Defecting to Iran


News & Views

Staff & Wire Reports



This image provided by the FBI shows part of the wanted poster for Monica Elfriede Witt. The former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist who defected to Iran 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 Pentagon program, prosecutors said Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. (FBI via AP)

This image provided by the FBI shows part of the wanted poster for Monica Elfriede Witt. The former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist who defected to Iran 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 Pentagon program, prosecutors said Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. (FBI via AP)


This 2012 photo released by the Department of Justice shows Monica Elfriede Witt. The Justice Department on Wednesday announced an indictment against Monica Elfriede Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013 and is currently at-large. (Department of Justice via AP)


This 2013 photo released by the Department of Justice shows Monica Elfriede Witt. The Justice Department on Wednesday announced an indictment against Monica Elfriede Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013 and is currently at-large. (Department of Justice via AP)


Indicted US intelligence analyst once drew media across Iran

By JON GAMBRELL

Associated Press

Thursday, February 14

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst, her brown hair now hidden underneath a mandatory hijab, stood before an Iranian ayatollah as a television camera filmed behind her.

It was 2012 and Monica Elfriede Witt offered Ayatollah Hadi Barikbin the pledge of faith all Islam converts must recite: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.”

Yet amid congratulations for her conversion, Witt — who once held a top secret security clearance — allegedly had a dark secret: She was being recruited by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to betray her country, according to federal prosecutors.

The 39-year-old El Paso native has since defected, disappearing into the Islamic Republic, allegedly to support the Guard with her counterintelligence knowledge to target American military officials. The unveiling of federal charges this week now links her to hackers with alleged ties to the Guard, a powerful paramilitary force within Iran answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Years before the charges became public, however, Witt’s own journey into Iran became the subject of television segments and news articles.

The image Iran offered of Witt changed over time, a function of the funhouse-mirror coverage prevalent among Iran’s state-run broadcasters and news agencies linked to its intelligence services. They initially described her as an Occupy Wall Street activist, a left-wing protest movement linked to an encampment at New York’s Zuccotti Park. Iranian state media, always eager for anything highlighting social problems in the U.S., trumpeted the demonstrations.

Witt, who had left the Air Force in 2008 and later worked for a defense contractor, arrived in Iran in February 2012 to attend the New Horizon Organization’s “Hollywoodism” conference. The group at the time described the conference as calling into question Hollywood’s representation of Iran and Muslims. However, the Anti-Defamation League has referred to the conference as “promoting classical anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel while giving legitimacy to a rogue’s gallery of conspiratorial anti-Semites and anti-Zionists.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned New Horizon, accusing it of being a front for the Guard’s expeditionary Quds, or “Jerusalem,” Force. Nader Talebzadeh, a cultural activist and one of the conference’s organizers, told the semi-official Fars news agency the sanctions came only because America was angered by the summit’s guests, which included whistle blowers.

State television also that year appears to have quoted Witt as a “former consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense” on sexual harassment in the American military.

“The boy’s club atmosphere is reinforced with a false belief that men are allowed to act inappropriately and that the command is condoning their behavior,” state TV’s English-language Press TV quoted her as saying.

State TV’s Young Journalist Club in 2012 also referred to her as an “American soldier in the Iraq war.” Witt served in the Air Force between 1997 and 2008, where she was trained in the Farsi language and was deployed overseas on classified counterintelligence missions, including to countries in the Middle East.

“I understand how the Western media are trying to show an unrealistic image of Iran and Islam after seeing the clear realities of Iran and Islam by myself,” she was quoted as saying.

She also told the semi-official International Quran News Agency that a friend encouraged her to come to Iran and embrace Shiite Islam.

“I was a Christian, though I was not a religious person and never went to church. During my mission in Iraq, I decided to learn more about the people’s beliefs and religion,” she reportedly said. “I believed it would help me to better confront the enemy. I got a copy of the Quran and started reading it.”

It remains unclear who encouraged Witt to travel to Iran. Federal prosecutors in her indictment refer only to that person as “Individual A,” who they describe as a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who served as a “spotter and assessor on behalf of the Iranian intelligence services.” The person also hired Witt to work as an assistant on a film later aired in Iran.

The description could fit Marzieh Hashemi, a dual national who works as a PressTV anchorwoman and was recently detained for days on a material witness warrant in the U.S. That warrant involved the same judge assigned to Witt’s case. Hashemi also reportedly had a role in organizing elements of the “Hollywoodism” conferences.

Hashemi, who since her testimony was released and allowed to return to Iran, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday from The Associated Press.

Since disappearing after defecting to Iran, Witt allegedly has received free housing and computer equipment from Iran. Prosecutors allege she supplied Iran with information about a classified Defense Department program and has assembled “target packages” research she conducted into the lives, locations and missions of former colleagues.

She has not appeared on television recently, as she did during his conversion some seven years ago. She took the name Narges, or “daffodil,” in Farsi.

“I congratulate you because you have chosen the religion of Islam, and I must say when you chose the name of Narges for yourself, now you should follow the Islamic rules,” Barikbin, the ayatollah, told her then.

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

By ERIC TUCKER

Associated Press

Thursday, February 14

WASHINGTON (AP) — A former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist who defected to Iran 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 Pentagon program, prosecutors said.

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

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 United States and support the government of Iran — a country which poses a serious threat to our national security,” said FBI executive assistant director Jay Tabb, the bureau’s top national security official.

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 country’s powerful, government-linked Revolutionary Guard. That group, a branch of Iran’s armed forces, has previously been designated by the U.S. government as a terrorism supporter.

The indictment was unsealed the same week as Iran celebrates the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution and as the country denounced a Middle East security conference in Warsaw co-hosted by the U.S. and Poland. Officials said the indictment’s timing was unconnected to the meeting.

Witt served in the Air Force between 1997 and 2008, where she was trained in the Farsi language and was deployed overseas on classified counterintelligence missions, including to the Middle East. She later found work as a Defense Department contractor. The Texas 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 also 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 America. She was then warned by FBI agents that she was a potential recruitment target for Iranian intelligence.

“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 conference in 2013 and remained in Iran. 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 impostor Facebook and email accounts. Their goal was to induce the targets to click on links and attachments containing malicious software that, if opened, could compromise their computers 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. Marzieh Hashemi 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.

The indictment includes snippets of dialogue between Witt and the person who hired her, identified only as Individual A.

In 2012, for instance, the person wrote her, “should i thank the sec of defense…u were well trained. Witt replied with a smiley emoticon, “LOL thank the sec of defense? For me? Well, 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,” the indictment says.

Using a typed smiley-face, Witt wrote in a later message, “If all else fails, I just may go public with a program and do like Snowden” — a reference to Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who leaked classified U.S. information.

Officials would not elaborate on why the indictment was brought six years after her detection, except to say they had to move classified intelligence into an unclassified format for use in a criminal case.

“Our intelligence professionals swear an oath to protect our country, and we trust them to uphold their oath. With good reason,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division. “But every great while, one of these trusted people fails us.”

Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

Pence urges Europe to quit Iran deal, stop busting sanctions

By MATTHEW LEE

AP Diplomatic Writer

Friday, February 15

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The Trump administration lashed out at some of America’s closest traditional allies Thursday, accusing Britain, France and Germany of trying to bust U.S. sanctions against Iran and calling on European nations to join the United States in withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal.

In an unusually blunt speech to a Middle East conference in Poland, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence slammed the three countries and the European Union as a whole for remaining parties to the landmark 2015 agreement after President Donald Trump withdrew from it last year and re-imposed tough sanctions on Iran.

The harsh criticism threatened to further chill U.S.-European ties that are already badly strained on many issues, including trade and defense spending. And it underscored the stark two-year trans-Atlantic divide over Iran that manifested itself again ahead of the Warsaw conference co-hosted by the U.S. and Poland.

France and Germany declined to send their top diplomats to the ministerial-level meeting. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also stayed away due to concerns it would become an anti-Iran vehicle. Britain, France and Germany, along with the rest of the EU, continue to support the nuclear deal as the best way to prevent Iran from developing atomic weapons.

At the close of the conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Polish counterpart Jacek Czaputowicz both noted differences of opinion over policies toward Iran. But, they said all participants agreed on the threat posed by the country, which is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution this week.

“There was not a defender of Iran in the room,” Pompeo said, adding that the U.S. and Europe were still capable of working together on the issue.

Czaputowicz said the U.S. and Europe “share the same diagnosis of the situation,” which is “the negative role played by Iran.” But he also noted that the U.S. and Europe differ on how to approach the matter.

In his earlier speech, Pence showed just how sharp that difference is.

He was harshly critical of Britain, France and Germany for unveiling a new financial mechanism last month that U.S. officials believe is intended to keep the nuclear deal alive by evading American sanctions. Pence praised other nations for complying with U.S. sanctions by reducing Iranian oil imports, but he said the Europeans fell short.

“Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence said. “In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.”

He said the mechanism, a barter-type payment system that is designed to allow businesses to skirt direct financial transactions with Iran, is “an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous regime.”

“It’s an ill-advised step that that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the EU, and create still more distance between Europe and the United States,” the vice president said.

Pence then called for Europe to abandon the nuclear agreement altogether, making explicit a demand that Trump administration officials had previously only hinted at.

“The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join with us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region and the world the peace security and freedom they deserve,” he said.

Niels Annen, a German deputy foreign minister who participated in the conference, told reporters after Pence spoke that Europe has a common position on the need to preserve the nuclear deal, and he dismissed U.S. concerns about the new financial mechanism. He said Germany believes both pressure and nuclear deal need to be maintained.

“We believe we need both,” he said. “We need pressure on Iran … but we also need cooperation on the basis of this international agreement and we will continue to pursue this together.”

Germany, Britain and France have vigorously defended the new payment system as necessary to preserve the Iran accord, under which Tehran was granted billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

They are also highly unlikely to withdraw from the agreement, a signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. Their governments have repeatedly expressed support for it since Trump declared the U.S. would pull out.

The U.N.’s atomic watchdog and Trump’s own intelligence chiefs have said Iran remains in compliance with the agreement despite the U.S. withdrawal.

Pence, however, said Iran’s adherence to the deal’s terms is irrelevant. He said the accord was fatally flawed to begin with as it does not prevent Iran from obtaining the technology or material to eventually develop a nuclear weapon over time.

“Compliance is not the issue; the deal is the issue,” he said, calling Iran the “single greatest threat” to security in the Middle East.

Iran was not invited to the Warsaw conference and called the event a “circus” aimed at “demonizing” the country.

Because of European reluctance to attend a conference focused only on Iran, Pompeo and other U.S. officials had sought to broaden the scope to include other Middle East topics. The schedule included sessions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria, Yemen, cybercrime and terrorism.

“No one country will dominate the discussion today, nor will any one issue dominate our talks,” Pompeo said at the opening of the conference,

But Pence’s comments, as well as earlier remarks by Pompeo, made clear the meeting was largely focused on isolating Iran.

Before the event opened, Pompeo met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said, “You can’t achieve peace and stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran. It’s just not possible.”

Netanyahu’s office released a video from a closed session of the conference in which Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa tells an audience that he grew up believing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is “the most important issue” in the region.

But later, he said, “we saw a more toxic one, in fact the most toxic in our modern history, which came from the Islamic Republic, from Iran.”

Pence opened his keynote address by lauding the Trump administration’s commitment to fighting “radical Islamic terrorism,” a term he used in some form at least seven times.

He hailed gains made against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, where the extremists are being ousted from their last remaining areas of control. Despite Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, Pence said the U.S. would remain in the region to ensure the militant organization does not return.

“We will continue to hunt down the remnants of ISIS wherever and whenever they rear their ugly head,” he said.

No matter what the conference yields on Syria, the future of the country was more likely to be determined at a Thursday meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the presidents of Iran and Turkey

The three leaders were in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss a Syria peace settlement as expectations mount for an imminent and final defeat of IS ahead of the U.S. pullout.

The Conversation

How white became the color of suffrage

February 15, 2019

Author: Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Visiting Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University

Disclosure statement: Einav Rabinovitch-Fox does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Partners: Case Western Reserve University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

During President Donald Trump’s Feb. 5 State of the Union address, scores of Democratic congresswomen wore white to pay tribute to suffragists and their fight for women’s rights.

In the past, other politicians have done the same. Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit during her acceptance speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chose to wear white while being sworn into office.

As a historian who writes about fashion and politics, I like these types of sartorial gestures. They show the relevancy and power of fashion statements in our political system. These Democratic congresswomen, like the suffragists that came before them, are using their clothes to control their image and spark a conversation.

However, today’s strong association between the color white and the suffragists isn’t fully accurate. It’s based more on the black-and-white photographs that circulated in the media, which obscured two colors that were just as important to the suffragists.

Using color to convince

For most of the 19th century, suffragists didn’t incorporate visuals in their movement. It was only during the early 20th century that suffragists started to realize that, as Glenda Tinnin, one of the organizers of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, argued, “An idea that is driven home to the mind through the eye, produces a more striking and lasting impression than any that goes through the ear.”

Becoming aware of the way visuals could shift public opinion, suffragists began to incorporate media and publicity tactics into their campaign, using all kinds of spectacles to popularize their cause. Color played a crucial role in these efforts, especially during public demonstrations such as pageants and parades.

Part of their goal was to convey that they were not devilish Amazons set to destroy gender hierarchies, as some of their critics claimed. Rather, suffragists sought to present an image of themselves as beautiful and skilled women who would bring civility to politics and cleanse the system of corruption.

Suffragists deployed white to convey these messages, but they also turned to a much more diverse palette.

The 1913 Washington, D.C. parade was the first national event that put the cause of the suffragists on front pages of newspapers around the country. Organizers used an intricate color scheme to create an impression of harmony and order. Marchers were divided by professions, countries and states, and each group adopted a distinct color. Social workers wore dark blue, educators and students wore green, writers wore white and purple, and artists wore pale rose.

Being the media-savvy women that they were, suffragists realized that it wasn’t enough to create an appealing impression of themselves. They also needed to come up with a recognizable brand. Inspired by the British suffragettes and their campaign colors – purple, white and green – the National Woman’s Party also adopted a set of three colors: purple, white and golden yellow.

They replaced green with yellow to pay tribute to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who used the sunflower – Kansas’s state flower – when they campaigned for a failed statewide suffrage referendum in 1867.

Crafting a contrast

These American suffrage colors – purple, white and yellow – stood for loyalty, purity and hope, respectively. And while all three of them were used during parades, it was the brightness of the white that left the biggest impression.

In images of suffragists marching in formation, their bright clothing contrasts sharply with the crowds of men in dark-colored suits who line the sidewalks.

This visual contrast – between women and men, bright and dark, order and disorder – conveyed hope and possibility: How might women improve politics if they get the right to vote?

White dresses were also easier and cheaper to attain than colored ones. A poorer or middle-class woman could show her support for suffrage by wearing an ordinary white dress and adding a purple or yellow accessory. The association of white with the idea of sexual and moral purity was also a useful way for suffragists to refute negative stereotypes that portrayed them as masculine or sexually deviant.

Black suffragists, in particular, capitalized on the association of white with moral purity. By wearing white, black suffragists showed they, too, were honorable women – a position they were long deprived of in public discourse.

Beyond the struggle for the vote, black women would deploy white. During the 1917 silent parade to protest lynching and racial discrimination, they wore white.

As much as white made a powerful statement, it was the combination of the colors – and the qualities that each represented – that reflect the true scope and symbolism of the suffrage movement.

The next time a female politician wants to use fashion to celebrate the legacy of the suffrage movement, it might be a good idea to not just emphasize their moral purity, but to also bring attention to their loyalty to the cause and, more importantly, their hope.

White is a great gesture. But it can be even better if there’s a dash of purple and yellow.

This image provided by the FBI shows part of the wanted poster for Monica Elfriede Witt. The former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist who defected to Iran 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 Pentagon program, prosecutors said Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. (FBI via AP)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122322912-a20e4c982ed245fc948e1d98e93dbce7.jpgThis image provided by the FBI shows part of the wanted poster for Monica Elfriede Witt. The former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist who defected to Iran 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 Pentagon program, prosecutors said Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. (FBI via AP)

This 2012 photo released by the Department of Justice shows Monica Elfriede Witt. The Justice Department on Wednesday announced an indictment against Monica Elfriede Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013 and is currently at-large. (Department of Justice via AP)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122322912-15eefed612874baba4116ee585108c0f.jpgThis 2012 photo released by the Department of Justice shows Monica Elfriede Witt. The Justice Department on Wednesday announced an indictment against Monica Elfriede Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013 and is currently at-large. (Department of Justice via AP)

This 2013 photo released by the Department of Justice shows Monica Elfriede Witt. The Justice Department on Wednesday announced an indictment against Monica Elfriede Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013 and is currently at-large. (Department of Justice via AP)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122322912-6292bc99539f4cfa9203738f5843d4bf.jpgThis 2013 photo released by the Department of Justice shows Monica Elfriede Witt. The Justice Department on Wednesday announced an indictment against Monica Elfriede Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013 and is currently at-large. (Department of Justice via AP)
News & Views

Staff & Wire Reports