We Need To Talk About Monica Witt and the Psychology of Espionage

It's hard to imagine events often seen in shows or movies happening in real life. We don't base scenarios such as thousands of balloons carrying a house up into the sky, a powerful Sith lord and cyborg revealing himself as his opponent's father, or reptiles large as skyscrapers touring Metropolitan areas within the realm of reality.

But we should remember that art, shows, books and movies mirror our society in their themes, allusions, and plot points. The things we see in movies have their own realistic iterations.

I had this flash of catharsis while listening to the story of former counterintelligence specialist, Monica Witt. I was driving to work with the radio set to NPR; NPR did not hold back as they described Monica Witt's crimes and history. A wave of surrealism washed over me; the world suddenly felt like a black and white movie, a scene from Night Train to Munichas spies and espionage and hackers flooded to forefront of reality.

With such a fast-paced news cycle, Witt's story, along with many others, seem to have gotten lost in the hay stack but her story raises challenging questions about spies, persuasion, and evolutions in loyalty.

Who is Monica Witt?

Photo courtesy of the FBI

Witt, a former Texas resident, worked as a counterintelligence specialist for the U.S. Air Force. She possessed the highest level of security clearance from 1997 to 2008 and was "deployed overseas to conduct classified counterintelligence missions" as stated by the Department of Justice. Witt also collaborated with the Department of Defense as a cleared defense contractor in 2010.

A previously issued FBI missing persons poster posits Witt as working in either Afghanistan or Tajikistan as an English teacher. Before vanishing, she lived overseas for more than a year and within that time converted to Islam. The BBC reports that Witt was present on a television show in which she identified herself as a U.S. veteran and on several broadcasts criticized the United States.

Witt was recruited by Iran after attending conferences sponsored by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and hosted by the Iranian New Horizon Organization such as the Hollywoodism conference held in Iran in Feb. 2012. The Department of Justice notes that these events "[condemns] American moral standards and [promotes] anti-U.S. propaganda."

Photo courtesy of LA Times

These conferences established Witt's continued contact with a dual United States-Iranian citizen, contact that led to Witt's successful re-entry in Iran in Aug. 2013. Therefore following her conference attendance, Witt was defected and recruited by Iran in 2013.

"Once a holder of a top secret security clearance, Monica Witt actively sought opportunities to undermine the United States and support the government of Iran—a country which poses a serious threat to our national security," said Jay Tabb, executive assistant director of the FBI's National Security Branch in a Feb. 13 press briefing in Washington, D.C. as stated on an official site of the U.S. Department of Justice.

How did Witt betray the US?

In support of Iran initiative, Witt shared her classified knowledge and contacts with Iran, allowing four Iranian hackers, known as the Cyber Conspirators and part of the IRGC, to attack Witt's former U.S. intelligence colleagues using malware (software that is designed to damage or gain unauthorized access to a computer system) and spear-phishing (the fraudulent practice of sending emails from a trusted sender to get targeted individuals to reveal confidential information).

The Cyber Conspirators allegedly used the malware and spear-phishing to attain access to U.S. intelligence individuals' computers and networks with the help of Witt and the information she provided.

"In one such instance, 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 employee’s actual Facebook account. This particular fake account caused several of Witt’s former colleagues to accept 'friend' requests," as stated in a Feb. 13 press release from the Department of Justice.

Witt's alleged efforts were all in benefit of the Iranian government as she revealed secrets to Iran officials such as the "true identity" of a U.S. intelligence officer as well as the "existence of a highly classified intelligence collection program."

Photo courtesy of the FBI Field Office

What comes next?

After investigations by the FBI's Washington Field Office and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, a grand jury in the United States District Court, District of Columbia indicted Witt on Feb. 8. Witt was charged with conspiracy to deliver national defense information to representatives of a foreign government and delivering national defense information to representatives of a foreign government; she is also considered an international flight risk.

Charges were also filed against the four IRGC Cyber Conspirators (Mojtaba Mosoumpour, Behzad Mesri, Hossein Parvar, and Mohamad Paryar) for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, computer intrusion, aggravated identity theft, and aiding and abetting.

The FBI have issued warrants for all individuals charged however all indicted parties are still at large.

U.S. Authorities will most likely continue looking for Witt and her co-conspirators as well as any additional parties that can provide extensive information on the charges filed or the whereabouts of Witt and the Cyber Conspirators.

Final Thoughts

Still at large, Witt is no longer an agent for the U.S. and it's so easy to criminalize Witt, to label her a traitor, to place her in a category, a box and nail it shut. But we must not stray from asking the important questions: How did her decision come to fruition? What drove her to work in the best interests of another country to the chagrin of her former allegiance?

Well I took to the essays of Dr. Ursula M. Wilder and former CIA agent Jason Matthews for answers. Matthews' article "The Spy Who Turned Me," previously published by the Wall Street Journal, outlines how a case officer persuades an agent of another country to become a traitor and spy for the U.S. or any foreign intelligence service.

Matthews notes that successful persuasion derives from trust:

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto & Hindustan Times

While Matthews admits there is no definitive handbook, there are common methods used in persuasion such as the acronym MICE (money, ideology, conscience and ego–apparently the Russians would add an "S" onto the end of this acronym for sex as they have used sexual entrapment in their own intelligence operations. But Matthews and many countries believe sex is not a "reliable recruitment technique").

These four points–money, ideology, conscience, and ego–are deployed to turn an agent against their country. While we can't exactly say which point had a role in turning Witt against the U.S., we do know that while overseas in Iran, she shifted religious beliefs, meaning ideology could have had a role in motivating her crimes.

When it comes to persuasion via ideology, agents can either adapt a new ideology, like Witt, or have a "traumatic loss of ideology," both of which are a lengthy process that develops over years:

"This agent no longer believes in her government. She has been abused by the system and hates the superiors who have ruined her career" (Matthews).

Photo courtesy of Daily Telegraph

So maybe Witt's decisions were driven by a lack of belief in the U.S. government and her superiors. Maybe she felt betrayed by the U.S., forgotten by her government, which made her betray the U.S. in kind.

According to Dr. Ursula M. Wilder in her article "The Psychology of Espionage," these decision arise from what she denotes are the three elements of espionage.

  • Dysfunction of personality: A spy may possess pathological personality features such as thrill seeking or a desire for power and control, features that lead to espionage.

  • A state of crisis: Espionage may seem like the only option and the most logical choice to solve a problem and escape a painful or terrible situation.

  • Ease of opportunity: If the spy, who has access to classified information, has a relationship with an interested "customer" the manipulations of these customers who "present themselves to potential spies as rewarding and safe patrons" can also lead someone down the path of espionage.

Dr. Wilder admits that these elements appear in a variety of ways and mixtures and there are inklings of these elements in Witt's story.

Remember Witt visited a conference in Iran and following her attendance, she is noted for having defected. We can only guess that at the conference, "interested customers" took the ease of opportunity to sway Witt's allegiance using the persuasive MICE methods.

With Witt's whereabouts still unknown along with her reasons for defecting, we can only guess her reasoning. However we should still make efforts to understand how these events take place, how and why allegiances break and mend. We have to question what happened and why it happened. What made Witt betray the U.S.?

We should make efforts to understand Witt before we stamp her with a label. Our understanding reveals not only ideas about Monica Witt, persuasion, and trust but information about ourselves.

What are your thoughts regarding this whole ordeal? Do these experiences remind you of any movies or shows? Share in the comments below! And I implore everyone to read the full articles of Jason Matthews and Dr. Wilder for more lengthy information on the psychology of espionage.

Sources: FBI.gov, BBC, The Washington Post, The Department of Jusitce, The Wall Street Journal, CIA.gov

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