreeing.

At The Intercept Johnny Dwyer tells the story of Ahmad Sheikhzadeh, a 62-year old Iranian-American academic who “lived alone in a small West Village rental, practiced yoga, attended lectures with friends, and conducted research at New York University’s labyrinthine Bobst Library.” But that quiet life ended the day when FBI agents confronted him. What brought him to attention of the FBI were the weekly meetings he attended at Iran’s Mission to the United Nations where he worked as a consultant, “an outside political analyst who crafted weekly reports collating news stories and provided in-person briefings for Iranian officials at the Mission.”

The FBI agents told him that there was a secret sealed indictment against him in the Eastern District of New York but were willing to offer him a deal if he “cooperated” with the government. What did the cooperation entail? That he spy on the people at the Iranian mission. Sheikhzadeh refused to be a spy, saying that his goal was to help Iranians and Americans live in peace.

When Sheikhzadeh refused, he was charged with falsifying his tax returns, followed by other, more serious accusations, including money laundering and conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran..

‘Tax fraud’ of course can mean anything that is false on one’s tax returns and who can guarantee that their returns are error free? The charge of violating US sanctions on Iran is another catch-all offense that is meant to prevent trade and large-scale business dealings but can be used against anyone with Iranian connections who happens to send money there, which is what Sheikhzadeh had done.

The book the government eventually threw at Sheikhzadeh made for light reading. Relative to other recent sanctions cases in New York, the sums involved in his case are minuscule: nearly $172,000 in unreported income and $187,200 transferred to Iran in violation of sanction over five years. (Sheikhzadeh’s attorney says that the transactions were for “family friends” and included money for medical expenses and for a friend to expand a dental practice in Iran; he denies receiving any fees for the transfers, which the government provided no evidence of.)

SANCTIONS PROSECUTIONS ARE inherently political. Charging decisions are approved not by the local U.S. attorney, but also the National Security Division at the Justice Department in Washington. And politics often determine a defendant’s fate in such cases. “When the defendant goes along with the politics,” said Sabrina Shroff, a federal public defender who has represented clients accused of sanctions violations involving Iran, Russia, and China, they often get a reduced sentence at the government’s request. “When politics and the defendant part ways, the defendant is prosecuted as though he were a political agent of the foreign country.

In November 2016, Sheikhzadeh accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to two of the seven counts in his indictment: falsifying his tax return, and violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act that governs the Iran sanctions regime.

Shortly before he was sentenced, Sheikzadeh read a prepared statement. His voice rose in anger as he said he was being punished because he had refused to become an FBI informant, even under threat of prosecution.

“I refused to secretly spy,” he said, “because my honor meant more to me than my freedom.”

His prosecution was political, he said, an extension of the bitter rivalry between the nation of his birth and the one where he’d chosen to spend his life.

“Can any other inference be drawn?” he asked the judge. “Is there any other reasonable conclusion?”

On Friday, a federal judge in Brooklyn sentenced Sheikhzadeh to three months for tax fraud and sanctions violations. The sentence was an unusually public rebuke of an unsuccessful covert operation.

If the government wants to, it can put the screws on anyone. That is why they constantly seek greater warrantless surveillance powers, so that they can amass more data on every detail of your life, knowing that however honest you are, you will do something embarrassing or commit some offense that they can use against you.


  1. says

    The FBI is great at catching terrorists: they create them, then catch them.

    This sort of garbage has been going on for years. In the hacking and terrorism circles, it’s worst -- FBI actually flipped a hacker who ran an entire hacking collective [stderr] and pointed him at other countries’ police department networks. Then, they arrested the rest of the hackers in his crew.

    I’m not gonna say “Gestapo-like tactics” because the Gestapo wasn’t actually that bad. They were bad, for sure, just not FBI bad.

  2. says

    Why does anyone live there? Anyone who can afford to leave that is.

    I’m used to it, and I have a very nice set-up here. What I don’t understand is why the majority of Americans put up with it; it’s complete abusive bullshit and they appear to have been so successfully propagandized to accept it that it doesn’t occur to them to do the pitchforks and torches thing.

  3. says

    @sonofrojblake No. 2

    I can think of a number of reasons, but these two most likely top the list:

    1. Inertia.
    2. White privilege.

    To help us not feel so bad about nos. 1 and 2, I suspect that a number of people pretend to be the opposition fighting the good fight, but really not so much.


  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 sonofrojblake
    The question I have always had was why would any black male stay there. I’d be applying for refuge status.

    Heck, we are racist but the change of getting gunned down even if Black is pretty low.

  5. Mobius says

    I remember commenting when I was in the Air Force that if the powers that be wanted to get you, they could. There were far too many petty regulations for anyone to follow all of them.

    The Air Force had these cheap ballpoint pens, black with U.S. Government stamped on them. Everyone would pick one up now and then and carry them around. One airman that was being problematic, but hadn’t quite crossed the line into doing something really bad was charged with “misuse of government property” for signing a personal check with one of these pens.

    Another petty regulation concerned wearing your uniform off duty. One could be charged for gassing up your car on the way to or from work while still in uniform. Everyone did it, and as far as I know no one was ever charged with breaking the regulation, but it was on the books.

    These are just two examples of the many, many petty regulations.

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