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Former U.S. Air Force sergeant charged with spying for Iran

"Thanks for giving me the opportunity," Monica Witt told the Iranians, according to the indictment.

WASHINGTON — A former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence agent who defected to Iran has been charged with spying for the regime, revealing the identity of a U.S. intelligence officer and helping target her former colleagues, the Justice Department said on Wednesday.

Monica Witt, 39, who had access to sensitive information in her work for the Air Force and later as a defense contractor, allegedly gave away the name and mission of a secret Defense Department intelligence program after defecting to Iran in 2013, according to an indictment unsealed by federal authorities.

The indictment alleges Witt sent an Iranian-American handler working for Iranian intelligence services this message in 2012: "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."

FBI agents had warned Witt she was at risk of potential recruitment by Iranian intelligence but she chose to travel to Iran anyway, officials said.

In her February 2012 visit, Witt allegedly took part in a conference titled "Hollywoodism" organized by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, an event aimed at promoting anti-U.S. propaganda, the indictment says.

She allegedly appeared in videos broadcast by Iranian media in which she criticized the U.S. government and converted to Islam, authorities said.

The indictment also alleges extraordinary details about Witt's efforts to arrange her defection to Iran. At one point, Witt allegedly suggested she would turn to Russia instead and provide information to the WikiLeaks website if she doesn't get a prompt response.

"If all fails, I just may go public with a program and do like Snowden :)," she wrote to her Iranian handler, according to the indictment.

After traveling to Afghanistan in June 2013 and meeting officials at the Iranian embassy in Kabul, she said she needed help or would turn elsewhere. Within days, according to the indictment, she expressed frustration when hearing that Iranian officials were suspicious about her claims of running short of money given her international travel. "No matter what, they are just going to be suspicious, right?"

On July 3, she allegedly wrote: "I think I can slip into Russia quietly if they help me and then I can contact wikileaks from there without disclosing my location."

Witt then made her way to Dubai, telling her handler Iranian authorities were providing her money for the journey. She provided the handler with details of her career, including a copy of her discharge from active military duty as well as a "conversion narrative," prosecutors said.

Image: Monica Elfriede Witt
Monica Elfriede Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013, is charged with conspiracy to deliver national defense information to Iran.FBI

By late August 2013, Witt had flown from Dubai to Tehran, where Iranian officials allegedly provided her with housing and computer equipment to help with her work for the Iranian government, according to the indictment.

Witt's motive for her alleged espionage appeared to be ideological, said Jay Tabb, FBI executive assistant director for national security.

Witt, who had studied Farsi and worked as a special agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations before leaving the service in 2008, was granted high-level security clearances and deployed abroad to carry out counterintelligence missions, officials said. As part of her work, she had access to the true identifies and whereabouts of intelligence sources assisting the United States.

"We can say that she provided information that could cause serious damage to national security," he told reporters.

John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said Witt violated "her solemn oath to protect and defend our country, and the bounds of human decency."

He added, "It's a sad day for America when one of its citizens betrays our country."

Witt, born and raised in Texas, is charged with conspiracy to deliver national defense information to Iran.

Four Iranians, Mojtaba Masoumpour, Behzad Mesri, Hossein Parvar and Mohamad Paryar, are also charged with trying to use malware to break into computers of Witt's former colleagues and capture their keystrokes, authorities said. The Iranian hackers were allegedly working on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and face several charges including conspiracy, computer intrusions and identity theft.

Witt left the Air Force in 2008 at the rank of technical sergeant and worked as a defense contractor for two years, officials said. Her work for the government ended in 2010.

Authorities said an arrest warrant has been issued for Witt, who is still believed to reside in Iran.

The indictment did not identify the dual Iranian-American national described in the indictment as the handler who communicated with Witt, allegedly acting as a "spotter and assessor on behalf of the Iranian intelligence services."

Marzieh Hashemi, who has dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship and who works as an anchorwoman for Iranian Television's English-language service in Tehran, was detained in January as a material witness in a grand jury investigation. But when asked Wednesday if Hashemi was the handler cited in the indictment, U.S. officials declined to comment.

U.S. authorities have not made public the nature of the investigation related to Hashemi's testimony.

The Iranian government did not have an immediate response.