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. Iran’s Hezbollah and the CIA have been at one another’s throats, an epic spy-verus-spy contest, since the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Americans.
In 2010, Hezbollah intelligence agents 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 publicly naming all of them, 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.
Now comes word of another serious intelligence catastrophe at the hands of Hezbollah, one that has gone largely unnoticed amid the distractions of Covid-19 but deserves to be known, emphasized, and remembered. What makes this one particularly egregious and memorable is that it 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. According to 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 siphoned out Top Secret intelligence to a Hezbollah-linked Lebanese man “in whom she held a romantic interest” while she worked as a Department of Defense translator for the military in Iraq, according to the DOJ press statement. Thompson allegedly provided the names of American informants, photographs, information about military computer systems, and a U.S. target to Hezbollah and Iran. In an interview with FBI counter-intelligence agents, Thompson explained that she had a romantic interest in the man, who lived somewhere in the region, and provided the information to him at his request.
Thompson told the agents her romantic interest was a man of “influence” because his nephew worked for Lebanon’s Ministry of the Interior, which she knew was 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 her cell phone.
Data found in the Lebanese love interest’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 Suleiman 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 Iran knew American troops were stationed. At least 34 U.S. service members at the bases, though all survived, were later diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries as a result of the ballistic missile strikes.
Thompson had been working at the Erbil base.
According to an FBI probable cause affidavit, Thompson 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. She was transferred to the Erbil base in mid-December 2019 as part of the shadowy and elite 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 United States assassinated General Suleiman on December 30.
On or about that day, as protestors stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iraq in anger over the Suleiman 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 the January 8 Iranian ballistic missile strike on the base. But they searched her living quarters in Erbil on February 19, 2020 and found, in the mattress of her bed, a handwritten note in Arabic.
Written onto the note 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.
The court filings do not indicate whether Thompson’s exfiltration of U.S. secrets to Hezbollah informed Iranian decisions to target the bases for missile strikes, or whether she herself happened to be absent from the Erbil base the day Iran hit. Her whereabouts that day – in short, whether she knew Iranian missiles were coming and didn’t warn anyone – would be interesting to know. The military arrested Thompson some six weeks after the strikes, on February 27, “at an overseas U.S. military facility,” a press release said.
But 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.
The 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, was quickly subsumed by Covid-19 news.
Court proceedings involving the case had to be put on hold due to social-distancing requirements in Washington, D.C., where the case is being adjudicated. She appears to have eschewed presences on social media, not surprising given that many linguists and contractors who help the U.S. military view such activity as posing unacceptable personal risks.
The Minnesota press has so far ignored the story of its alleged home-state traitor.
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 – and it remains unclear whether Thompson was among special immigrant visa awardees – 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 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 my past reporting shows, Hezbollah has long fielded and recruited intelligence spies in cities across America.
Follow Todd Bensman on Twitter @BensmanTodd