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US says ex-intel official defected to Iran, revealed secrets

AP  |  Washington 

A former who defected to despite warnings from the FBI has been charged with revealing classified information to the Tehran government, including the code name and secret mission of a program, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The Justice Department also accused Monica Elfriede Witt, 39, of betraying former colleagues in the community by feeding details about their personal and professional lives to Four hackers linked to the Iranian government, charged in the same indictment, used that information to target the intelligence workers online, prosecutors said.

Witt had been on the FBI's radar at least a year before she defected after she attended an Iranian conference and appeared in anti-American videos. She was warned about her activities, but told agents that she would not provide sensitive information about her work if she returned to Iran, prosecutors say. She was not arrested at the time.

"Once a holder of a top secret security clearance, Monica Witt actively sought opportunities to undermine the and support the government of a country which poses a serious threat to our national security," said FBI Jay Tabb, the bureau's top

Tabb said "she provided information that could cause serious damage to national security," though he did not provide specifics.

Witt remains at large in Iran, as do the four hackers, who prosecutors say were acting on behalf of the powerful, government-linked Revolutionary Guard. That group, a branch of Iran's armed forces, has previously been designated by the as terrorism supporter.

The indictment was unsealed the same week as Iran celebrates and as the country denounced a security conference in co-hosted by the U.S. and

Officials said the indictment's timing was unconnected to the meeting.

Witt served in the between 1997 and 2008, where she was trained in the Farsi language and was deployed overseas on classified missions, including to the She later found work as a Defense Department

The native defected to Iran in 2013 after being invited to two all-expense-paid conferences in the country that the Justice Department says promoted anti-Western propaganda and condemned American moral standards.

The Treasury Department on Wednesday sanctioned the New Horizon Organization, which organized the conferences Witt attended and hosts events that American officials say promote Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories and serve as a platform to recruit and collect intelligence from attendees.

Witt first traveled to a "Hollywoodism" conference in 2012, when she appeared in Iranian television videos in which she was identified as a former U.S. service member with critical views of She was then warned by FBI agents that she was a potential recruitment target for

"She chose not to heed our warning that travel to Iran could potentially make her susceptible to recruitment," Tabb said. "She continued to travel." Later that year, she was hired by an individual who is not named in the indictment but who professed to have ties to high-level officials to help in the filming of an anti-American propaganda commercial.

She returned to another "Hollywoodism" conference in 2013. This time, with free housing and computer equipment, she went to work for the Iranians, supplying information about a classified Defense Department program and assembling into "target packages" research she conducted into the lives, locations and missions of former colleagues, the indictment said.

The accused hackers exploited that research, contacting Witt's former colleagues through imposter and email accounts. Their goal was to induce the targets to click on links and attachments containing that could the compromise their computer and networks.

The case was unsealed soon after the Justice Department freed from custody an American-born Iranian television anchorwoman who'd been detained for days by the FBI as a material witness in an unspecified criminal investigation in Washington, where the Witt indictment was filed. works for the Press TV network's English-language service. She has not been charged with any crimes. Justice Department officials wouldn't say if the investigations were connected.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Thu, February 14 2019. 10:30 IST