Lee Harvey Oswald did it — both ways, to the Soviet Union and back again.
Kim Philby did it — a high-ranking British intelligence officer and double agent, recruited from the halls of academe but secretly in thrall and ideological bondage to Moscow. Part of the notorious spy ring known as the “Cambridge Five,” which included Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.
William Marlin and Bernon Mitchell did it — friends who joined the navy on the same day, later cryptologists for the U.S. National Security Agency. Vamoosed over the Kremlin wall together in 1960, although apparently deeply regretting their renunciation of America afterwards. Both died alcoholics.
Igor Gouzenko did it — a cipher agent working at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, spilling his guts about foreign espionage in Canada, initially ridiculed for his claims by most media in this country.
Bowe Bergdahl did it — haplessly, as a deserter from the U.S. army in Afghanistan, held captive by the Taliban for five years and then returned to American in a controversial exchange for five Guantanamo detainees.
Edward Snowden did it — a former CIA and NSA employee who leaked thousands of classified documents to journalists before securing asylum in Russia, although some consider him heroic as a whistleblower for disclosing details about mass surveillance programs.
Benedict Arnold did it — his name a metaphor for double-crossing, defecting to the British Army during the Revolutionary War.
Betrayers all, most especially those who swore allegiance to their country, then worked clandestinely to sell out their nation and their undercover colleagues, resulting in untold deaths.
But Monica Elfriede Witt, she may be a first: A U.S. Air Force counter-intelligence specialist who shifted her loyalties, uniquely, to Iran.
Witt, 37, actually flew the coop in 2013 but details about her astonishing perfidy were only disclosed on Wednesday with the unsealing of a 27-page indictment documenting the allegations against a woman who’d received the Air Medal, three Air Force commendation medals and three Aerial Achievement medals, according to a story published in the Military Times.
A highly trained processional in the dark arts of espionage, in possession of information about how spy agencies communicate covertly with their operatives — and the identify of those operatives, putting them squarely in the crosshairs of Tehran.
Think Carrie Mathison, in Homeland, scrambling to the other side.
The grand jury indictment accused Witt of espionage, collaborating with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (Quds Force), an elite unit tasked with exerting Tehran’s influence around the globe. Four other individuals, Iranian cyber hackers — that pariah nation is awfully good at it — were also charged (in absentia and can’t be extradited) with committing computer intrusions, delivering defence information to Iran. It is alleged Witt helped the hackers carry out spear-phishing attacks that targeted her former colleagues, the Washington Post reported.
What motivates a person to turn traitor so spectacularly? Money, sometimes. Disillusionment with government policies, sometimes. But, most often, a radical reversal of ideology. They morph weirdly into the thing they formerly reviled.
“She decided to turn against the United States and shift her loyalty to Iran,” said Jay Tabb, FBI executive assistant director for national security. “Her primary motivation appears to be ideology.”
Witt, born in El Paso, also known as Fatemah Zahra and Narges Witt, was an intelligence specialist from 1997 to 2008 who worked for the Office of Special Investigations, the service’s intelligence wing, with access to extremely sensitive material. She was trained as a Farsi language specialist, primarily involved in signals intel collection — much of it conducted overseas — and human spying operations in the Middle East, then employed as a government contractor for two years. All of that most tightly guarded info since shared, purportedly, with Tehran.
The damage done is colossal, radiating outwards, found treasure for other nations in alleged intel cahoots with Iran; possibly, it has been speculated, leading to the compromising of some 30 agents recruited by the CIA in China who have been imprisoned or killed since 2010 following hacker penetration of the agency’s communications system.
As the Washington Post reported, part of Witt’s spying for Iran was to produce “target packages” which included research to be used against former special agents and U.S. counter-intelligence analysts.
According to the indictment, Witt converted to Islam in 2012 during a ceremony that was broadcast on Iranian TV. In a related video that is still available online, Witt strongly rebuked the U.S. government while identifying herself as a military veteran. Manna from heaven for the Iranian regime.
It’s known that Witt travelled to Iran in 2012 to attend an anti-Hollywood cinema conference, hosted by the Revolutionary Guards, an event that functions as a forum for “spotters” to troll for potential defectors. Upon her return to the U.S., Witt was questioned about the trip by the FBI, warned she was being targeted for recruitment by Iranian intelligence. She insisted to the agency that she would never provide information about her OSI work to a foreign entity.
Yet in October of that year — all the while, under electronic surveillance by her own national security agencies — after attending a second anti-Hollywood conference, Witt wrote, in a text message to her “spotter” who’d asked if he (or she) should thank the secretary of defence for her training: “LOL thank the sec of defence? For me? Well, I loved the work, and I am endeavouring to put the training I received to good used instead of evil ?? Thanks for giving me the opportunity.”
In recent days, American officials have declined to confirm or deny reports suggesting that Witt’s “spotter,” identified in the indictment only as “Individual A,” was New Orleans-raised Marzieh Hashemi (born Melanie Franklin), who was inspired by the Iranian Revolution, converted to Islam at age 22 and moved to Iran more than three decades ago. Hashemi is a long-time television anchor with Press TV in Iran — condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as “one of the world’s leading dispensers of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English.” The network has repeatedly blamed Israel for the 9/11 attacks and accused “Zionists” of controlling world events via a massive global conspiracy. You know, the usual Jew-hating blah-blah.
Hashemi, who’d recently been in the U.S., was released from federal custody last month after being detained by the FBI for 10 days. The agency has not explained why she was arrested at the St. Louis international airport or why she’d been confined. Court documents say only that Hashemi had been held on a rare material-witness warrant, possibly indicating she’d been required to give testimony before a grand jury and it was feared she’d flee. When Hashemi returned to Tehran on Jan. 23, she was greeted by cheering crowds. At a subsequent news conference, Hashemi blamed her arrest on a Trump administration trying to “make America white again.” Hashemi is Black.
As for Witt, she apparently defected to Iran from Dubai on Aug. 28, 2013, after sending a text: “I’m signing off and heading out! Coming home.” Signed off with a smiley emoji.
Intriguingly, Iranian officials seemed to have their own doubts about Witt, skeptical of her motives and worried that she might be a double-agent attempting to infiltrate their intelligence community.
As per the indictment, Witt wrote “Individual A” in June, 2013: “If all else fails, I just may go public with a program and do like Snowden.” She expressed exasperation that Iran still didn’t trust her and was considering Russia as a defect option, with WikiLeaks as a platform to spill her guts, a la Snowden. “I just hope I have better luck with Russia at this point,” she wrote, as revealed in the indictment. “I am starting to get frustrated at the level of Iranian suspicion.” And, a few days later: “I think I can slip into Russia quietly if they help me and then I can contact wikileaks from there without disclosing my location.”
Mata Hari Witt is believed to still be in Iran, enjoying free housing and financial support, using her discrete skills on Tehran’s behalf.
American officials claim they don’t know her exact whereabouts. As if.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno