March 4, 2020

Department of Defense Linguist Charged with Espionage – A Spy Story

Special Operations Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve

A civilian Arabic linguist working as a contractor for the Department of Defense at a Special Operations Task Force facility in Irbil, northern Iraq, was arrested and charged with espionage.

Miriam Taha Thompson, 61, is accused of transmitting highly sensitive classified national defense information to a foreign national with apparent connections to the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah.

For the legal types, the specific charge is Delivering Defense Information to Aid a Foreign Government in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 794(a) and conspiring to do so in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 794(c).

The Department of Justice press release includes links to the criminal complaint and an affidavit detailing Thompson’s alleged activities. I am surprised at the level of detail in the affidavit – at times, it appears to be divulging what many of us intelligence professionals would consider sensitive information.

My compliments to FBI Special Agent Danielle Ray for her excellent recap of this alleged crime. She comments that the affidavit only includes enough information to support probable cause for Thompson’s arrest and that there is more information. As if this isn’t bad enough….

Thompson was arrested on February 27 in Irbil, Iraq. She held a Top Secret security clearance with access to Sensitive Compartmented Information as well as access to sensitive information on the true identity of human sources providing intelligence to American intelligence officers.

Thompson provided the names of a least four of these American intelligence sources to a Lebanese national with ties to Hizballah, as well as a warning to the individual about U.S. intelligence operations targeting Hizballah and the Amal Movement. Both Hizballah and Amal are Lebanese Shi’a groups designated by the State Department as foreign terrorist organizations.

I have read the affidavit and will detail some of the more pertinent information that shows how much damage a well-placed spy can do in a short period of time. It appears that Thompson committed these crimes between December 30, 2019 and February 19, 2020. It is interesting that she began these activities almost immediately after her arrival in Irbil in mid-December.

I will try to break this down into a more readable narrative, based on my analysis of the affidavit, press release, and media accounts. It reads like a spy novel. Granted, some of this is speculation, but I used to do this for a living.

Miriam Taha (a very Lebanese name) was either born in an Arabic-speaking country, or grew up in the United States the daughter of immigrants in an Arabic-speaking household. In any case, she possessed a useful and marketable skill – the ability to speak and understand Arabic at the native level.

Apparently, Miriam Taha married and became know by her husband’s surname, Thompson (we are unaware of her marital status). She took a job as an Arabic linguist for a government contractor. As part of her employment, she obtained a Top Secret clearance and was granted access to Special Compartmented Information, and operational intelligence information on human intelligence sources. This is among the most sensitive information in the intelligence community.

At some point, Thompson became romantically involved with a Lebanese national with ties to the Amal Movement. Amal is a Lebanese Shi’a organization at times affiliated with Lebanese Hizballah – both groups have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

I suspect that her romantic involvement was a targeted recruitment by this Lebanese national, identified in the affidavit as “Co-conspirator.” This individual is what we in the intelligence community call a case officer – he was Thompson’s handler, and she was his asset. She admitted to her interrogators that “Co-conspirator” had a nephew working in the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior. Speaking as a professional, this was a well planned and executed recruitment.

The timing of what exactly happened leading up to the actual criminal activity is difficult to determine. We know that sometime around December 30, 2019, Thompson, now working at the Special Operations Task Force in the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq, began accessing files relating to American intelligence operations, specifically human intelligence penetrations, targeting both the Amal and Hizballah groups in Lebanon.

Evidently, this search of data bases for information outside the scope of Thompson’s need to know triggered some sort of alert or alarm. Although she was ultimately detected and stopped, she was able to do severe damage in the six weeks she was conducting this operation. Thompson compromised extremely sensitive information, including the identity of four American assets operating in Lebanon to the very people those assets were targeting.

Thompson, in essence, hit the jackpot. Her searches of the classified data bases at the Irbil facility – which may have been linked to centralized intelligence community data bases – yielded 57 files on the desired operations in Lebanon. Shockingly, these files contained the true names, background information, and even photographs of eight human sources working for U.S. intelligence.

Take a minute and think about that. “Eight human sources” translates to eight people who had agreed to work with/for U.S. intelligence officers for whatever reason – patriotism, greed, revenge, who knows? Exposure of these assets in a country like Lebanon would mean arrest, aggressive interrogation (read: torture), and either incarceration or more likely, an ugly death. It is believed that four identities were compromised to her case officer.

No matter how naïve Thompson tries to appear, her own words transmitted to her case officer indicate her level of involvement. She warned her case officer that at least four of these U.S. assets were operating in Lebanon, targeting the Amal organization among others, and suggesting that the assets’ telephones be tapped. That’s not just providing information, that’s actively participating in an operation of a hostile intelligence service against the United States.

Although she expressed her hatred for both Hizballah and Amal, she never explained her rationale for providing information on American intelligence operations against these designated terrorist groups.

As a former case officer, I am always interested in the why. Why did she agree to do this? What did she get out of it? She claims to hate the two groups she likely helped, but did it anyway, in fact, taking an interest in warning the targets of American intelligence operations. I guess she did it for her lover.

We still don’t know the results of Thompson’s treason. I suspect that if the four human assets were discovered and arrested, she may be responsible for their deaths. Unfortunately, the law limits her punishment to life imprisonment.

My question for the U.S. intelligence community writ large, and specifically the Special Operations Task Force in Irbil – why was this relatively low-level contract employee capable of gaining access to human source true identification data?

Inexcusable. Someone should be held accountable for that, but will they?