AN INDICTMENT EXPOSES AMERICA’S WITLESS INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES
MONICA WITT ALLEGEDLY SPIED FOR IRAN—BUT SHE DEFECTED IN 2013, SO SHE’LL NEVER BE BROUGHT TO JUSTICE.
By Bill Gertz, Wall Street Journal.
The wanted poster for former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence official Monica Witt, who allegedly spied for Iran.
Photo: Associated Press
U.S. officials revealed last week that a federal grand jury indicted Monica Witt, a former Air Force counterintelligence official, on charges of passing extremely sensitive secrets to agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The case highlights how broken the U.S. intelligence system has become. For more than 30 years it has demonstrated an inability to keep secrets, to protect itself from foreign penetrations by hostile spy services, or to prevent current and former officials from defecting.
The result: Brave foreign nationals who risk their lives inside harsh regimes to spy for America are being killed and imprisoned on a significant scale.
Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials portrayed Ms. Witt’s indictment as a victory of sorts, lauding the exposure of a foreign spy after a multiyear probe. Yet the real story is not Ms. Witt’s indictment but her defection to Iran in 2013. She brought with her details of a secret communications system American handlers use to talk to their recruited agents.
The FBI fumbled the case in 2012 by warning Ms. Witt she might be targeted for recruitment by Iranian intelligence. A trained counterspy, she knew that the tip-off meant she was under investigation and surveillance. It likely set in motion her flight to Iran a year later. As she boarded the plane, she texted her handler: “I’m signing off and heading out! Coming home.” Other texts reveal she “told all” to an Iranian ambassador in Central Asia and had plans to go public in the manner of renegade National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The indictment is largely symbolic, since the prospects of bringing the case to trial are slim to none. But it is one way for the FBI to dispose of the matter.
Officials did not detail the impact of Ms. Witt’s betrayal. Jay Taub, the FBI’s assistant director for national security, would say only that she became an “ideological” defector after converting to Islam. Her actions, he added, inflicted “serious damage to national security.”
According to prosecutors, Ms. Witt worked at the Air Force Office of Special Investigations from 2003-08 and then as a contractor, running an ultrasecret Special Access Program, or SAP, until August 2010. The program gave her access to details about counterintelligence operations, true names of recruited agents, and identities of U.S. intelligence operatives in charge of recruiting foreign agents. One program “allowed agents to communicate in the open without disclosing the nature of their operations,” the indictment states.
Ms. Witt left the contractor in August 2010 for unspecified reasons. In May 2011, Iranian state media announced that 30 people had been arrested as CIA spies and 42 others were suspected of involvement with U.S. intelligence.
It is not known how the agents were discovered, but a likely cause was a breakdown in agent-handler communications. Ms. Witt could conceivably have been involved. The indictment states that she provided defense information to Iran but does not say when. The spy charges cover the period from 2012-15. And that communications compromise appears to link the roundup in Iran to a second colossal intelligence failure under the Obama administration: the loss of all recruited agents in China.
Last year, the New York Times and Yahoo News both reported that between 20 and 30 recruited Chinese agents were killed or imprisoned between 2009 and 2013. Yahoo reported the loss was caused by a breach in an internet messaging system used to communicate with agents in Iran that spread to other countries. The Times blamed the loss on a former CIA officer, Jerry Chung Shin Lee, who was arrested in January 2018 and is suspected of passing along their names to China.