There is no doubt the defection of former Technical Sergeant Monica Witt to Iran was an intelligence coup for Iran. How she got there and the gyrations which the Iranians went through to determine her bona fides shows they had their own counterintelligence concerns.

The Department of Justice indictment of Witt references Individual A, an unidentified female, as an individual with whom Witt was in contact both via email and face-to-face in 2012 through 2013. It is believed Individual A is American-born Iranian journalist, Marzieh Hashemi, the television news anchor for Iran’s state-run Press TV.

In June 2012, following Witt’s first visit to Iran, to a conference organized by Hashemi, the latter visited Witt in the U.S. and professionally engaged Witt in the production of a video in which Witt, a veteran of the U.S. armed forces, spoke ill of the United States.

Hashemi is characterized in the indictment as a “spotter and accessor” by the DOJ.

Witt, in the summer of 2013 was working as an English teacher in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. As we recall, Witt had attended the New Horizon’s Hollywoodism conference in Tehran in February 2013. Hasemi was the avenue by which Iran’s intelligence apparatus maintained contact with Witt – Hashemi’s role was to keep the relationship warm.

Iran’s view of Witt

It would appear that Witt was viewed by Iran as an individual whom they could manipulate for their own propaganda machine, given her willingness on three occasions to make videos (2012 in Iran, 2012 in the U.S. and 2013 in Iran) which were disparaging to the U.S.

Witt has a different plan

Witt, however had other ideas. On June 23, Witt wrote to Hashemi and revealed that “If all else fails, I just may go public with a program and like Snowden” which apparently did not generate an adequate response from Hashemi. It was then that Witt took the step from which one cannot return: She volunteered herself to Iran.

Witt informed Hashemi, via email, that she had walked into the Iranian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 30, 2013 and “told all.” She continued how, “They are going to get back to me on if they can help me very soon before I leave. I told them I am down to little choices and will be traveling to other areas to request assistance.”  It didn’t take long for Hashemi to respond.

Hashemi informed Witt on July 1, 2013, “I was talking to people until about 2 in the morning about your case. I have several different channels working on it, but to be honest one of them, he said they got suspicious that on one hand you say you have no money and on the other hand u r going from country to country.” Witt replied, “Grrr …. No matter what, they are just going to be suspicious right? . . . I just hope I have better luck with Russia at this point. I am starting to get frustrated at the level of Iranian suspicion.”

Two days later, we learn that Witt wrote to Hashemi and stated, “I think I can slip into Russia quietly if they help me and then I can contact wikileaks from there without disclosing my location.”

With this note to Hashemi, we see that Witt fully understands that when she walked into the Iranian embassy, her personal situation in the eyes of the United States changed forever. And if Iran wasn’t going to protect her, she would offer her knowledge to others. Russia, who had welcomed Snowden, might find her AFOSI counterintelligence “program” knowledge of interest.

Based on the timeline, it appears that shortly after this email to Hashemi, Witt changes location and leaves Afghanistan and travels to Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Iran’s counterintelligence gurus cogitate

Iranian intelligence was now faced with a counterintelligence conundrum. They had cultivated a willing participant for their propaganda machine. Now this individual was potentially far more valuable. Witt was now literally knocking on Iran’s door, walking into their embassy in Kabul and revealing the depth of her knowledge, most likely to an IRGC field officer.

The IRGC counterintelligence cadre were no doubt conflicted. Has this willing participant in Iran video projects been flipped by the FBI and is now a double-agent who appeared on their doorstep? Or was she a legitimate volunteer? Their suspicion, which Hashemi revealed to Witt, was very real.

Following a period of a few weeks of silence the Iranians finally decide they need to vet Witt a bit more before making a decision concerning her bona fides. They have Hashemi reach out to Witt on July 30, 2013.  The email content indicates the two had not been in communication beyond advising Hashemi that Witt had relocated to Dushanbe.

Iran executes their action plan

Hashemi writes, “MONICA ARE YOU THERE??? The name of the ambassador is Mr. Shehr Doost. His mobile is 009929 196xxxxx. Right now he is not in Dushanbe, but you are to call him at 7pm and then go and see him. When you call him on the phone just say that you are the one who is suppose to see him today for a visa and that’s it.”  And with this email, Iran has moved Witt from an overt propaganda tool, to a potential clandestine source.

The provision of the “coded phrase” begins the Iranian vetting process.

The next day, Witt writes to Hashemi, “Okay. Quick update. They are giving me money to head to Dubai. I will wait to get approval there and get it from the embassy in Dubai. They are so kind … even taking me to the airport.” Witt provides confirmation that she successfully made contact in Dushanbe, and that the Iranians were now moving into a controlling position, by being both generous and kind. In addition, they are moving Witt to a locale where they feel they may have more environmental control. By handling Witt’s transportation needs, they are able to “hand off” Witt from one locale to another and observe for any anomalies which would signal to them that Witt as not a bona fide volunteer.

Witt idles in Dubai

Apparently, Witt and Hashemi are in continued contact while Witt is in Dubai. The Iranians are not moving as quickly as Witt desires and it appears that Witt is concerned her idleness requires her to adjust her locale. On August 12, 2013 she and Hashemi discuss Turkey as a possible locale. Witt, for the first time, now reveals that she views herself as fugitive from the U.S. when she writes, “I am a little nervous, though, when it comes to Turkey, as it is an extradition country . . . . If it weren’t for my “history” I suppose I wouldn’t require asylum”

It is apparent the Iranians are still trying to figure out who and what Witt is about. Yet as time passes, their control begins to wane.

Two weeks pass and the Iranian counterintelligence angst continues.

Even though Witt had presented herself in Kabul, they now are asking Hashemi to have Witt provide a detailed compendium of Witt’s professional history. Witt complies, and on August 25, 2013, she sends an email to Hashemi which is titled “My Bio and Job History.” She included in the email her DD214, a chronology of her work history, and a narrative. Hashemi received it and according to the DOJ, approximately nine minutes later forwarded the information to an Iranian email address.

No doubt to boost her bona fides, Witt also has been conducting internet search on some of her former counterintelligence colleagues and their spouses.

She is hopeful the Iranian will make a decision soon. She is not disappointed. The Iranians aren’t going to risk Witt’s extradition to the U.S., they decide to move her out of Dubai to a locale where they have total control.

The Iranians have decided they have a goose in their hands and through deed and task the would quickly determine if this goose was going to lay lead eggs or golden ones.

On August 28, 2013, Witt writes to Hashemi, “I’m signing off and heading out! Coming home,” and boarded the flight from Dubai to Tehran, Iran.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).