DETROIT — A former FBI translator working in Detroit secretly flew to Syria three years ago where she married an Islamic State terrorist leader she was supposed to be investigating.
Daniela Greene, a hired linguist with top-secret security clearance, was working as a translator for the Detroit FBI office in 2014 helping investigate a German citizen who was an ISIL leader in Syria, according to recently unsealed documents in the case.
During the probe, Greene alerted the FBI to several online accounts and phone numbers that the wanted terrorist was using, authorities said. That included Skype accounts that later would be used against her.
But during her investigation Greene fell in love with the man, sneaked off to Syria, married him, and warned him that “the FBI had an open investigation into his activities,” court records show. She quickly became disenchanted — emailing an unnamed person that she had "made a mess of things" — and somehow managed to escape Syria and get back to the United States, where she was arrested.
In December 2014, she pleaded guilty to making a false statement involving international terrorism and served two years in prison. She was released this past summer and is now on supervised release.
The government initially sealed the case but quietly lifted that restriction in May 2015. Only recently did CNN discover the court documents in Washington and break news of the saga.
The government called Greene’s actions “egregious” and said she was lucky to get home alive.
“Her escape from the area unscathed, and with apparently much of that knowledge undisclosed, appears a stroke of luck or a measure of the lack of savvy on the part of the terrorists with whom she interacted,” prosecutors wrote in a 2015 filing.
The wanted man whom Greene married was Denis Cuspert, a German rapper and Islamic State sympathizer who recruited jihadists on the Internet, according to CNN.
Court documents identify Cuspert only as Individual A. And he is alleged to have “announced his sworn allegiance to ISIS and called on Muslim fighters from all over the world to come to Syria to support the group in articles and videos published on Twitter and other online sources.”
Greene knew all this but got involved with him anyway and then lied to the FBI about what she was really up to, the government said.
Lawyer Shawn Moore, who represented Greene, said he could not elaborate on the case, citing security issues and attorney-client privilege.
"Daniela is a smart but naïve woman who got into something that was way over head," he did say in email to the Detroit Free Press.
Greene, who speaks and writes German fluently, worked as a contract linguist for the FBI since February 2011, according to court documents. She began working with the Detroit office in January 2014 in "an investigative capacity."
From the documents, it is unclear how Greene first came into personal contact with Cuspert. But she identified two of his Skype accounts, turning over the information to her supervisors, but kept a third one secret.
Here's what led to Greene's arrest, according to documents filed in the case:
On June 11, 2014, Greene told an FBI supervisor in Indianapolis that she was traveling to Germany to see her family. She filled out the required form and listed “vacation/personal” as the reason for going.
Her declared return date: July 4, 2014.
But she never went to visit her parents. Instead, she went to Syria to marry the terrorist she was supposed to be watching, the FBI said.
She lived with him for 30 days.
Regret followed, authorities allege.
Greene “wrote several emails to an individual in the United States which revealed her knowledge that she has committed a criminal act,” according to documents filed in the case.
• July 8, 2014: “I was weak and didn’t know how to handle anything anymore. I really made a mess of things this time."
• July 9, 2014: “I am gone and I can’t come back. I am in Syria. Sometimes I wish I could just come back. I wouldn’t even know how to make it through if I tried to come back. I am in a very harsh environment and I don’t know how long I will last here, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all a little too late.”
• July 22, 2014: “Not sure if they told you that I will probably go to prison for a long time if I come back, but that is life. I wish I could turn back time some days. God willing I can arrange things, but better to write my mother in my mother tongue only, few people can read that.”
On Aug. 4, 2014, Greene returned to the United States. Four days later, she was arrested.
Authorities say she cooperated fully and “admitted her guilt” at an early stage, which prompted prosecutors to seek a 24-month sentence, more lenient than the 46 months or more she could have received under her sentencing guidelines.
“She appears to have accepted responsibility of her crime, admitting it to law enforcement at the first opportunity and agreeing to cooperate thereafter,” prosecutors wrote in a 2015 filing. “The defendant’s emails while still in Syria make clear her realization of the mistakes began even before she was confronted by law enforcement.”
Greene’s court-appointed lawyer in the case, A.J. Kramer of the federal defender’s office in the District of Columbia declined comment.
The federal government, which typically issues press releases when it prosecutes terrorism cases, would not comment on why it kept this terrorism case under wraps.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, which prosecuted the case, declined comment.
The FBI in Washington issued a brief statement:
As a result of this case the FBI took several steps in a variety of areas to identify and reduce security vulnerabilities. The FBI continues to strengthen protective measures in carrying out its vital work.
FBI offices in South Carolina, where she went to school, and Detroit declined comment.
Andy Arena, a former FBI chief in Detroit, said the federal government may have sealed this case to protect a potentially larger probe.
:There could be additional parts of the investigation that were still ongoing, and so you certainly don't want to divulge this," said Arena, noting he learned about the case Tuesday and was "obviously surprised" by the FBI translator's actions.
"Basically if this was a person she was working against — to fall in love from a distance like that, knowing what this person’s all about, it’s shocking," Arena said. He noted that Green was not an actual federal agent, but a contract employee hired for her language skills.
Linguists are "very important" to the FBI, especially in the area of national security, Arena said. But the jobs have high turnover, and many linguists are hard to properly vet.
"You're getting someone who may or may not have been born in the U.S. It's difficult to really complete the security backgrounds on them, but you have to get it done," he said. "Look, the FBI is made of human beings. People are going to make mistakes. You can't hide it."
Greene earned a master's degree in history from Clemson University in 2008.
“We really don’t have much more information than that,” said John Gouch, Clemson’s assistant director of media relations. “I think it was quite some time ago." Others on the faculty also refused to comment.
In February 2015, the State Department designated Cuspert a global terrorist and "willing pitchman for ISIS atrocities and prohibited all Americans from "engaging in transactions with him or to his benefit."
He is a native of Berlin and joined the Islamic State in 2012. Among the numerous videos he has appeared in on its behalf is one in which he appears to be holding a severed head that he claims belonged to a man executed for opposing the cause.
Don Wood, spokesman for the FBI office in Columbia, S.C., said the case's sudden spike in attention puzzled him.
“This has been a while,” Wood said. “I’m not sure what the deal is and why people are just now catching on to this one.”
Contributing: Georgie Silvarole, Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail. Follow Tresa Baldas on Twitter: @TBaldas