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.”
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.
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.
“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)