A U.S. government contractor has been arrested and charged with espionage, accused of sending classified national defense information to a foreign government, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said on Thursday.
Abraham Teklu Lemma, 50, who is originally from Ethiopia, was arrested on Aug. 24, according to a recently unsealed complaint.
He held a top-secret security clearance and had access to classified information through contracting roles with the U.S. Department of State and the DOJ.
The charges against him include delivering national defense information to a foreign government, conspiring to do so, and willfully retaining national defense information.
Court documents reveal that Mr. Lemma allegedly used an encrypted messaging application to transmit maps, photographs, and satellite imagery regarding military activities to an undisclosed foreign government.
While the court documents do not specify the foreign country in question, they do reference Mr. Lemma's travels to a nation where he has familial connections over the past year and a half.
The New York Times, citing anonymous sources, identified Ethiopia as the country for which Mr. Lemma is alleged to have spied.
Prosecutors claim that Mr. Lemma accessed numerous intelligence reports, extracting information from them and copying it onto CDs and DVDs.
According to the complaint, between the end of 2022 and last month, Mr. Lemma allegedly copied classified information from intelligence reports, removed their classification markings, and took this "secret" and "top secret" material from secure Department of State facilities without authorization.
Furthermore, he reportedly engaged in communications with a foreign official associated with a foreign country's intelligence service. These exchanges included discussions on military matters, such as command centers and rebel activities against the government.
In one instance, according to the DOJ citing charging documents, when the foreign official suggested it was "time to continue" Mr. Lemma's support, the complaint states that Mr. Lemma responded with a simple, "Roger that!"
In other chats, Mr. Lemma responds to the foreign official who tasked him to carry out an objective with, "[a]bsolutely, I have been focusing on that all this week."
The arrest of Mr. Lemma has raised questions about security protocols within the U.S. government.
The State Department disclosed that it became aware of Mr. Lemma's alleged misconduct during a 60-day internal security review prompted by the April arrest of a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman, who was accused of leaking highly classified military documents on a social media platform.
The State Department issued a statement vowing to enhance its protection of classified information and to implement recommendations from the security review.
If convicted, Mr. Lemma could face severe penalties, including the possibility of the death penalty or life imprisonment for the espionage charges.
The willful retention charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. A federal judge will determine the sentence based on U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The DOJ said that Mr. Lemma, who is 50 years old, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.