It was 2012 and Monica Elfriede Witt offered Ayatollah Hadi Barikbin the pledge of faith all Islam converts must recite: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger." Yet amid congratulations for her conversion, Witt — who once held a top secret security clearance — allegedly had a dark secret: She was being recruited by Iran's Revolutionary Guard to betray her country, according to federal prosecutors.
The 39-year-old El Paso native has since defected, disappearing into the Islamic Republic, allegedly to support the Guard with her counterintelligence knowledge to target American military officials. The unveiling of federal charges this week now links her to hackers with alleged ties to the Guard, a powerful paramilitary force within Iran answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Years before the charges became public, however, Witt's own journey into Iran became the subject of television segments and news articles. The image Iran offered of Witt changed over time, a function of the funhouse-mirror coverage prevalent among Iran's state-run broadcasters and news agencies linked to its intelligence services. They initially described her as an Occupy Wall Street activist, a left-wing protest movement linked to an encampment at New York's Zuccotti Park. Iranian state media, always eager for anything highlighting social problems in the U.S., trumpeted the demonstrations.
Witt, who had left the Air Force in 2008 and later worked for a defense contractor, arrived in Iran in February 2012 to attend the New Horizon Organization's "Hollywoodism" conference. The group at the time described the conference as calling into question Hollywood's representation of Iran and Muslims. However, the Anti-Defamation League has referred to the conference as "promoting classical anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel while giving legitimacy to a rogue's gallery of conspiratorial anti-Semites and anti-Zionists."
On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned New Horizon, accusing it of being a front for the Guard's expeditionary Quds, or "Jerusalem," Force. Nader Talebzadeh, a cultural activist and one of the conference's organizers, told the semi-official Fars news agency the sanctions came only because America was angered by the summit's guests, which included whistleblowers.
State television also that year appears to have quoted Witt as a "former consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense" on sexual harassment in the American military. "The boy's club atmosphere is reinforced with a false belief that men are allowed to act inappropriately and that the command is condoning their behavior," state TV's English-language Press TV quoted her as saying.
State TV's Young Journalist Club in 2012 also referred to her as an "American soldier in the Iraq war." Witt served in the Air Force between 1997 and 2008, where she was trained in the Farsi language and was deployed overseas on classified counterintelligence missions, including to countries in the Middle East.
"I understand how the Western media are trying to show an unrealistic image of Iran and Islam after seeing the clear realities of Iran and Islam by myself," she was quoted as saying. She also told the semi-official International Quran News Agency that a friend encouraged her to come to Iran and embrace Shiite Islam.
"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," she reportedly said. "I believed it would help me to better confront the enemy. I got a copy of the Quran and started reading it."
It remains unclear who encouraged Witt to travel to Iran. Federal prosecutors in her indictment refer only to that person as "Individual A," who they describe as a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who served as a "spotter and assessor on behalf of the Iranian intelligence services." The person also hired Witt to work as an assistant on a film later aired in Iran.
The description could fit Marzieh Hashemi, a dual national who works as a PressTV anchorwoman and was recently detained for days on a material witness warrant in the U.S. That warrant involved the same judge assigned to Witt's case. Hashemi also reportedly had a role in organizing elements of the "Hollywoodism" conferences.
Hashemi, who since her testimony was released and allowed to return to Iran, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday from The Associated Press. Since disappearing after defecting to Iran, Witt allegedly has received free housing and computer equipment from Iran. Prosecutors allege she supplied Iran with information about a classified Defense Department program and has assembled "target packages" research she conducted into the lives, locations and missions of former colleagues.
She has not appeared on television recently, as she did during his conversion some seven years ago. She took the name Narges, or "daffodil," in Farsi. "I congratulate you because you have chosen the religion of Islam, and I must say when you chose the name of Narges for yourself, now you should follow the Islamic rules," Barikbin, the ayatollah, told her then.