Inside the government, some officials called her “Wayward Storm.” Her real name was Monica Elfriede Witt, an exemplary Air Force counterintelligence agent who had studied Persian and carried out covert missions in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
… American authorities have struggled to conclude exactly why she turned on her country.
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.
– Monica Witt’s undated post on Iraq Veterans Against the War
ith a coordinated offensive of public relations strikes on February 13, the US government did its best to improve the climate for war by demonizing Monica Witt and further demonizing Iran. The Justice Department released a self-congratulatory press release together with a previously sealed indictment of Monica Witt and four Iranian nationals. The Treasury Department issued a dry press release along with sanctions on two Iranian organizations and ten “associated individuals,” based on the authority of executive orders declaring national emergencies as far back as 2007. Other US agencies joining in the legal assault included the FBI, the US Attorney for DC, and the Air Force.
The government’s efforts sparked a few days of news stories generally following the official line as dictated by the Justice Department headline: “Former US Counterintelligence Agent Charged with Espionage on Behalf of Iran.” Or as the Justice Department summarized the story:
Monica Elfriede Witt, 39, a former U.S. service member and counterintelligence agent, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia for conspiracy to deliver and delivering national defense information to representatives of the Iranian government. Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013, is alleged to have assisted Iranian intelligence services in targeting her former fellow agents in the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC). Witt is also alleged to have disclosed the code name and classified mission of a U.S. Department of Defense Special Access Program. An arrest warrant has been issued for Witt, who remains at large.
And that’s pretty much how it was reported, with no attention to the internal contradiction: If Witt defected in 2013, why are we only hearing about it in 2019? Did anyone ask if the “news” was conveniently related to the US war-drumming coming out of the Trump administration? The US vice president, secretary of state, and other high-ranking officials were spending much of Valentine’s week trying to tempt its allies to be smitten with America’s burgeoning war fever for Iran. This is an obsession shared by Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Europeans were not impressed.
As for Monica Witt, American media soon lost interest, despite the heroic efforts of the Times to drag out a story with no legs. Well, no, that’s not right. The legs were there, the story’s deeper meaning is rooted in the illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the myriad American war crimes committed there. But why would American media revisit such old news?
Monica Witt isn’t currently available, reportedly in residence in Iran, beyond the reach of American law and all but the most industrious American media (no known example).
But here, chronologically, is what seems to be known or alleged about Monica Witt’s life.
She was born in El Paso, Texas, on April 8, 1979. While she was still young, her family moved to Florida. Her father, Harry Witt, currently lives in Longwood.
In 1984, the US secretary of state designated Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism,” and has renewed the designation every year since. (The US also designates Syria, Sudan, and North Korea state sponsors of terrorism, but does not so designate Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Israel, or any other country.)
On March 15, 1995, the US president’s Executive Order No. 13224 declared a national emergency to deal with the threat from Iran.
Monica Witt’s mother died shortly before Witt enlisted in the Air Force “in or around August 1997” (according to the indictment). She served continuously till “in or around March 2008” (indictment). Apparently the Air Force doesn’t keep precise records, or the Justice Department doesn’t care. Air Force Times says Witt “joined the Air Force on Dec. 17, 1997.”
From February 1998, Witt spent 14 months at the US Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where she learned to speak Farsi, the Iranian language.
In May 1999, Witt “deployed to several overseas locations in order to conduct classified missions” (indictment). She remained overseas till November 2003. She served at various times in Saudi Arabia, Diego Garcia, and Greece.
On March 20, 2003, the US invaded Iraq. Witt’s conduct in the war earned her an Air Medal with the citation (omitted from the indictment):
Staff Sergeant Monica E. Witt distinguished herself by meritorious achievement while participating in sustained aerial flight from March 29 to April 18. During this period, the airmanship and courage of Sergeant Witt in the successful accomplishment of these important reconnaissance missions in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, under extremely hazardous conditions, demonstrated her outstanding proficiency and steadfast devotion to duty. The professional ability and outstanding aerial accomplishments of Sergeant Witt reflect great credit upon herself and the United States Air Force.
In November 2003, Witt was assigned as a Special Agent criminal investigator and counterintelligence officer for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), which has about 2,000 Special Agents. She conducted classified operations in the Middle East for AFOSI till March 2008. She served a tour in Iraq in 2005 and Qatar in 2006. She separated from the Air Force on June 12, 2008. From then till August 2010 she continued to work for AFOSI, but as a government contractor based. According to the indictment, Witt “held a TOP SECRET/SCI security clearance from the time she joined the Air Force in 1997 until she terminated her employment” in 2010. Her career awards and decorations include the Air Medal, three Air Force Commendation medals, and three Aerial Achievement medals.
In June 2008, Witt earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland University College. The next few years were somewhat sketchy, according to the Times: In 2011, she lived in low-income housing and at some point was homeless, but she also entered graduate school at George Washington University, from which she graduated in 2012. GW’s International Affairs Review published two of her articles sympathetic to Iran. A classmate recalled her having symptoms of PTSD, as well as talking about drone strikes, extrajudicial killings, and atrocities against children that her military colleagues would brag about. Later, in August 2012, she wrote a piece for Iranian PressTV about sexual harassment and rape in the US military (which reportedly is worst in the Air Force).
In February 2012, as the Justice Department press release puts it:
In Feb. 2012, Witt traveled to Iran to attend the Iranian New Horizon Organization’s “Hollywoodism” conference, an IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] sponsored event aimed at, among other things, condemning American moral standards and promoting anti-U.S. propaganda.
New Horizon, the International Institute of Independent Thinkers and Artists, openly welcomes people with a wide range of views, including those who are anti-Zionist and anti-Imperialist, New Horizon is routinely demonized in the US as anti-Semitic and anti-American (as above). But objectively, what’s wrong with condemning “American moral standards?” Americans of all stripes do it all the time. And “Hollywoodism,” however defined, has long been a staple of moral indignation and cultural criticism. Are we all now vulnerable to federal indictment for such thought-crimes? According to Monica Witt’s indictment, this event is at the beginning of the alleged conspiracy to deliver secret information to Iran. The indictment also asserts that Witt’s position as a Special Agent during 2003-2008 was also part of the conspiracy beginning in 2012.
The US government also indicts Witt for calling herself a US veteran and making “statements that were critical of the US government, knowing these videos would be broadcast by Iranian media outlets.” The US also indicted her for converting to Islam in a ceremony she knew would be broadcast.
On May 25, 2012, the indictment notes, the FBI warned Monica Witt that Iran intelligence services might be trying to recruit her.
In February 2013, Witt attended another New Horizon conference and told Iranian officials that she wanted to emigrate to Iran. The Iranians were suspicious and reluctant. Clearly she was – and is – a possible double agent. The Daily Beast calls her (inaccurately)“Iran’s dumbest spy,” while inadvertently offering support for the double agent hypothesis: “that Witt’s digital fingerprints led to the exposure of a broader spy network.” The government’s belated indictment could be part of her cover. After several months of back and forth in 2013, Monica Witt allegedly defected to Iran on August 28, and may have been there ever since.
On April 2, 2015, Iran signed a multilateral agreement to limit its nuclear weapons development. On July 14, 2015, Iran and seven other parties signed a joint plan of action. The other signers were the US, France, GB, Russia, China, Germany, and the EU. On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced that the US would unilaterally withdraw from the agreement. The rest of the signers, as well as the international inspectors, continue to stand by the agreement that Iran has not violated.
Between 2013 and now, the US government would have you believe that Monica Witt “could have brought serious damage to the United States and we will not stand by and let that happen,” according to FBI official Nancy McNamara in 2019. The government alleges a variety of cybercrimes involving Witt in 2014 and 2015. That means that the Air Force was so lax that it took no precautionary measures after Witt left the service in 2008, despite her behavior being so overt that even the FBI noticed by 2012. That level of incompetence really isn’t that credible.
No doubt the government is constrained somewhat by security concerns – and embarrassment – but when it gets down to particulars, the most serious actual harm the Justice Department cites in its press release is from 2015:
The Cyber Conspirators created a Facebook account that purported to belong to a USIC employee and former colleague of Witt, and which utilized legitimate information and photos from the USIC [US Intelligence Community] employee’s actual Facebook account. This particular fake account caused several of Witt’s former colleagues to accept “friend” requests.
While the government also makes much more serious allegations that Witt revealed the names of US operatives, it does not allege specific damage from such revelations, nor from the naming of particular secret projects already many years old (if they still existed at all). Most of the other six counts in the indictment apply to Iranian nationals and the cyberwarfare that is part of current international reality and very much part of the US arsenal deployed against Iran. It’s not news that it’s a gritty world out there. For the US government to play the Monica Witt case as if it’s something that matters, when the indictment remained sealed for seven months, is dishonest. For mainstream media like the Times to promote threat inflation (especially where there is none) is reckless, especially when it feeds into a government determination to have a war at any cost. The Times helped brings us the illegal war in Iraq in 2003 and it’s well on its way to bringing us the war in Iran in 2019.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.