Although the news is only just breaking
about the July 2018 indictment of Monica Elfriede Witt, I thought I would write some initial impressions given my intelligence experience.
Witt, a former Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) member and contractor (1997-2010), is accused of espionage on behalf of Iran against the United States.
As noted, Witt disclosed the existence of sensitive intel programs to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC), the defenders of the that hated regime, and worked with them to further target U.S. intelligence personnel through social media and otherwise following her 2013 defection to the Islamic Republic.
Witt’s extensive time in the Middle East while in AFOSI means that she had access to precisely the type of information that Iran would want to have: detailed knowledge of U.S. Counterintelligence programs against Iran (the primary CI threat in the region), and possibly the names of Iranian agents working with U.S. forces. These individuals would likely have been captured and killed — their neutralization may have done great damage to U.S. forces' ability to protect themselves in the future.
Witt’s active work with IRGC cyber forces is also alarming. Not only with her traitorous work targeting U.S. personnel (the IRGC is known for assassination), but her knowledge of USAF CI computer defenses. Iran has been increasing its cyberwarfare efforts against U.S. networks, and Witt’s intel will assist the IRGC in planning future cyberattacks against the U.S.
Reviewing the timeline of her activity, what stands out is that there appear to have been multiple times when Witt could have been taken into custody — including after two visits to Iran itself — but Witt was only “warned” by FBI of the dangers of her being recruited by Iranian services as if she were an innocent backpacker!
Witt, who learned Farsi with the USAF at Defense Language Institute, was in Iran at least twice before permanently defecting — in February 2012 and February 2013 — both times she attended an event dubbed “Hollywoodism” sponsored by an IRGC cutout, the “New Horizon Organization.” According to the indictment, the events were aimed at “condemning American Moral Standards and promoting anti-US propaganda.” Witt was happy to publicly declare herself to be a former U.S. intel officer and converted to Islam while in Iran in a televised ceremony for Iranian State TV!
In March 2012, the FBI (then under the leadership of Robert Mueller) talked to Witt, following this visit, warning she “might” be the target of recruitment by Iran; Witt mollified the Bureau by apparently discounting that possibility. I find the fact that the Bureau only “warned” her about Iran recruiting efforts during this interview to be absolutely scandalous. That a former holder of Top Secret Special Access Programs (SAP) travelled to Iran and also converted on television would tell this Station Chief that the “Recruitment” phase was almost, if not totally, completed!
In June 2012, Witt worked with an Iranian filmmaker producing a documentary propaganda film in the U.S. that was later shown on Iranian TV.
June 30, 2013, she walked into the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she apparently “told all,” and was seeking help to defect.
In July 2013 she discussed via email with her handler the possibility of traveling to Russia to contact WikiLeaks when she was frustrated with Iranian official suspicion (the IRGC had trouble believing their good fortune with such a valuable volunteer!). This was likely in Dushanbe, where I have served.
Witt was finally given money by Iran (unclear location — Kabul or Dushanbe, Tajikistan) and was even driven to the airport by her kind “hosts” to catch her flight to Dubai!
By Aug 28, 2013, she had defected to Iran — in Witt’s mind, this was actually “asylum.”
The level of detail into Witt’s activities in the Indictment nevertheless makes it difficult to determine if this was the result of an ongoing FBI/USAF CI investigation into Witt, or if it was collected after the fact, subsequent to her 2013 defection. If the former, it is all the more scandalous that Witt was at large for an extended period, visiting Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan in her ultimately successful bid to convince Iranian officials (who were skeptical of their Incredible good luck) that she was a genuine defector from the U.S. intelligence community.
Many questions need to be answered. Did the laxity of the FBI in apprehending Witt spring from the fact that at the time the Iranian Joint Plan of Action (signed in November 2013 prior to JCPOA) was then being negotiated?
I find it easy to believe that Mueller’s FBI did not aggressively pursue this case at the time, knowing the Obama Administration’s soft position on Iran. A high profile arrest of a female USAF member with strong links to Iran at the time would have resulted in unfavorable publicity (and potentially derailed sensitive talks).
Some of Witt’s email correspondence reveal the dangers I have written about regarding the resurrection of ideology as an espionage motivator.
Witt once wrote to her handler, “thank you for the opportunity to use my training for good instead of evil."
Motivation: Witt’s primary motivation was ideological — the True Believer — often the most dangerous and damaging of spies. We are now in the era of Snowden and Social Justice Warriors. In some ways, this case resembles that of Ana Montes, the DIA Cuban Desk Officer who worked decades for Cuban Intelligence (caught in 2001).
Witt’s interest in working for WikiLeaks and alienation from the U.S. government is also reminiscent of the Reality Winner case.
This damaging incident bears further investigation. Not only does it appear that numerous CI red flags were ignored, but also, possibly due to a combination of politics and political correctness, the FBI dropped the ball on this dangerous spy. A sad day indeed for the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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