A former Air Force intelligence specialist who defected to Iran has been charged with conspiring to provide U.S. defense information to representatives of that country’s government, including the code name and mission of a highly classified program, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.
Monica Elfriede Witt, 39, a former counterintelligence officer, is accused of revealing the Defense Department program, the details of which are unclear, as well as helping Iranian intelligence services direct hacking and identity theft attempts at her military co-workers. She defected to Iran in 2013 and was believed to be there now.
The Justice Department also charged four Iranian nationals with attempting to commit computer intrusion and aggravated identity theft in the case.
"It is a sad day for America when one of its citizens betrays our country," Assistant Atty. Gen. John Demers said at a briefing announcing the charges.
The announcement came just as Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Vice President Pence prepared to welcome representatives from about 60 countries for a conference in Poland that was originally billed as a meeting to pressure Iran on its missile testing and terrorism. The event, though, has received a tepid response abroad, as some objected to the its anti-Iran focus.
Law enforcement officials insisted there was no connection between the timing of the charges and the conference.
Jay Tabb, the FBI's executive assistant director for national security, said investigators believe Witt shared information that "could cause serious damage to national security," though he declined to provide specific details of the operations she allegedly disclosed.
Witt, who served in the Air Force from August 1997 to March 2008 and worked from 2008 to 2010 as a government contractor on classified projects, had access to sensitive government materials, officials said.
According to the indictment, she had access to secret and top secret national defense information, including the names of intelligence sources and clandestine agents, and had been deployed between 1999 and 2003 overseas to collect electronic intelligence.
The Justice Department alleges she shared with Iran packages of information about her former colleagues so they could be targeted, as well as the code name and mission of a Defense Department Special Access Program, which was highly classified.
Tabb said investigators believe Witt's motive was "ideological," and the indictment against her alleges that, before she defected, she appeared in videos that she knew would be broadcast by Iranian media outlets and "made statements that were critical of the U.S. government."
In 2012, after Witt traveled to Iran for a conference, the FBI warned her that she could be targeted for recruitment by that country's government, and Witt told the bureau she would refuse to provide information about her military work, according to the indictment. The next year, she went to another Iranian conference and soon arranged to defect, according to the indictment.
Asked if the bureau should have done more after the initial warning, Tabb said, "I don't think so."