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US Charges Former Air Force Intel Officer With Spying for Iran

An arrest warrant was issued for Witt, who remains at large and is believed to live in Iran.

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Monica Witt, 39, a former U.S. Air Force officer indicted for aiding Iran, is seen in this FBI photo released in Washington, Feb. 13, 2019. VOA

A former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence officer who defected to Iran nearly six years ago has been charged with revealing classified military information to the Iranian government and helping Iran target her former co-workers, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

Monica Elfriede Witt, 39, allegedly disclosed the existence of a highly classified military intelligence collection program and the identity of a U.S. intelligence officer to Iranian spy agencies.

A grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday also charged Witt with helping Iranian intelligence services target at least eight U.S. agents who had interacted or worked with her.

An arrest warrant was issued for Witt, who remains at large and is believed to live in Iran.

Four Iranians working on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also were named in the indictment and face charges of conspiracy, computer intrusions and identity theft in connection with targeting Witt’s former co-workers in 2014 and 2015.

Sought to use malware

Using fake social media accounts, the men sought to deploy malware that would provide them covert access to the targets’ computers. They were identified as Mojtaba Masoumpour, Behzad Mesri, Hossein Parvar and Mohamad Paryar.

“This case underscores the dangers to our intelligence professionals and the lengths our adversaries will go to identify them, expose them, target them and, in a few rare cases, ultimately turn them against the nation they swore to protect,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security. “When our intelligence professionals are targeted or betrayed, the National Security Division will relentlessly pursue justice against the wrongdoers.”

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This image provided by the FBI shows part of the wanted poster for Monica Elfriede Witt. The former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist who defected to Iran despite warnings from the FBI has been charged with revealing classified information to the Tehran government, including the code name and secret mission of a Pentagon program, prosecutors said Feb. 13, 2019. VOA

Witt, who was born and raised in Texas, served as a counterintelligence officer for the Air Force from 1997 to 2008. Trained in Persian in the U.S. Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., from 1998 to 1999, she was assigned as a special agent to the Air Force Office of Special Investigation and later was deployed to several overseas locations, including the Middle East, to conduct operations collecting signals intelligence on U.S. adversaries.

According to the indictment, Witt’s position within the Air Force intelligence branch gave her access to a “Special Access Program” that “housed classified information, including details of ongoing counterintelligence operations, the true names of sources and the identifies of U.S. agents involved in the recruitment of those sources.”

Witt left active duty in 2008 but continued to work as a contractor for the Defense Department for more than two years, serving as a desk officer for the same classified program.

Prosecutors said Witt was recruited by Iran as part of an Iranian government program that targets former intelligence officers and others who have held security clearances.

Defected in 2013

Witt defected to Iran in August 2013 after attending two “Hollywoodism” conferences in Tehran in 2012 and 2013.

The conferences were organized by New Horizon, an organization that bills itself as an international institute of independent thinkers and artists. U.S. law enforcement officials say New Horizon is a front for the IRGC’s Quds Force and that Iranian intelligence agents use the conferences “to recruit and collect damaging information while propagating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.”

After returning from her first trip to Iran during which she converted to Islam and took on the name Fatema Zahra, Witt drew a warning from FBI agents that she was a target for recruitment by Iranian intelligence services.

“In response, Witt stated that if she ever returned to Iran, she would refuse to provide any information pertaining to her work” with the Air Force Office of Special Investigation, according to the indictment.

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FILE – Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps march just outside Tehran during an armed forces parade, Sept. 22, 2011. VOA

She returned to Iran the following February and met with members of the IRGC to express a desire to defect to Iran, according to the indictment.

Iranian agents were initially suspicious of her intentions and dragged their feet in granting her request to defect, leading her to express frustration to an Iranian-American woman who served as a “spotter and recruiter” for Iranian intelligence: “I just hope I have better luck with Russia at this point,” Witt reportedly said.

It took her nearly six months of traveling through Afghanistan and Tajikistan before she defected to Iran, where she was provided with housing and computer equipment and immediately set out to work for Iranian intelligence.

Apparently driven by ideology

According to the indictment, Witt conducted online research and created “target packages” that allowed the Iranian government to identify, track and neutralize U.S. counterintelligence agents.

“She decided to turn against the United States and shift her loyalty to Iran,” said Jay Tabb, the FBI’s executive assistant director for national security. “Her primary motivation appears to be ideological.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against New Horizon for its support for the IRGC’s Quds Force and another Iran-based entity, Net Peygard Samavat Company, as well as six individuals for allegedly hacking the computers of U.S. personnel.

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“Treasury is taking action against malicious Iranian cyber actors and covert operations that have targeted Americans at home and overseas, as part of our ongoing efforts to counter the Iranian regime’s cyberattacks,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. (VOA)

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Huawei Founder Ren Zhengfei: Company Can Withstand Increased US Pressure

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that he expects the U.S. to escalate its crackdown on Huawei.

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A Huawei company logo at Shenzhen International Airport in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China. VOA

By Joyce Huang

Despite the U.S.-China trade deal signed last week, the two countries appear headed for more confrontation, especially over high science and technology.

One of China’s highest-profile tech executives, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on Tuesday that he expects the U.S. to escalate its crackdown on Huawei. But he vowed that the world leader in building 5G networks is prepared to withstand further restrictions on its foreign markets and suppliers.

Analysts say his remarks suggest that the Chinese may be ready to directly confront Americans in the global competition for high-tech advancements, which are seen at the core of trade frictions.

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Ren Zhengfei, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Huawei Technologies gestures during a session at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. VOA

Tech war is on

“He [Ren] is fully aware that the tech competition between the U.S. and China will escalate. The U.S. has no plan to cut China some slack simply because they have just signed the Phase 1 deal. Both are now entering the battleground of their tech disputes,” said Lin Tsung-nan, professor of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Beijing’s critics say Huawei acts as a virtual arm of the Chinese government, benefitting from favorable policies and funding that have sped its expansion around the world. They warn countries that allow Huawei to build their new wireless data networks that they are giving Beijing’s authoritarian government enormous influence over their security. Instead, U.S. officials argue, countries should trust American, European, Korean and other companies.

Provisions in the U.S.-China Phase 1 trade agreement aim to root out Chinese state policies that encourage intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. However the deal leaves open questions about enforcement. Many, including Huawei chief Ren, remain skeptical that the countries will reach an agreement on such issues.

Speaking to the audience in Davos, Ren said he believes the United States will escalate its crackdown on Huawei, but that the impact will be minimal as the company has adapted to restrictions imposed since last year.

Huawei and its 46 affiliates were targeted in 2019 after the U.S. government concluded that the company has long engaged in activities contrary to U.S. national security. Ren’s daughter, Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, is fighting an extradition case in Canada stemming from allegations she committed fraud by lying about Huawei’s relationship with an affiliate doing business in Iran.

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Richard Yu (Yu Chengdong), head of Huawei’s consumer business Group, speaks on stage during a presentation to reveal Huawei’s latest smartphones “Mate 30” and “Mate 30 Pro” in Munich, southern Germany. VOA

Huawei’s Plan B

Analysts have mixed views about the long-term impact of the blacklisting on Huawei. Ren said he is optimistic because Huawei has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in its own core technology over the past few years, including chips and software. Last year, the company released its own operating system, called HarmonyOS, though, so far, it hasn’t been installed in any of the company’s smartphones.

It has also released a flagship smartphone, the Mate 30, without licensed Google Android software. Sales in China have been in line with expectations, although its global sales target of 20 million units is yet to be met.

But Professor Lin said the ultimate challenge facing Huawei lies ahead.

“The real test will come after the U.S. completely cuts off [Huawei’s] access to American technology and relevant exchanges. Huawei will then have to prove if its products, manufactured based on its so-called plan B, will continue to be competitive in overseas markets,” the professor said.

More tech restrictions

After having restricted Huawei’s access to American technology, the United States is reportedly looking to introduce a stricter rule that could block Huawei’s access to an increased number of foreign-made goods.

Media reports said the United States plans, among other things, to force Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, to limit its supplies of 14 nanometer chips to Huawei.

Washington is also lobbying other countries, such as Britain and Germany, to bar Huawei — which it accuses of spying for the Chinese government — from the buildup of their next-generation mobile networks known as 5G.

Whether U.S. allies will be persuaded to block Huawei from building their 5G networks remains uncertain, but Lin said the stakes in the standoff are clear.

“If China succeeds in using Huawei to dominate [the global 5G network], the free world will gradually fall into China’s high-tech iron curtain. That’s why the U.S. has turned aggressive in blocking Huawei, which has strived after having had copied code from Cisco’s [router software] technology a decade ago,” Lin said.

Escalating tensions

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Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou leaves her Vancouver home with her security detail for an extradition hearing in British Columbia Supreme Court. VOA

Song Hong at the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said he’s worried the U.S. may widen its target to include more Chinese tech firms.

But he said Beijing is adapting to the new reality by gradually cutting its dependence on the U.S. technology.

“China has greatly strengthened its tech capabilities. I think Huawei’s [Ren] speaks on behalf of most Chinese businesses. That is, if you try to block me, I have no choice but to work to find other solutions,” he said.

An executive from China’s tech sector, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity, said he’s not worried that the U.S.-China tech war will escalate. But he said China should respond to U.S. concerns.

“The U.S. has made a great contribution [to the world’s tech development] and now come up with some requests. I find that reasonable, right? I think China, as a responsible country, should respect and communicate well [with the U.S.] on a reasonable basis,” he said.

Warning from Meng’s case

While tech executives look at how the long-term competition between the two countries will play out, the fate of Meng — the daughter of Huawei’s founder — will impact relations in the short term. Canada has begun week-long court hearings to determine whether to extradite Meng to the United States to stand trial on fraud charges linked to the alleged violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

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Meng, who was arrested in late 2018 in Canada, denies any wrongdoing.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, said Lin of National Taiwan University, the United States has succeeded in sending a warning to those who have harmed or plan to go against U.S. tech interests.  (VOA)