On Jan. 23, protesters gathered outside the U.S. District Court in Washington to demand the release of Marzieh Hashemi, a longtime television anchor in Iran. The 59-year-old had been picked up by FBI agents at St. Louis Lambert International Airport and detained for 10 days without being charged with a crime. Outrage had mounted after unconfirmed reports from her employer, Press TV, alleged that she had been brutally shackled and had her hijab ripped off, and that she had been denied halal food in jail.
Later that day, Hashemi was released from federal custody. Upon her return to Iran, she was greeted by cheering crowds who handed her flowers and held up their phones to snap photographs. But the reason for her confinement remained a mystery. Court documents indicated only that Hashemi, who was born in the United States, had been held on a rare material-witness warrant, indicating prosecutors needed her testimony for a grand jury investigation and believed she was likely to flee.
One possible explanation emerged on Wednesday, when authorities revealed that a grand jury had brought espionage charges against Monica Elfriede Witt, a former Air Force counterintelligence specialist who defected to Iran in 2013. Witt, a native of Texas, had been trained in Farsi after joining the Air Force in 1997 and quickly rose to a position that gave her access to some of the military’s most tightly guarded secrets. At some point, her loyalties shifted. The newly unsealed indictment alleges that the 39-year-old shared highly classified information with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and helped Iranian hackers to carry out spear phishing attacks that targeted her former colleagues.
The indictment details Witt’s frequent communications with Individual A, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who allegedly was assisting Iranian intelligence services. Prosecutors allege that in June 2012, Individual A hired Witt to work as her assistant on an anti-American propaganda film that later aired in Iran. As The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky reported, Iran’s Press TV published an interview a few months later in which someone by the name of Monica Witt claims to be a former Defense Department consultant and is quoted talking about a “boy’s club atmosphere” and rampant sexual harassment in the U.S. military.
Officials declined to say whether Hashemi is the dual national described in the indictment as Individual A, but the two women’s stories have a strikingly similar trajectory: Both grew up in the United States, then later made the unusual choice to shift their allegiances to Iran’s repressive government.
Witt’s reasons for defecting are more opaque. Prosecutors say that she grew disillusioned with the United States over time, and Jay Tabb, the FBI’s executive assistant director for national security, told The Post that her motive appeared to be “ideological.” According to the indictment, she converted to Islam in a ceremony that was broadcast on Iranian television, and she publicly spoke out against the U.S. government while identifying herself as a veteran in a video.
Hashemi, who could not be reached for comment, has spoken at length over the years about her support for Iran’s theocratic government. Born Melanie Franklin in 1959, she grew up in an African American household in segregated New Orleans and was raised Protestant. In a talk that she gave at a Muslim students’ convention in Phoenix in December, she recalled that she attended an all-black school for first grade, before court-ordered desegregation prompted her mother to enroll her in a predominantly white elementary school where she was the only student of color. She later studied journalism and worked at the student-run radio station at Louisiana State University, where, once again, she was a minority on campus.
“I was told many things — that I didn’t belong there,” she said. “But I was able to excel.”
At LSU, where many of the buildings on campus were named after Confederate leaders and an overwhelming majority of students on campus were white, she stood out as a pioneer. “The time we were in school was less than 25 years from LSU being an all-white school,” Jim Engster, a public radio host in Baton Rouge who worked alongside her at the station, told the Associated Press. “So Melanie was a trailblazer too as a black female journalist. There were a few others but not many.”
Her time there coincided with the 1979 Islamic revolution, which reverberated on campus as Iranian students held rallies in support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who supplanted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the country’s authoritarian leader.
“Spurred by the overthrow of the Shah and his regime, Iranian students shed their ski masks and stage several demonstrations protesting what one editorial describes as ‘the painful reality of U.S. domination and exploitation of . . . Iran,’” a caption in the 1979 edition of the Gumbo, LSU’s yearbook, read. The following year, Louisiana’s legislature voted to bar Iranian students from attending state universities.
In a 2010 interview with Iran’s Mashregh News, Hashemi recalled that the pro-revolution protests had piqued her curiosity, and that she had felt herself drawn to Khomeini, a firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric. “I was a Protestant, and for years I was not satisfied with my religion,” she said in Farsi. “From the age of 13, I had some questions, and I felt I did not get the answer to my questions.” Her conversations with Iranian student-activists inspired her to convert to Islam at 22, and she began going by Marzieh, a traditional Persian name. After marrying an Iranian man who had come to the United States as a student, she took on his last name, Hashemi.
The couple moved to Iran together, and Hashemi acquired dual citizenship. In a 2016 interview with an Iranian website, she cited her support of the Islamic revolution as a reason for the move, but also noted she had struggled to find a job in television in the United States as a veiled Muslim woman. No potential employers had said outright that her choice to wear the hijab had influenced their decision, she said, but she was offered “various excuses” about why they couldn’t hire her.
In 1991, the Associated Press profiled Hashemi as part of a story about U.S.-born women who chose to live in Iran. By then 31 and fluent in Farsi, she was making a living by giving private English lessons to Iranians who hoped to attend American or British universities. Hashemi told the interviewer that Iranians reacted to her presence in the country with wonder and surprise.
“Twelve years after the revolution, many Iranians still have an image of the United States as being almost next to heaven,” she said. “Either they almost worship me for being here as an American or they think I’m insane for coming here.”
Several years after that interview, Hashemi started working for the country’s monopoly television conglomerate, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which is overseen by the government. In videos from Press TV, the IRIB’s English-language division, she delivers the news with the peppy intonation familiar to viewers of television stations in Omaha or Kansas City. But segments on the channel often take on a distinct tone of propaganda, as reporters and guests echo government hard-liners’ hostility to America and Israel.
Press TV has been condemned as “one of the world’s leading dispensers of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English” by the Anti-Defamation League, which in 2012 released a report alleging that programming on the network had blamed Israel for the 9/11 attacks, claimed that Zionists were controlling world events as part of a massive global conspiracy and accused Jews and the “Israeli lobby” of manipulating American presidential elections. Hashemi has evidently embraced these extreme views: In a 2015 interview with the Iranian website Estebsar, she claimed the U.S. media is controlled by Jews and that it’s “obvious for everyone” that Zionists were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
At a news conference in Tehran on Feb. 2, she said she could not divulge why she had needed to testify in an American court. But she didn’t hesitate to blame her arrest on what she described as the Trump administration’s push to “make America white again.”
“America and other countries in the West are systematically targeting Muslims and black people with institutionally racist politics and laws,” she said. “Fascism is at the door of these countries, and Muslims are at great risk.”
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