State Department contractor accused of stealing satellite images of Africa

by MMC
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A State Department contractor stole classified documents including satellite images and other sensitive information about military activities in Africa, federal prosecutors said in a criminal complaint. unsealed Thursday.

Abraham T. Lemma, 50, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Ethiopian descent from Silver Spring, Maryland, was charged with two counts of espionage and willful withholding of national defense information. The espionage charges carry a death penalty of up to life in prison, the Justice Department said in a news release.

The case comes after several leaks within the US government raised questions about security and the level of employee access. In April, prosecutors arrested member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard accused of sharing a vast array of national security secrets in an online gaming chat group. Last month, two Navy sailors in California were accused of divulging military secrets to Chinese intelligence agents.

Court documents provide new details about documents Mr. Lemma allegedly took from a secure State Department facility. The New York Times revealed this month that it was arrested in August and accused of spying for Ethiopia, a country that is a major recipient of U.S. aid, but little else was known.

Although the complaint did not reveal which country Mr. Lemma worked for, U.S. officials identified it as Ethiopia and described the espionage suspicions as limited in scope. In a statement, the State Department said it would work with intelligence agencies and conduct a review of the national security and foreign policy implications of this case.

According to a court filing, Mr. Lemma had been employed by the State Department since at least 2021, working evenings at a secure facility in Washington. Around May 2022, he began working daytime as an analyst at the Department of Justice, where he had access to classified information.

At the State Department, Mr. Lemma was an information technology administrator within its intelligence branch, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as INR, and had access to classified systems, the report said. case. The intelligence branch manages some of the most sensitive U.S. intelligence, which is used to better inform ambassadors and other high-ranking diplomats.

Although some of the intelligence the office allegedly collected would include less sensitive economic data, it would also include the most recent assessments of a war in Ethiopia involving its neighbor Eritrea, information that the Ethiopian government would have a vested interest in understanding.

In his role at the State Department, Mr. Lemma was authorized to move highly sensitive documents between classified systems and could send classified information to unclassified systems. Some of the documents he is accused of taking were classified or top secret, according to prosecutors.

From December 2022 to August 2023, Mr. Lemma copied information from dozens of intelligence reports on a wide range of topics, according to the court filing. In some cases, he removed classification marks and pasted the content into Word documents. The majority of reports appear to be linked to Ethiopia, where Mr. Lemma has family.

Mr. Lemma is accused of taking more than 100 documents containing classified information since his return in July 2022 from a trip to Africa. Investigators said he made a second trip in mid-April.

Mr. Lemma was observed on several occasions retrieving classified documents without authorized access and taking handwritten notes, the filing adds. He sent classified documents, photographs, notes, maps and details about other countries neighboring Ethiopia using an encrypted platform with his handler overseas, prosecutors said.

In September 2022, Mr. Lemma shared information about the activities of another country in East Africa, according to investigators.

Ethiopia, located in the geopolitically important Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s poorest countries, facing drought, famine, political unrest and a bloody civil war. In recent years, the United States has provided the country with more than $3 billion in aid, according to the State Department. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Ethiopia strengthen ties with the United States amid growing influence from China and Russia.

Poor espionage techniques appear to have played a role in helping the FBI confirm that Mr. Lemma was in contact with a foreign intelligence official.

While communicating via an encrypted platform, they freely discussed a rebel group’s military activities and identified command and logistics centers. Court documents describe Mr. Lemma as an enthusiastic spy.

In one exchange, the intelligence official provided specific topics on which Mr. Lemma needed to gather information. Around September 2022, investigators wrote, the intelligence official said it was “time to continue your support.”

Mr. Lemma replied: “Roger that!”

In another conversation, the intelligence officer praised Mr. Lemma, perhaps in the hope that he would continue spying, touting the “special people” who sacrifice their lives to “protect our proud history “. The officer added: “You always remember that. The results don’t matter.

Julian E. Barnes reports contributed.

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