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Iranian military operative charged in plot to murder former national security adviser John Bolton

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DOJ charges Iranian in alleged plot to kill Bolton
DOJ charges Iranian in alleged plot to kill John Bolton 02:05

Washington — A member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was charged with allegedly plotting the murder of former national security adviser John Bolton, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

An indictment against Shahram Poursafi, of Tehran, alleges that beginning in October 2021, he attempted to arrange Bolton's murder, likely in retaliation for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC's elite Quds Force who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in January 2020.

Working on behalf of the Quds Force, Poursafi attempted to pay $300,000 to people in the U.S. for the murder, the Justice Department said. The department said there is no evidence that Poursafi has ever been to the U.S. He remains at large overseas and is wanted by the FBI.

Iran denied involvement in the alleged plot, with a spokesman for the country's foreign ministry saying the "baseless claims" were "made with political goals and motivations," according to an automated translation of a statement published by the state-run Fars News Agency.

Bolton, who served as national security adviser to former President Donald Trump, thanked the Justice Department for the charges against Poursafi and the FBI for "its diligence in discovering and tracking the Iranian regime's criminal threat to American citizens; and the Secret Service for once again providing protection against Tehran's efforts."

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Former national security adviser John Bolton speaks on stage during a public discussion at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, on Feb. 17, 2020. LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images

"While much cannot be said publicly right now, one point is indisputable: Iran's rulers are liars, terrorists, and enemies of the United States," he said in a statement to CBS News. "Their radical, anti-American objectives are unchanged; their commitments are worthless; and their global threat is growing."

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, who leads the Justice Department's National Security Division, said the department has in the past uncovered Iranian plots to "exact revenge against individuals on U.S. soil" and pledged the Justice Department will "work tirelessly" to stop these efforts.

"The Justice Department has the solemn duty to defend our citizens from hostile governments who seek to hurt or kill them," he said in a statement.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned Iran against targeting U.S. citizens, including those who currently work in government or no longer do.

"We have said this before and we will say it again: the Biden Administration will not waiver in protecting and defending all Americans against threats of violence and terrorism," he said in a statement. "Should Iran attack any of our citizens, to include those who continue to serve the United States or those who formerly served, Iran will face severe consequences. We will continue to bring to bear the full resources of the U.S. government to protect Americans."

In an affidavit filed in federal district court in Washington, the Justice Department laid out the timeline of the plot targeting Bolton, beginning with the January 2020 death of Soleimani and statements by Iranian leaders vowing revenge against Trump and other top administration officials.

In 2021, federal prosecutors said Poursafi met an unidentified person on a social media site and asked the individual to take photos of Bolton that October, claiming they were for a book he was writing. The person told Poursafi he could introduce him to an "associate," identified as a confidential human source, to take the photos and videos requested for between $5,000 and $10,000, according to court documents. 

After Poursafi was introduced to the source, the Iranian operative asked the confidential source through an encrypted messaging app about hiring someone for $200,000 in order to "eliminate" an unidentified person. He also mentioned another job for $1 million, the Justice Department said. Poursafi then offered $250,000 for killing "someone" — $50,000 to the confidential source for arranging the murder and $200,000 for the person who carried out the attack, according to court records.

Poursafi eventually revealed Bolton was his target during discussions in November 2021 and suggested to the confidential source he be killed "by car" as Bolton walked in a park by himself, prosecutors said.

In mid-November 2021, the source told Poursafi he spoke with an individual about carrying out the attack on Bolton, but the purported assailant wasn't pleased with the dollar amount. The confidential source also asked Poursafi for assistance with locating and targeting Bolton, according to court records, and after noting his address could be found online, Poursafi eventually provided Bolton's office address in Washington.

The confidential source and Poursafi spoke around Nov. 19, 2021, and the source said the person hired to carry out the murder was opening a cryptocurrency account and asked for $300,000 in exchange for the killing, according to the Justice Department. The higher amount was then approved after Poursafi spoke with "them," believed to be the IRGC, about the counter-offer, court records said.

On Nov. 23, 2021, the source told Poursafi he traveled to Washington from Texas and went to Bolton's office, and sent the Iranian operative two surveillance photos. After describing the building and parking structure, Poursafi suggested the parking garage would be a good place to kill Bolton, and said murdering him would be easy and not take long, according to filings.

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An FBI wanted poster showing photos of Shahram Poursafi. FBI

The FBI executed a search warrant for Poursafi's online accounts and found screenshots of the photos from the confidential source to Poursafi, as well as screenshots from online maps showing a street view of Bolton's office building. One noted building was "10,162 km away," or roughly the distance between Washington and Tehran, the Justice Department said.

Poursafi and the confidential source had more conversations in early December 2021, during which Poursafi deferred to the source on how to kill Bolton, prosecutors alleged. Asked what would happen if the murder were attributed to Iran, Poursafi told the source not to worry, and his "group" would take care of it, according to court filings. He also instructed the source to discuss the attack in terms of construction and building, and he wanted the murder completed by the end of 2021, prosecutors said.

In late December 2021, after the source said they would be returning to Texas from Washington, Poursafi sent a photo of two plastic bags that appeared to be filled with money.

Discussions between Poursafi and the confidential source continued throughout January and, in early February, Poursafi warned if the job were not complete within two weeks, it would be given to a different attacker. The following month, the Iranian told the source of another assassination job in the U.S. and said to keep Bolton "in the back of your mind," the Justice Department said.

Through April, Poursafi continued to encourage the confidential source to complete the second attack and warned if the source did not do so, his "group had others prepared to finish the operation," read court filings. 

The FBI identified Poursafi as a member of the IRGC in part through photos and determined he was working on behalf of the group to hire people based in the U.S. to kill Bolton. 

He is charged with use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire and with providing and attempting to provide material support to a transnational murder plot. If convicted, Poursafi faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for the first offense, and up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for the second.

The U.S. intelligence community assessed earlier this year that Iran would threaten Americans, directly and through proxy attacks. CBS News also obtained two persistent threat assessments given to Congress in January 2022 that cited a "serious and credible threat" against former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Trump administration envoy Brian Hook.

The assessments, which are not public, show that in 2021 and 2022, the State Department determined the need for around-the-clock diplomatic security for Pompeo and Hook.

Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.

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