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Human Rights: Agency Actions Needed to Address Harassment of Dissidents and Other Tactics of Transnational Repression in the U.S.

GAO-24-106183 Published: Oct 03, 2023. Publicly Released: Oct 03, 2023.
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Fast Facts

Transnational repression is when governments use threats or violence to silence dissenters living abroad. The 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi—a critic of Saudi Arabia—by Saudi agents in Turkey is a well-known example. But governments also use less visible tactics, like social media threats.

It can be hard to detect the foreign connection to these crimes, and victims may be afraid to report them. And U.S. law doesn't define transnational repression. So federal agencies may not understand how extensive it is in the U.S.

We recommended ways that federal agencies and Congress can enhance their understanding of this repression in the U.S. and abroad.

An image of a megaphone wrapped in barbed wire

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Foreign governments may use various tactics—from spyware to assault—to silence U.S.-based dissidents. Agencies have worked to track such incidents, generally known as transnational repression (TNR). Agencies have reported on foreign governments known to engage in TNR worldwide, some of which receive U.S. arms transfers. However, officials said that a lack of common understanding of TNR hinders efforts to fully track incidents against U.S.-based persons.

Foreign Governments that Received U.S. Arms Transfers in Fiscal Year 2017-2021 and/or Were Named as Transnational Repression Perpetrators in Reports (Issued 2022–2023)

Foreign Governments that Received U.S. Arms Transfers in Fiscal Year 2017-2021 and/or Were Named as Transnational Repression Perpetrators in Reports (Issued 2022–2023)

aDid not receive any U.S. arms transfers in fiscal year 2017-2021.

Note: For more details, see figures 2 and 4 in GAO-24-106183.

U.S. law does not specifically criminalize TNR, but agencies have used existing tools to penalize individuals for TNR against U.S.-based persons. State imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudis believed to have been engaged in acts of TNR, including the murder of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. FBI officials said gaps in U.S. law limit their ability to counter TNR, but DOJ has not developed a DOJ-wide position on the sufficiency of existing laws. Developing such a position may help Congress determine whether new legislation is needed to address TNR.

Section 6 of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA)—which prohibits arms transfers to countries that the President determines are engaged in a consistent pattern of acts of intimidation or harassment against individuals in the U.S.—offers a way to hold some governments accountable for TNR against individuals in the U.S. However, no such determinations have been made, and none of the agencies we spoke with had performed any work related to implementing the statute. Because Section 6 only requires reporting following a positive determination, it is unclear the extent to which the law has ever been considered. Amending its reporting requirement could improve visibility into how, if at all, the law is used.

Why GAO Did This Study

Recent high-profile acts of TNR against U.S.-based persons highlight TNR's threat to national security. Some advocates and members of Congress have called for more accountability for foreign governments that benefit from U.S. arms transfers yet engage in TNR against U.S.-based persons.

GAO was asked to review federal agency efforts to address TNR using available tools, including Section 6 of the AECA. This report examines the extent to which: (1) agencies have collected and analyzed information about the nature and prevalence of TNR against U.S.-based persons; (2) agencies have used available tools to hold individuals accountable for TNR against U.S.-based persons; and (3) the U.S. government has implemented Section 6 of the AECA.

GAO analyzed documents and interviewed officials from nongovernmental organizations and the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security.

Recommendations

Congress should consider amending the reporting requirement in Section 6 of the AECA to improve visibility into agency or administration decision-making regarding the implementation of the statute. GAO is also making four recommendations, including that DOJ take additional steps to enhance the common understanding of TNR and develop a department-wide position on any gaps in legislation for addressing TNR. DOJ agreed to take additional steps to enhance common understanding of TNR and said it will consider analyzing potential gaps in legislation for addressing TNR.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
If Congress wants additional visibility into considerations of determinations pursuant to Section 6 of the Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits arms transfers to any country determined to be engaged in a consistent pattern of acts of intimidation or harassment against individuals in the U.S., Congress should consider amending the reporting requirement in Section 6 to include any instances where, for example, the President (a) considered, but ultimately declined, a determination, or (b) delegated the determination to an agency. (Matter for Consideration 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Justice The Attorney General should ensure that the Assistant Attorney General of the National Security Division and the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in consultation with the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State, take additional steps to enhance understanding of transnational repression among federal agencies and state and local law enforcement agencies, such as by establishing a formal interagency definition of transnational repression or conducting additional training. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Justice The Attorney General should develop and draft a coordinated, department-wide position on any identified gaps in current legislation for addressing transnational repression and, if appropriate, submit a legislative proposal to the Office of Management and Budget in accordance with OMB Circular A-19. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Assistant Secretaries for Political-Military Affairs and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor include steps to coordinate with and collect information on transnational repression from other agencies, such as the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, in its new transnational repression-related tools and guidance to align the arms transfer decisions-making process with the 2023 Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Assistant Secretaries for Political-Military Affairs and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor include steps to coordinate with and collect information on TNR from other agencies, such as the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, in its new procedures specific to Section 6 of the Arms Export Control Act. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Full Report

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Topics

Arms transfersForeign governmentsForeign military financingForeign military salesHuman rightsNational securityNongovernmental organizationsPublic officialsForeign nationalsLegislation