…As US warns countries, including India, against buying Venezuelan oil***
According to a new indictment, Monica Elfriede Witt, an ex-counterintelligence agent who defected to Iran in 2013, is responsible for helping to target ‘her former fellow agents’ and expose a program that is considered one of the ‘crown jewels’ of the U.S. Defense Department. Witt is still at large but was last believed to be in either Afghanistan or Tajikistan in July 2013 working as an English teacher.
An ex-counterintelligence agent who defected to Iran in 2013 helped the Islamic Republic in “targeting her former fellow agents” and exposed a Defense Department program considered one of the crown jewels of U.S. intelligence, according to an explosive indictment unsealed Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
An arrest warrant is now out for Monica Elfriede Witt, the 39-year-old former agent named in the grand jury indictment. The Justice Department says the Iranian government supplied her with housing and computer equipment so she could “disclose U.S. classified information” and conduct research on “personnel that she had known and worked with” during her time in the American intelligence community.
“The alleged actions of Monica Witt in assisting a hostile nation are a betrayal of our nation’s security, our military, and the American people,” said Special Agent Terry Phillips of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. “While violations like this are extremely rare, her actions as alleged are an affront to all who have served our great nation.”
Witt, who is from Texas, entered duty with the U.S. Air Force in 1997 and worked as an Air Force Intelligence Specialist and Special Agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. She separated from the military in 2008 and ended work as a Defense Department contractor in 2010.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard members arrive for a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran, on Monday. Four Iranians dubbed the “Cyber Conspirators” by the Justice Department, are accused of working on behalf of the military unit to ‘deploy malware that would provide them covert access to the targets’ computers and networks.’
During her time working with the U.S. government, Witt, the Justice Department says, was “granted high-level security clearances and was deployed overseas to conduct classified counterintelligence missions.” She earned the Air Force Commendation Medal three times, an award the branch says is for those who have “distinguished themselves by meritorious achievement and service.”
But the indictment alleges that in February 2012, Witt traveled to Iran to attend a conference sponsored by the regime-linked Revolutionary Guard Corps focusing on topics such as the condemnation of American moral standards and anti-U.S. propaganda. She then, investigators say, got in contact with a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen and brokered her future long-term stay in the Islamic Republic. Her whereabouts as of Wednesday are not clear.
The indictment also charges four Iranian nationals: Mojtaba Masoumpour, Behzad Mesri, Hossein Parvar and Mohamad Paryar with conspiracy and attempts to commit computer intrusion and aggravated identity theft “for conduct in 2014 and 2015 targeting former co-workers and colleagues of Witt in the U.S. Intelligence Community,” the Justice Department says. Arrest warrants also are out for them.
American investigators allege the Iranians used “fictional and imposter social media accounts” aimed at deploying malware that would give them cover access to their targets’ computers and networks. The accounts tried to trick victims into clicking on links or opening up files that would then allow the Iranians to infect their computers.
“In one such instance, the Cyber Conspirators,” as the four Iranians are called, “created a Facebook account that purported to belong to a (intelligence community) employee and former colleague of Witt, and which utilized legitimate information and photos from the USIC employee’s actual Facebook account,” the Justice Department said.
“This particular fake account caused several of Witt’s former colleagues to accept ‘friend’ requests,” it added.
FBI officials say Witt’s primary motive was ideological, and the indictment also alleges that when Witt defected to Iran she said she was “going home.”
The Justice Department said Wednesday that it took years of investigative work by the FBI to expose what they believe she really was up to.
“This case underscores the dangers to our intelligence professionals and the lengths our adversaries will go to identify them, expose them, target them, and, in a few rare cases, ultimately turn them against the nation they swore to protect,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said following the unsealing of the indictment.
In the meantime, America’s tough-talking National Security Adviser John Bolton has warned countries, including India, against buying Venezuelan oil, saying nations and firms that support the embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s “theft” will “not be forgotten”.
Bolton’s warning through a tweet on Tuesday came a day after Venezuelan Oil Minister and President of the Latin American state-run oil company PDVSA Manuel Quevedo told reporters in Greater Noida that his sanctions-hit country wants to sell more crude oil to India.
The US has slapped sweeping sanctions on PDVSA with a view to curb Venezuela’s crude exports and put pressure on socialist President Maduro to step down. “We have a good relationship with India and we want to continue this relationship. The relationships with India will continue, the trade will continue and we will simply expand all the trade and relationship,” Quevedo told reporters on the sidelines of the Petrotech conference in Greater Noida.
Venezuela is the third largest supplier of oil to India which is the world’s third-biggest oil consumer. Reacting to Quevedo’s India visit, Bolton said that “Nations and firms that support Maduro’s theft of Venezuelan resources will not be forgotten”.
“The United States will continue to use all of its powers to preserve the Venezuelan people’s assets and we encourage all nations to work together to do the same,” he tweeted and shared a news story about Quevedo’s visit to India to sell more crude oil.
Venezuela produces around 1.57 million barrels of oil per day, half of what it produced two decades back. With the US stopping imports from Venezuela, PDVSA is seeking to retain buyers in other big consuming countries such as China and India.
Quevedo, who now holds the rotating presidency of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), said on Monday that it was important to listen to all the consuming countries that represent oil demand to maintain the balance of demand and supply in the markets.
“India certainly has a good and healthy relationship with us and all the members of the OPEC and that will continue. So, we always keep these communications and relations with all-consuming countries in order to ensure stability and balance will continue,” he said.
The US has caused a loss of about USD 20 billion to Venezuela’s oil revenue-dependent economy, he added. The Latin American country has the world’s largest known reserves of oil estimated at more than 300 billion barrels – bigger than Saudi Arabia’s 266 billion barrels.
President Maduro has called Donald Trump’s government a “gang of extremists” and blamed the US for his country’s crisis. He is under growing internal and international pressure to call early presidential elections amid a worsening economic crisis and accusations of widespread corruption and human rights violations.
Relations between the US and Venezuela were already fraught before President Trump’s administration became one of the first to back opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim President. Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations in response while Trump said the use of military force remained “an option”. India has refused to go along with the US and recognise Guaido as the President and stop dealing with Maduro’s administration.
“India and Venezuela enjoy close and cordial relations. We are of the view that it is for the people of Venezuela to find political solutions to resolve their differences through constructive dialogue and discussion without resorting to violence,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said last month.
Three million people, or 10 per cent of the population, have left Venezuela since its economy started to worsen in 2014, according to the UN. Guaido says more than 300,000 Venezuelans are at “risk of dying”. Maduro, who has blamed US sanctions for Venezuela’s economic woes, said the US intended to “create a humanitarian crisis in order to justify a military intervention”.
Maduro was re-elected to the top post in 2018 in an election which was not participated by most of the opposition parties.
Fox News with additional report from Zee News