It began with a meeting in New York in September 2016 between the future national-security adviser Michael Flynn and Turkish government officials, in which they discussed kidnapping an exiled cleric and turning him over to Ankara. A curious op-ed followed, in which Flynn alleged that the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, led a “dangerous sleeper terror network” and needed to be extradited. U.S. prosecutors soon took notice, and Flynn and two of his business associates were ultimately revealed to have been on a foreign government’s payroll in 2016, lobbying against the interests of the United States—and to have tried to cover it up when they got caught, according to court documents filed on Monday.
All three men, Flynn, Bijan Kian, and Ekim Alptekin, have now been targeted by the Justice Department for running afoul of either the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) or 18 U.S.C. 951—laws that were once rarely prosecuted but have proved useful to prosecutors investigating the foreign-influence campaigns that permeated the United States in 2016 and beyond.
The uptick in charges related to violations of FARA and 951, which criminalize acting in the United States as a foreign agent without notifying the government, reflects a surge in these prosecutions, legal experts told me. Russia’s interference in the election, combined with a Justice Department inspector-general report published in 2016 outlining how FARA was being “underutilized” as a counterintelligence tool, has resulted in a strategic shift in how the department chooses to hold unregistered foreign agents accountable.