A former US Air Force intelligence officer has been charged with helping Iran target ex-colleagues with cyberattacks after defecting to the country in what was dubbed a “betrayal” of America.
Monica Witt, 39, was accused of switching sides after more than a decade of US military service and identifying American intelligence officers and their personal Facebook accounts for the Iranian regime.
Messages quoted in an indictment unsealed yesterday showed Witt saying that she wanted to “put the training I received to good use instead of evil” around the time of her defection.
Four Iranians said to have been involved in the cyber-attacks were also charged along with two Iran-based businesses, New Horizon Organization and Net Peygard Samavat Company.
The five individuals charged are all at large, meaning the chances of a successful prosecution remain unclear. The investigation to uncover the alleged crimes was being run for years.
John Demers, the US assistant attorney general, said: “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."
Witt, a US citizen, worked for the US Air Force as an intelligence specialist and special agent between 1997 and 2008. She worked with the Defence Department as a contractor until 2010.
During her service she was given access to secret and top secret information relating to counterintelligence, including material that contained the true names of secret agents and sources.
Early in her career she was taught the Farsi language and was deployed in a number of overseas locations, carrying out missions to counter America’s enemies.
Witt repeatedly promised to act in America’s interests and not share classified information she accessed, according to US prosecutors – pledges which she is accused of flagrantly breaking.
The first signs of Witt’s alleged defection came when she attended the Iranian New Horizon Organization’s “Hollywoodism” conference in February 2012.
The gathering was sponsored by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s armed forces which was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for its “malign” activities.
The conference was partly aimed at “condemning American moral standards and promoting anti-US propaganda”, US prosecutors said.
Witt responded: “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.” She added a smiling emoji and the words: “Thanks for giving me the opportunity.”
In another message Witt wrote “If all else fails, I just may go public with a program and do like Snowden :)”. The apparent reference is Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who leaked classified material in 2013 and then fled to Russia.
Once Witt was in Iran she was given housing and computer equipment by Iranian government officials, according to US prosecutors.
She is then accused of disclosing classified information about secret US projects and combing Facebook under an alias to identify former colleagues, putting together “target packages” that would help the Iranians find, track and “neutralize” the threat posed.
Terry Phillips, a US special agent with the Air Force, said: “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.”
It is not known how those charged will plead if the case came to court. The five individuals charged had not commented publicly in the hours immediately after the indictment was unsealed.
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