A former Air Force intelligence specialist who defected to Iran has been charged with espionage after authorities allege she gave that country’s government information about a highly classified military program and helped Iranian hackers target her former colleagues.
The way prosecutors tell it, 39-year-old Monica Elfriede Witt — a counterintelligence specialist who was once involved in secret U.S. missions abroad — grew so disillusioned with the United States that she left and betrayed her country. A 27-page indictment detailing the allegations was unsealed Wednesday.
Even before she formally defected in 2013, prosecutors alleged, she appeared in videos and made statements critical of the U.S. government that she knew would be broadcast by Iranian media outlets, and she ignored an FBI warning that Iranian intelligence might try to recruit her. Though she was given housing and other services, her primary motive seemed to have been “ideological,” said Jay Tabb, the FBI’s executive assistant director for national security.
“In other words,” Tabb said, “she decided to turn against the United States and shift her loyalties to the government of Iran.”
Witt’s alleged betrayal, officials said, was as personal as it was damaging — threatening a sensitive operation that to this day authorities will not detail, and putting her former co-workers squarely in the crosshairs of a foreign adversary. Witt, according to the indictment, was desperate to share the information she had and get away from the United States. Text messages, disclosed as part of the indictment, show her contemplating approaching the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and Russia after Iran, apparently skeptical of her motives or credibility, was slow to accept her alleged overture.
Officials said Witt’s case demonstrates the lengths to which Iran and other foreign adversaries will go in seeking to recruit current and former U.S. intelligence officials. Witt, prosecutors said, made contact with Iranians at a conference in that country, and thereafter maintained regular contact with a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who prosecutors alleged helped identify and assess possible targets for Iranian intelligence. The Iranians appear to have found in Witt a more-than-willing contributor.
“It is a sad day for America when one of its citizens betrays our country,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers.
Efforts to reach relatives of Witt’s were not successful. Witt is thought to still be in Iran.
Witt was born in Texas and grew up there. She joined the Air Force in 1997 and soon came to be entrusted with some of the military’s most closely guarded secrets, according to the indictment. She had access to secret and top-secret information, was trained in the Iran’s Farsi language, and from May 1999 to 2003, spent time overseas secretly collecting electronic intelligence, according to the indictment.
From November 2003 to March 2008, Witt was assigned to work as a criminal investigator and counterintelligence specialist in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations — a job that took her to locations in the Middle East for classified operations and gave her access to the names and sources of U.S. agents involved in clandestine activities, according to the indictment. She left the U.S. military in 2008 but worked as a government contractor for about two more years, including on a classified program.
It was in the years after she left the government altogether that Witt, at least outwardly, seemed to grow fond of Iran and distrustful of her own government. In February 2012, according to the indictment, she traveled to Iran to attend the New Horizon Organization’s “Hollywoodism” conference, which prosecutors described as organized by a branch of the Iranian military and aimed at promoting anti-U.S. propaganda.
Witt, according to the indictment, appeared in videos in which she was identified as an American military veteran and was critical of the U.S. government. Iranian television also broadcast a ceremony in which she converted to Islam, according to the indictment.
The trip drew the notice of the FBI, which in May 2012 warned Witt that she was a target for recruitment by Iran, according to the indictment. She told agents that if she ever returned to the country, she would not talk about her classified work.
Asked whether the bureau should have done more after that initial warning, Tabb, the FBI executive, said, “I don’t think so.”
“We followed a procedure that we do, known as a defensive briefing. We went to Witt and we told her that she might be targeted by intelligence officers in travel to Iran. She chose not to heed our warning,” he said.
Witt’s dissatisfaction with the United States, though, seemed to grow after her encounter with the bureau. Prosecutors said she was hired in June 2012 by a woman, identified in the indictment only as “Individual A,” to work on an anti-American propaganda film. A few months later, a person by the name of Monica Witt who claimed to be a former Defense Department consultant told Press TV, an Iranian television station, that sexual harassment was rampant in the U.S. military.
“The majority of men simply do not take the idea of harassment seriously,” the woman said. “They make comments about a woman’s appearance, or make generalized sexual remarks openly at work. Oftentimes, they do not view these comments as inappropriate.”
Prosecutors described Individual A as a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who “engaged in acts consistent with serving as a spotter and assessor on behalf of the Iranian intelligence services.” The Justice Department recently took steps to question an Iranian television journalist with dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship who works as a producer and on-air presenter for Iran’s English-language Press TV. Court documents say the woman, Marzieh Hashemi, was a “material witness,” though officials declined to say whether she was in any way connected to the case unsealed Wednesday.
Prosecutors laid out in the indictment detailed text exchanges between Individual A and Witt that seem to foreshadow Witt’s defection.
In 2012, for example, Individual A wrote to Witt, “should i thank the sec of defense . . . u were well trained,” according to the indictment.
“LOL thank the sec of defense? For me? Well, I loved the work, and I am endeavoring to put the training I received to good use instead of evil,” Witt responded, according to the indictment.
In February 2013, Witt went again to Iran for a conference, where she met with members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s military, and said she was a U.S. military veteran who wanted to emigrate to Iran, according to the indictment. She appeared in additional videos critical of the United States.
After the conference, Witt stayed in touch with Individual A. In June 2013, according to the indictment, Witt texted, “If all else fails, I just may go public with a program and do like Snowden,” referring to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed highly sensitive electronic surveillance programs being run by the U.S. government. A week later, Witt told Individual A she had visited the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, and “told all,” according to the indictment.
But her defection was not immediate. In July, Witt seemed to express frustration that the Iranians did not trust her.
“I just hope I have better luck with Russia at this point,” she wrote, according to the indictment. “I am starting to get frustrated at the level of Iranian suspicion.”
A few days later, she added, “I think I can slip into Russia quietly if they help me and then I can contact wikileaks from there without disclosing my location.”
Witt defected to Iran on Aug. 28, 2013, according to the indictment, which says the Iranian government provided housing and computer services to facilitate her work, and that she disclosed the classified program’s code name and mission. She also began to create “target packages” to help Iranians zero in on U.S. counterintelligence officers, according to the indictment.
Tabb, of the FBI, said the information Witt shared “could cause serious damage to national security,” though he noted that her former colleagues had been notified of the threat.
In the same indictment, prosecutors charged four Iranians — Mojtaba Masoumpour, Behzad Mesri, Hossein Parvar and Mohamad Paryar — with the targeting effort. The four men, prosecutors alleged, developed malware that could capture computer users’ keystrokes and access their webcams, and developed impostor personas on social media or email to try to get former U.S. intelligence agents to talk to them and click on links they sent.
The four men, who worked for a corporate entity in Tehran that is thought to conduct hacking on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are still believed to be in Iran.
The announcement of Witt’s case comes just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence prepared to meet with representatives from about 60 countries in Poland for what was originally billed as a conference to pressure Iran on its missile testing and terrorism. The event, though, has received a tepid response abroad, as some objected to its anti-Iran focus. Law enforcement officials insisted there was no connection between the timing of the charges and the conference.
As the indictment was unsealed, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued sanctions against the entity and people involved in the cyber effort, as well as the New Horizon Group that organized the conferences that Witt traveled to attend.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.