As we recoil from the surprise of learning that a U.S. veteran of the Air Force has defected to Iran, we find ourselves scratching our heads and wondering why she would do that. In previous posts we’ve looked at the mechanics of Witt’s actual defection to Iran. We’ll now try and peel back the layers of her motivational onion.

While we lack a view into Witt’s formative years from her birth in El Paso, TX to her entering the Air Force in 1997 at age 18, we have a clear optic on her adult years.

Witt served 10-plus years with the U.S. Air Force, rising through the enlisted ranks to Technical Sergeant (E-6).

Her final five years within the Air Force saw her assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) as a special agent. Her duty post was with the 2nd Field Investigations Squadron, Joint Base Andrews, where she was the desk officer for two highly compartmented projects where she had access to both SCI and HCS controlled materials.

She returned to these projects as a defense contractor from November 2008 to August 2010.

It may be assumed that upon her departure in 2010 from her contractor position that she was “read out” of the SAP programs, and that her national security clearance was no longer required, though she would retain her eligibility. We don’t know if she squirreled away information as so many others have done over the years, or if she left with the information which she had in her head.

Monica Witt’s Iranian Affection

Witt spent the greater part of her Air Force career and the two years immediately following immersed in things Iranian. Her linguistic facility with Farsi (Persian) allowed her to speak, read, understand and engage culturally at a more advanced level. Indeed, her first contract position following her departure from the Air Force was six months with Booz Allen Hamilton where one of her key job elements, according to Witt’s CV, was to provide linguistic and cultural support as a subject matter expert on Iran.

In 2010 she resigned from her civilian employment and began pursuing her master’s degree in Middle East studies at George Washington University. She had previously earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland.

Within the period of 2011-2012, Witt had two pieces published within the “International Affairs Review” from within the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. It was during this time period that she also began pursuing her conversion from Christianity to Islam.

The first article, co-authored and written during her period of study in March 2011, “It’s about the Price of Watermelons: Subsidy Reform in Iran,” focused on the economic gyrations within the Iranian government to maneuver through the reduction of subsidies to its population.

Later, in 2011, Witt was involved in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement which was sweeping the country in August-September and may have also participated in the Occupy DC protests in November. It was during this period of time Witt is believed to have been spotted by American-born Iranian journalist, Marzieh Hashemi, the television news anchor for Iran’s state-run Press TV.

In late-2011, Witt was invited to attend the New Horizon Organization’s “Hollywoodism” conference as one of 48 foreign attendees. Hashemi intended to use Witt as a face of disaffection with the United States, and did so during the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ sponsored event.

It is not clear if the depth of Witt’s knowledge about the U.S. intelligence community activities vis-à-vis Iran had been made clear to Iran, or if their own due diligence revealed the information. What is known is Witt was identified as an activist, was a U.S. veteran, was pursuing conversion to Islam, and was willing to travel to Tehran. As we know, the IRGC and Iranian media utilized Witt in anti-U.S. propaganda pieces and put her conversion to Shiite Islam on Iranian national television.

Upon her return from Iran in early 2012, Witt continued her studies and wrote a second piece for International Affairs Review, “Why Tajikistan Won’t Abandon the Islamic Republic of Iran” which characterizes the U.S. foreign policy of the Obama Administration and prior of isolating Iran and pressuring its neighbors to participate in economic sanctions as wrong-headed. Her recommendation was for Tajikistan to choose Iran over the U.S.

With hindsight being 20/20, her affinity toward Iran was extraordinarily well evidenced, and she was on the FBI’s radar, as they had warned her in mid-2012 that she was a “recruitment target of Iranian intelligence.”

Monica Witt’s U.S. Disaffection

So when did Witt’s disaffection with the U.S. begin?

She claims to have become disaffected toward the U.S. during her tours of duty which occurred during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, as evidenced in her posting on the “Iraq Veterans Against the War” website which states:

“I served in the Air Force for 10 years and participated in both the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. After viewing so much corruption and the damage we were doing both to Iraq/Afghanistan and to the perception of the U.S., I decided I needed to do as much as I could to help rectify the situation.”

In an interview with the International Quran News Agency in 2013, she noted that a friend had encouraged her to travel to Iran and embrace Shiite Islam. Witt said,

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. I believed it would help me to better confront the enemy. I got a copy of the Quran and started reading it.”

She went on to say in the same interview how she felt that her becoming a Muslim “was not something that could stand. They [her Air Force colleagues] are afraid of such individuals.”  

During a 2016 interview of Witt by a Bangladesh newspaper Witt notes:

“When I was a member of the Armed Forces, I became familiar with Iran for professional needs. During this time, I have done extensive research on Iran and realized that the daily behavior of women with women is completely different from the behavior of the West towards the West. I find Islam in search of reasons why women are so respected in Iran. Because of this religion, the woman is considered to be so dignified, respectful and powerful.” (machine translated from Bengali)

Monica Witt a well-motivated individual

Thus, we have a well-motivated individual in Monica Witt. She sees her defection increasing her personal perception of worth, as a woman, as a professional and as a member of her chosen religion, Islam.

Hashemi and her IRGC sponsors encouraged her engagement and articulation of her dissatisfaction. They underestimated the degree of affinity and the depth of the dissatisfaction when Witt inquired on how she may emigrate to Iran during her attendance at the February 2013 “Hollywoodism” IRGC sponsored conference.

They knew they had a “media” resource which they could call upon for use in anti-US propaganda pieces, they had not yet realized they had in their IRGC hands a counterintelligence coup. They would soon put Witt’s knowledge of the U.S. intelligence community’s counterintelligence activities against Iran to work as they targeted the U.S. government and it’s intelligence personnel.

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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).