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Pentagon linguist charged with espionage exposed U.S. sources in Iraq, feds say

Inside Iran's strategy against the U.S.
Inside Iran's strategy against the U.S. 06:33

Washington — A Pentagon contractor working as a linguist in Iraq has been arrested and charged with espionage for allegedly passing highly classified information about U.S. intelligence sources to an individual tied to Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organization, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

Mariam Thompson, 61, of Rochester, Minnesota, made her first appearance in U.S. District Court in Washington. She faces one count of unlawfully retaining defense information and one count of transmitting the information to a representative of a foreign government, as well as a count of conspiracy. The latter two counts carry potential sentences of life in prison or the death penalty, under certain circumstances. The sentence for the first count is up to 10 years.

Wearing plainclothes and a pink cardigan, hair pulled back in a bun, Thompson listened quietly as the charges were read aloud, her hands alternately clasped tightly on the table or rubbing her face. A number of high-profile federal prosecutors, including the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and lawyers from the Justice Department's National Security Division, were present in the relatively crowded courtroom, underscoring the severity of the charges.

An affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint detailed the allegations against her. In December 2019, Thompson was a linguist assigned to a special operations facility in Irbil, Iraq. One day after demonstrators stormed the American embassy in Baghdad to protest U.S. airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia, Thompson began collecting information from the Pentagon's networks about human intelligence sources at the behest of a co-conspirator with ties to Hezbollah, Tehran's regional proxy, according to the affidavit. 

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Mariam Thompson as seen in federal court in Washington on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. William J. Hennessy Jr.

Prosecutors say she accessed 57 files over the next six weeks about eight U.S. sources, information the government says she "did not have a legitimate need to access." The files contained "names, personal identification data, background information, and photographs of the human sources, as well as operations cables detailing information the human sources provided," according to the affidavit.

In February, FBI agents searched her living quarters and found under her mattress a handwritten note in Arabic containing the names of three human sources who were collecting intelligence for the U.S., with instructions that their phones should be monitored. The note also said another person, who the affidavit said was a "target of the United States," should be warned.

After she was arrested, Thompson waived her Miranda rights and told FBI agents that she was passing on the information to a "romantic interest," known in the affidavit as the co-conspirator. The co-conspirator is a Lebanese national who has ties to Hezbollah, and Thompson said she provided the information at his request, the affidavit said.

Thompson told investigators that she relayed details gleaned from the files by memorizing them, writing them down and sending them via video chat on a secure messaging platform. The FBI gained access to her phone and found a screenshot showing a second note which included the name of another source and details about how the source was gathering intelligence.

In conversations with the FBI quoted in the affidavit, Thompson said she wasn't sure whether her co-conspirator was affiliated with Hezbollah or Amal, a Lebanese political party. Thompson said she thought Hezbollah was "bad" and that their members are "terrorists," according to the affidavit.

At her court appearance, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cummings told Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather that Thompson remains a grave threat to national security and should remain in custody. Meriweather agreed, ordering her held pending a detention hearing on March 11. David Benowitz, an attorney for Thompson, did not object. Benowitz did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the hearing.

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