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US charges former US Air Force officer with spying for Iran

The indictment came on the eve of a US-led summit in Poland that’s focused on Iran.

US Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Visits Political Leaders In Hungary
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Hungary on February 11, 2019.
Laszlo Balogh/Getty images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

A former US Air Force intelligence specialist has been accused of spying for Iran.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors charged Monica Elfriede Witt, a 39-year-old former counterintelligence agent, with delivering classified defense information to the Iranian government. She was also charged with revealing information about her former colleagues so they could be targeted by Iranian intelligence.

Witt defected to Iran in 2013, according to prosecutors, and is presumably still living there.

Four Iranian hackers who were also charged in the indictment reportedly targeted Witt’s co-workers in the US intelligence community with malware in order to gain access to their system. Prosecutors say they were working on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, an elite military and security force that the US has targeted with sanctions.

John Demers, the assistant attorney general for the National Security Division, said in a statement on Wednesday that Witt acted in violation of “the law, her solemn oath to protect and defend our country, and the bounds of human decency.”

The charges against Witt and the hackers accompany a ramping up of sanctions on Iranian individuals and organizations ahead of a US-led conference in Warsaw, Poland, focused on Iran.

At least three of the hackers indicted on Wednesday were also sanctioned by the US Treasury for engaging in “a malicious cyber campaign to gain access to and implant malware on the computer systems of current and former U.S. counterintelligence agents.”

The US also imposed sanctions on the firm they worked for, Net Peygard Samavat Company, along with a group that organized conferences that recruited foreign attendees, which the US alleges helped support Iran’s Revolutionary Guard by collecting intelligence and information on individuals.

The US is leading a summit on Iran

These new charges come on the eve of a US-led Middle East Security summit in Warsaw. The two-day conference will include issues such as the wars in Syria and Yemen, but Iran is expected to dominate the agenda. (It’s also happening the same week as the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.)

European allies — many of whom disagreed with the US’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal last year — are only sending low-level diplomats to the summit, while the US is sending its bigwigs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence.

Further complicating matters, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked a minor controversy ahead of the summit when he was quoted saying that the conference should focus on the “common interest of war with Iran.” It may be have been a mistranslation, however, as his statement was later edited to say the “common interest of combating Iran.”

The State Department hasn’t been super specific about the actual goals of the summit, as CBS News reports, though Pompeo has predicted that the conference will “deliver really good outcomes.”

And despite the fact that Iran will dominate the agenda, the country did not get an invite. Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif has said the meeting is “dead on arrival.”