A 39-year-old former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist is accused of spying for Iran by sharing U.S. defense secrets, according to a federal indictment unsealed on February 13. Monica Elfriede Witt defected to Iran in 2013 and federal authorities say she helped Iranian intelligence services to target former fellow agents in the U.S. intelligence community.
“Witt is also alleged to have disclosed the code name and classified mission of a U.S. Department of Defense Special Access Program. An arrest warrant has been issued for Witt, who remains at large,” the Department of Justice said in a press release. Witt is believed to be living in Iran. The indictment charges her with conspiracy to deliver and delivering national defense information to representatives of the Iranian government.
The indictment also names four Iranian nationals, Mojtaba Masoumpour, Behzad Mesri, Hossein Parvar and Mohamad Parya, who are accused of “conspiracy, attempts to commit computer intrusion and aggravated identity theft, for conduct in 2014 and 2015 targeting former co-workers and colleagues of Witt in the U.S. Intelligence Community.”
The Justice Department adds, “The Cyber Conspirators, using fictional and imposter social media accounts and working on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), sought to deploy malware that would provide them covert access to the targets’ computers and networks. Arrest warrants have been issued for the Cyber Conspirators, who also remain at large.”
Witt, a native of El Paso, Texas, served in the Air Force from 1997 to 2008. She has also used the names Fatemah Zahra and Narges Witt. She has been added to the FBI’s most wanted list.
“Monica Witt is charged with revealing to the Iranian regime a highly classified intelligence program and the identity of a U.S. Intelligence Officer, all in violation of the law, her solemn oath to protect and defend our country, and the bounds of human decency,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement. “Four Iranian cyber hackers are also charged with various computer crimes targeting members of the U.S. intelligence community who were Ms. Witt’s former colleagues.”
Demers added, “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. hen our intelligence professionals are targeted or betrayed, the National Security Division will relentlessly pursue justice against the wrong-doers.”
Here’s what you need to know about Monica Elfriede Witt:
1. Witt Told Her Handler ‘I May Just Go Public With a Program & Do Like Snowden’
Monica Witt is accused of using her experience in the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. intelligence community to pitch her services as a spy to an Iranian handler, according to the indictment. She told representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps she was an American military veteran and wanted to defect to Iran. Witt appeared to be motivated by ideological beliefs and not by money.
While communicating with “Individual A,” a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who appears to have been Witt’s handler, she said in 2013 while discussing how she could help the Iranian government, “If all else fails, I just may go public with a program and do like Snowden :).”
In June 2013, she told “Individual A” that she had gone to the Iranian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and “told all,” according to the indictment. She added, “They are going to get back to me on if they can help me very soon before I leave. I told them I am down to little choices and will be traveling to other areas to request assistance.
In July 2013, she appeared to be growing frustrated, according to the indictment. She told “Individual A,” that “I just hope I have better luck with Russia at this point. I am starting to get frustrated at the level of Iranian suspicion.”
According to the indictment, she wrote in July 2013, “I think I can slip into Russia quietly if they help me and then I can contact wikileaks from there without disclosing my location.”
By August 2013, Witt had defected to Iran, according to the indictment.
Witt is accused of working with Iranian hackers beginning in late 2014 to launch a “malicious campaign” targeting her former co-workers and colleagues in the U.S. intelligence community:
Specifically, (Behzad ) Mesri registered and helped manage an Iranian company, the identity of which is known to the United States, which conducted computer intrusions against targets inside and outside the United States on behalf of the IRGC. Using computer and online infrastructure, in some cases procured by Mesri, the conspiracy tested its malware and gathered information from target computers or networks, and sent spearphishing messages to its targets.
Specifically, between Jan. and May 2015, the Cyber Conspirators, using fictitious and imposter accounts, attempted to trick their targets into clicking links or opening files that would allow the conspirators to deploy malware on the target’s computer.
According to the Justice Department press release, “In one such instance, the Cyber Conspirators created a Facebook account that purported to belong to a USIC employee and former colleague of Witt, and which utilized legitimate information and photos from the USIC employee’s actual Facebook account. This particular fake account caused several of Witt’s former colleagues to accept ‘friend’ requests.”
Mesri was previously charged by U.S. authorities with a hacking operation that targeted HBO. The Iranian hackers stole scripts for unaired episodes of season 6 of “Game of Thrones” and tried to extort the network’s executives for $6 million.
2. She Traveled to Iran in 2012 to Attend a Conference That Condemned ‘American Moral Standards’ & Promoted ‘Anti-U.S. Propaganda’
According to the Department of Justice, Monica Witt was an active duty U.S. Air Force Intelligence Specialist and Special Agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, until she left the military in 2008. She enlisted in 1997. Witt also spent time as a DOD contractor until 2010.
“During her tenure with the U.S. government, Witt was granted high-level security clearances and was deployed overseas to conduct classified counterintelligence missions,” the Justice Department said in a press release.
In February 2012, Witt traveled to Iran to attend the Iranian New Horizon Organization’s “Hollywoodism” conference, “an IRGC-sponsored event aimed at, among other things, condemning American moral standards and promoting anti-U.S. propaganda,” according to the press release.
While at the conference, Witt appeared in videos in which she identified herself as a U.S. veteran and made statements critical of the U.S. government, “knowing these videos would be broadcast by Iranian media outlets,” according to the indictment. She was warned by the FBI that she was a target for recruitment by Iranian intelligence services in May 2012. Witt told the FBI that if she ever went back to Iran, she would refuse to provide any information about her intelligence work.
The Treasury Department has issued sanctions against the New Horizon Organization, saying it:
Hosts international conferences that serve as a platform for the IRGC-QF to recruit and collect intelligence from attendees. Conference organizers have facilitated contact between the IRGC-QF (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force’s) and U.S. persons. Several New Horizon Organization-sponsored conferences have been held in the past few years in Iraq and Iran, where recruitment and collection efforts were made. These anti-Western conferences propagate anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, including Holocaust denial.
The FBI said Witt the interacted and communicated with a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen referred to only as “Individual A,” who helped Witt re-renter Iran in August 2013. “Individual A,” who appears to be Witt’s handler, is not identified by name, but is a woman who mainly lives in Iran, but holds American citizenship
“Thereafter, Iranian government officials provided Witt with a housing and computer equipment. She went on to disclose U.S. classified information to the Iranian government official,” the press release said. “As part of her work on behalf of the Iranian government, she conducted research about USIC personnel that she had known and worked with, and used that information to draft “target packages” against these U.S. agents.”
You can read the full indictment below or here:
3. After the Air Force, Witt Spent 2 Years Working at Defense Contractors, Including Booz Allen Hamilton, & Then Worked for a Nonprofit While Studying at George Washington
Monica Witt’s last duty station was the 2nd Field Investigations Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, according to the Air Force. She left the Air Force with the rank of technical sergeant (E6) in June 2008.
According to an online resume posted by Witt in 2011, she served as an airborne cryptologic linguist from December 1997 to November 2003 and was stationed during that time at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Witt wrote that she, “Collected, processed, and analyzed selected information requiring Persian-Farsi linguistic capabilities. Operated sophisticated computer-controlled equipment located on the RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft for immediate signals processing.”
From November 2003 to March 2008 she worked at the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. She wrote that she:
Managed, directed, and conducted criminal, fraud, and counterintelligence investigations. Developed and managed confidential informants in support of criminal investigations. Performed and documented crime scene searches, collected and preserved evidence, interviewed witnesses and suspects, conducted surveillance, participated in protective service operations, and testified in military courts-martial and civilian courts.
She spent time at the Defense Language Institute in California from February 1998 to April 199, where she earned an associate of arts in Persian-Farsi. She also attended the University of Maryland University College in 2008, finishing a bachelor’s degree in social sciences.
Witt worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, the same Department of Defense contractor that employed NSA leaker Edward Snowden, from May 2008 to November 2008 in Annapolis Junction, Maryland. While at Booz, Witt wrote that she, “Conducted analytical reviews and products in support of Army Investigations and Operations Branch,” and “Consulted as an Iranian Subject Matter Expert, which included providing language and cultural specialization.”
Witt then began working as a middle east desk officer at another defense contractor, Chenega Federal Systems, in Lorton, Virginia. She worked there from November 2008 to August 2010. On her resume she wrote about her time at Chenega:
• Consulted to provide expert guidance for all U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) Middle East global operations
• Supervised, controlled, and coordinated the execution of highly sensitive counterintelligence operations against foreign intelligence services worldwide
• Represented AFOSI as the voice of all Middle East issues at national-level liaison meetings with various federal counterintelligence, law enforcement and Department of Defense (DoD) counterparts
Witt began studying at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, DC, in January 2010, completing a master’s degree in Middle East Studies in 2012.
While at George Washington, Witt worked as an intern in the Iraq Fulbright program at America-MIDEAST Educational and Training Services (AMIDEAST) from December 2010 to 2011. She said her role there was, “Submitted applications for 60 Iraqi Fulbright candidates to multiple U.S. universities, amounting to 240 applications overall … Conducted telephonic consultations with universities whenever they requested additional information about the Fulbright candidates or expressed any concerns.”
While she was an intern at AMIDEAST and a George Washignton student, Witt wrote two articles for the International Affairs Review, one titled, “Why Tajikistan Won’t Abandon the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and a second titled, “It’s About the Price of Watermelons: Subsidy Reform in Iran.”
She wrote on her resume, “Knowledge of grant writing and fundraising for NGOs.
International Travel: Extensive experience living and working within the Middle East, to include Iraq, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, the U.A.E., Tajikistan, and Iran.”
4. She Talked About Converting to Islam From Christianity in a 2016 Interview & Said She Was Also Involved in the Occupy Wall Street Movement
In 2016, Monica Witt gave an interview to the Bangladeshi news outlet “MTnews24.com” about being an American female soldier who converted from Christianity to Islam.
Witt told the news site that while studying and examining various religions, including the Muslim religion, as a member of the Air Force, she adopted and accepted Islam. She said she studied the Quran as part of her Air Force assignment.
“When I felt that the need for Christian religion was gone for me and this religion could not fulfill my wishes or needs and can not show any clear or bright future, whereas this future is clearly seen in Islam. After attending (a conference) in Iran, I got a chance to think more about myself and the future. These questions have encouraged or attracted me to Islam – what is the main purpose of life and why we should live in the best way.”
She also said, “The issues which have encouraged me to think about Islam, the manner of behavior of women towards women and especially the attitude of the Iranian Muslims towards women or behavior. When I was a member of the Armed Forces, I became familiar with Iran for professional needs. During this time, I have done extensive research on Iran and realized that the daily behavior of women with women is completely different from the behavior of the West towards the West. I find Islam in search of reasons why women are so respected in Iran. Because of this religion, the woman is considered to be so dignified, respectful and powerful.”
According to an English translation of the article, Witt said she was involved in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. She said in the interview, “hat is happening in America now is only one point or droplets in the sea. There will be many more big and big eventful events in the future in the United States. The American people have become overwhelmed by the policies and policies of their government and the use of camouflage as a shield for the spreading of widows and widows. And these rumors are appearing in different ways.”
She also said, “After seeing the facts about Iran and Islam in my own eyes, I can understand that the Western media is distorting the unrealistic picture of Islam. So I stood up against these conspiracies and announced the acceptance of Holy Islam in Iran standing in Iran. I will employ all my strengths to acquire knowledge about Islam. … “Now I am very happy to nominate Islam as a religion. Because, this religion is capable of meeting all human needs. I hope to follow the Islamic rules and take inspiration from the Qur’an and live like a real Muslim.”
She was also quoted in an article by the Iranian state media Press TV about sexual assault against women in the U.S. military.
5. Witt Was Listed as a Missing Person by the FBI in 2014 After Friends Reported They Had Stopped Hearing From Her When She Moved Overseas to Teach English
Monica Elfriede Witt was previously listed as a missing person on the FBI’s website in 2014. According to the missing person poster, Witt had moved overseas to teach English in 2013. Before moving overseas, Witt had been living and working in Falls Church, Virginia.
She was last known to be traveling and working in Southwest Asia, according to the FBI website. In July 2013, she was believed to be in Afghanistan or Tajikistan, where she was working as an English teacher.
“Witt may have also traveled to the United Arab Emirates or Iran, where she had previously traveled on at least two other occasions,” the FBI said. “The last known contact with her is believed to have been in June 2013. She had been working overseas for more than a year. Witt’s friends recently reported her missing after not receiving any response from her in several months.”
Witt is now listed on the FBI’s most wanted list. The new poster states, “Monica Elfriede Witt is wanted for her alleged involvement in criminal activities to include espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage. On February 8, 2019, a grand jury in the United States District Court, District of Columbia, indicted Witt and a federal arrest warrant was issued for her after she was charged with Conspiracy to Deliver National Defense Information to Representatives of a Foreign Government and Delivering National Defense Information to Representatives of a Foreign Government, specifically the Government of Iran.”
The poster adds, “Witt is known to speak Farsi and reside in Iran.” She is listed as 5’6″ tall, weighing 120 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. She was born April 8, 1979, in El Paso, Texas. Her aliases as listed as Fatemah Zahra and Narges Witt.
After the indictment against Witt was unsealed on February 13, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie Liu, said in a statement, “This case reflects our firm resolve to hold accountable any individual who betrays the public trust by compromising our national security. Today’s announcement also highlights our commitment to vigorously pursue those who threaten U.S. security through state-sponsored hacking campaigns.”
FBI Executive Assistant Director for National Security Jay Tabb added, “The charges unsealed today are the result of years of investigative work by the FBI to uncover Monica Witt’s betrayal of the oath she swore to safeguard America’s intelligence and defense secrets. This case also highlights the FBI’s commitment to disrupting those who engage in malicious cyber activity to undermine our country’s national security. The FBI is grateful to the Department of Treasury and the United States Air Force for their continued partnership and assistance in this case.”
Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Terry Phillips said in a statement, “The alleged actions of Monica Witt in assisting a hostile nation are a betrayal of our nation’s security, our military, and the American people. While violations like this are extremely rare, her actions as alleged are an affront to all who have served our great nation.”
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Nancy McNamara, of the agency’s D.C. field office, said in a statement, “This investigation exemplifies the tireless work the agents and analysts of the FBI do each and every day to bring a complex case like this to fruition. Witt’s betrayal of her country and the actions of the cyber criminals – at the behest of the IRGC – could have brought serious damage to the United States, and we will not stand by and allow that to happen. he efforts by the Iranian government to target and harm the U.S. will not be taken lightly, and the FBI will continue our work to hold those individuals or groups accountable for their actions.”
The charges against Witt come on the same day the U.S. Treasury Department announced economic sanctions Iranian organizations and individuals who supported intelligence and cyber targeting of U.S. persons.
“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 cyber-attacks,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Treasury is sanctioning New Horizon Organization for its support to the IRGC-QF. New Horizon hosts international conferences that have provided Iranian intelligence officers a platform to recruit and collect damaging information from attendees, while propagating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. We are also sanctioning an Iran-based company that has attempted to install malware to compromise the computers of U.S. personnel.”