At a Pizza Hut and Starbucks in Beirut almost one decade ago, the United States suffered one of the most damaging — and ignominious — espionage defeats in recent history. It came at the hands of the U.S.-designated terrorist organization Hezbollah, essentially a division of Iran's ruling theocracy.
Hezbollah intelligence agents had penetrated CIA operations in Lebanon and identified at least 10 American officers, including two CIA spies who had infiltrated the radical group, and then surveilled and photographed them as they met with paid secret informants at the Pizza Hut and all over town.
After Hezbollah publicly named all of the spies and informants, the result was national security devastation in one of the most sensitive regions of the world. More than a dozen CIA recruited informants in Iran and Lebanon were caught and undoubtedly executed. The CIA's Beirut office had to be disbanded and reformed, a major score for Iran's Hezbollah in a vicious spy-verus-spy contest between the two since the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.
Now comes word of another intelligence catastrophe at the hands of Hezbollah, one that has gone insufficiently noticed amid the distractions of Covid-19 but deserves to be more widely known, emphasized, and covered as it advances. What makes this one particularly egregious and memorable is that mortal betrayal allegedly came at the hands of a Rochester, Minnesota resident, trusted to hold a Top Secret clearance while working as a contract linguist in Iraq.
A Minnesota Turncoat Caught in a "Honeypot" Spy Trap
In March, federal prosecutors charged Mariam Taha Thompson, 61, with (so far) espionage-related "Willful Retention of National Defense Information" and "Delivering Defense Information to Aid a Foreign Government," for which she would face up to life in prison if convicted. Based on court filings and a Department of Justice press statement, Thompson appears to have fallen prey to a classic "honeypot trap," where a spy posing as a romantic suitor compromises a target with access to valuable secrets.
Thompson allegedly diverted Top Secret intelligence to Hezbollah-linked Lebanese man "in whom she held a romantic interest" while she worked as a Department of Defense translator in Iraq, according to the DOJ press statement. She allegedly provided the names of American informants, photographs, and sought to warn a Hezbollah associate of American targeting. In an interview with FBI counter-intelligence agents, Thompson explained that she gave the material to her love interest because he asked her to.
So who was this man?
Thompson told the agents he was a man of "influence" because his nephew worked for Lebanon's Ministry of the Interior, which she knew to be under the sway of Hezbollah. She tried to squirm out by suggesting she was in the clear because of uncertainty that her romantic interest was tied to Hezbollah or the Amal Movement (which is deeply tied to Hezbollah). No matter to federal prosecutors since she admitted that she knew Hezbollah substantially controlled the Lebanese government: "The Ministry of Interior, you know...they are a religious organization, you know? You — I will describe them like — terrorists...Like terrorist organization." Thompson passed her information over an encrypted direct messaging application via cell phone.
Thompson passed her information over an encrypted direct messaging application via cell phone.
Data found in the Lebanese man's Internet account showed an image that read "Hezbollah" in large Arabic letters and was used as the cover image for a group he had joined through an internet account. He also stored photographs of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
This is all alleged to have happened at an acutely sensitive time for the security of American troops stationed where Thompson worked.
Recall that the United States, after assassinating Iran's Al Quds Force General Qasem Soleiman in a December 30, 2019 airstrike, was bracing for Iranian retaliatory strikes against American interests in the region and, as I pointed out, on the home front too.
Those strikes came, too, on January 8, 2020 at the Iraqi airbases at al-Asad and Erbil, where Thompson was stationed right along with American troops. At least 34 U.S. service members at the bases, though all survived, were later diagnosedwith traumatic brain injuries as result of the ballistic missile strikes.
According to an FBI probable cause affidavit, Thompson was transferred to the Erbil base in mid-December 2019 as part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force battling ISIS, as saber-rattling between the Trump administration and Iran had reached fever pitch and just weeks before the December 30 U.S. airstrike that killed General Soleimani.
On or about that day, as protestors stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iraq in anger over the Soleimani killing, audit logs showed "a notable shift" in Thompson's computer network activity at the Erbil airbase, according to the FBI complaint. She accessed information she did not have a legitimate need to know. Specifically, she looked at 57 files about eight "human intelligence sources," the affidavit said. These files held the true names, personal identification data, background information and photographs of the individuals, as well as reports about what they had provided to the American military.
It's unclear why or when, exactly, investigators got onto Thompson; no doubt counter-intelligence investigations ramped up after Iran's January 8 ballistic missile strike on the base. They searched her living quarters in Erbil on February 19, 2020 and found, under the mattress of her bed, a handwritten note in Arabic.
Written were the true names of the informants and an instruction that their phones be monitored and that a suspected Hezbollah affiliate "be warned" that he was a target of the United States. The FBI investigation confirmed that the informants and the Hezbollah target named in the note came from two separate classified intelligence reports that Thompson accessed on two days in January 2020.
The FBI agent who authored the affidavit observed that "The unauthorized disclosure of the information in the note could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security of the United States and could jeopardize the safety of the human assets listed in the note."
Later, investigators found a second note, captured in a screenshot of her encrypted conversation with the Lebanese love interest. This one described a technique used by one of the American informants to gather information and named the informant and another one.
The implications of all this should be obvious to any casual observer; for one thing, those informants all became walking dead, probably candidates for extended torture sessions first to learn who their American handlers were.
U.S. Department of Justice officials called her espionage a serious breach that endangered American forces and national security.
"The conduct alleged in this complaint is a grave threat to national security, placed lives at risk, and represents a betrayal of our armed forces," said U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Shea for the District of Columbia in a prepared statement.
Left unsaid is whether Thompson happened to be absent from the Erbil base the day Iran retaliated; her whereabouts would be interesting to know as it might indicate she had forewarning. The military arrested Thompson some six weeks after the Iran missile strikes, on February 27, "at an overseas U.S. military facility," the press release said.
Vetting Unknown Hearts and Minds of Foreigners Helping the War on Terror
Little is known about Thompson's personal history or of how she might have become predisposed to a Hezbollah honeypot spy scam. She apparently achieved U.S. citizenship after marrying an American dental technician in Saudi Arabia, Stephen Arthur Thomas, in 1986, according to his 2002 obituary. The couple moved to Minnesota in 1993 and raised children. The DOJ announcement and unsealing of court records March 4, which collectively provided little personal detail about Thompson beyond the fact that she was a "former" resident of Rochester, cleared a government security investigation to have a Top Secret clearance in 2012 and had previously held the lessor Secret clearance dating to work she did for American troops in 2009.
Thompson apparently achieved U.S. citizenship after marrying an American in Saudi Arabia in 1986.
It bears mentioning that the vast majority of Arabic-speaking contractors have worked with American troops with unflinching bravery. For their service, tens of thousands of them have been granted special immigrant visas to come live in the United States, ostensibly having gone through multiple layers of security vetting.
But security vetting is never foolproof. Too many resettled foreign Iraqis who fought with or otherwise assisted American troops have succumbed to jihadist ideology. Afghans working among American soldiers have slaughtered dozens in many scores of so-called "green on blue" insider attacks.
This case serves to underscore a continuing need to improve security clearance vetting for our foreign-born military assistants and to regard them, no matter the political fallout, as heightened risks. And not just when they are overseas.
Security clearance vetting for foreign-born military contractors must be improved.
Security vetting must be improved for any of those foreign military helpers who are in the pipeline for special immigrant visas to ensure that none are willing to collect intelligence or commit violent jihadist crimes once here.
As for the ongoing spy war with and Iran and its proxies, the United States has scored its fair share of wins too. The CIA doesn't usually put those out for public consumption. But some victories crest into public view.
Just last year, the FBI and DOJ caught two U.S.-based Hezbollah spies of the terrorist group's notorious "Unit 910" in New York City and in Dearborn, put them on trial and convicted them, as my reporting shows.
Court proceedings involving the Thompson case have had to be put on hold due to social-distancing requirements in Washington, D.C., where the case is being adjudicated. But when things resume, I plan to follow every twist and turn of the Thompson closely, so stay tuned.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.