WASHINGTON — A 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 Wednesday.
The Justice Department also accused Monica Elfriede Witt, 39, of betraying former colleagues in the U.S. intelligence community by feeding details about their personal and professional lives to Iran. Four hackers linked to the Iranian government, charged in the same indictment, used that information to target the intelligence workers online, prosecutors said.
Witt had been on the FBI’s radar at least a year before she defected after she attended an Iranian conference and appeared in anti-American videos. She was warned about her activities, but reassured agents that she would not provide sensitive information about her work if she returned to Iran. She was not arrested.
“Once a holder of a top secret security clearance, Monica Witt actively sought opportunities to undermine the United States and support the government of Iran — a country which poses a serious threat to our national security,” said FBI executive assistant director Jay Tabb, the bureau’s top national security official.
Tabb said “she provided information that could cause serious damage to national security,” though he did not provide specifics.
Witt remains at large in Iran, as do the four hackers, who prosecutors say were acting on behalf of the government-linked Iranian Revolutionary Guard. That group has been designated by the U.S. government as promoting terrorism.
The hackers, using imposter Facebook personas, then targeted those same officials and were even able at one point to join a private Facebook group composed primarily of retired government workers, the indictment says. The hackers sent the targets messages and emails that purported to be legitimate but instead contained malicious software that, if opened, would have given them access to the officials’ computer and network.
The Texas native served in the Air Force between 1997 and 2008, where she was trained in Farsi — the predominant language of Iran — and was deployed overseas on classified counterintelligence missions, including to the Middle East. She then found work as a Defense Department contractor.
She defected to Iran in 2013 after being invited to two all-expense-paid conferences in the country that the Justice Department says promoted anti-Western propaganda and condemned American moral standards. She was a Defense Department contractor at the time.
The Treasury Department on Wednesday sanctioned the New Horizon Organization, which sponsored the conferences Witt attended. American officials say the conferences, which promote Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories, serve as a platform for Iran to recruit and collect intelligence.
Witt first traveled to a “Hollywoodism” conference in 2012, when she appeared in Iranian television videos in which she identified herself as a former U.S. service member with. She was warned that May by FBI agents that she was a potential target for recruitment by Iranian intelligence.
“She chose not to heed our warning that travel to Iran could potentially make her susceptible to recruitment,” Tabb said. “She continued to travel.”
She attended the same conference the following year and was hired by an unnamed individual to assist in the filming of an anti-American propaganda commercial.
Given free housing and computer equipment, she went to work for the Iranians, turning over information about a classified Defense Department program and assembling into “target packages” research she conducted into the family lives, locations and missions of former colleagues.
The indictment includes snippets of dialogue between Witt and the person who recruited her her, identified only as Individual 1.
In 2012, for instance, the person wrote her, “should i thank the sec of defense…u were well trained. Witt replied with a smiley emoticon, “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. ?? Thanks for giving me the opportunity,” according to the indictment.
Using a typed smiley-face, she later told the same, unnamed person, “If all else fails, I just may go public with a program and do like Snowden.” That’s a reference to Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who leaked classified U.S. information.
“Our intelligence professionals swear an oath to protect our country, and we trust them to uphold their oath. With good reason,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division. “But every great while, one of these trusted people fails us.”
Officials would not elaborate on why the indictment was brought six years after her detection, except to say that they had to move classified intelligence into an unclassified format to be used in a pending criminal proceeding.
The Justice Department officials would not say whether Witt’s prosecution was connected to an American-born Iranian television anchorwoman who was recently released after being detained by the FBI as a material witness in an undisclosed U.S. case.
Marzieh Hashemi works for the Press TV network’s English-language service. She has not been charged with any crimes.
Federal law allows judges to order witnesses to be detained if the government can prove that their testimony has extraordinary value for a criminal case and that they would be a flight risk and unlikely to respond to a subpoena. The statute generally requires those witnesses to be promptly released once they are deposed.
Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.