Monica E. Witt, a former United States Air Force intelligence specialist, made her way through the gleaming doors and majestic lobby of one of Tehran’s largest luxury hotels in 2013, on her way to a conference that was all about bashing American culture.
There, in a crowd filled with fringe academics, Holocaust deniers and the lover of the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, Ms. Witt at last found herself among people as critical of her country as she was.
“What she said was she had been involved in horrific war crimes with the Air Force,” said Kevin Barrett, a controversial scholar of Islam who had an extensive conversation with Ms. Witt in the gilded lobby of the Parsian Azadi hotel. “And she just felt really bad about it.”
Less than seven months after the Tehran conference, according to an indictment unsealed on Wednesday, Ms. Witt defected and became a spy for the Iranian security service. It was the climax of a radicalization that was rooted in Ms. Witt’s military service and that accelerated while she was in graduate school. The F.B.I., around the time Ms. Witt earned her graduate degree, alerted her that Iran’s intelligence service had its eye on her.
“There weren’t warning signs in terms of ‘go to authorities’ warning signs,” said Cory Ellis, who knew Ms. Witt when they were enrolled in the same master’s degree program at George Washington University. Still, he said, she did not hide her strong feelings against American foreign policy. “Everyone just kind of sat and watched it.”
American law enforcement and intelligence officials have been left to cope with the repercussions of what several of them have publicly described as a “betrayal” by Ms. Witt, now 39. Officials suspect she remains in Iran, out of reach of American law enforcement.
Former intelligence officials familiar with the case described the damage to national security as severe, in part because she is suspected of revealing the names of double agents run by the United States, and the American authorities have struggled to conclude exactly why she turned on her country.