A federal contractor is facing the death penalty after he was charged with spying and sending US government secrets to Ethiopia.
Abraham Teklu Lemma, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was charged with gathering or delivering national defense information to aid a foreign government, conspiracy to gather or deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government, and having unauthorized possession of national defense information and willfully retaining it, the Department of Justice said.
The 50-year-old, originally from Ethiopia, was arrested last month and could face the death penalty if convicted of espionage.
Mr Lemma worked as an IT administrator for the Department of State, and as a management analyst for the Department of Justice.
In these positions, Mr Lemma was granted high level security clearance and granted access to classified documents.
Mr Lemma is said to have transferred classified defence intelligence such as satellite images, maps and notes to an intelligence official from an African country.
Documents included intelligence related to military operations in the African country and were shared “believing that such information would be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation,” officials said.
Unsealed court filings refer to the nation Mr Lemma was spying for only as the “Relevant Country,” but CNN reported the country was Ethiopia.
“Between on or about December 19, 2022, and August 7, 2023, Lemma copied and pasted information from at least 85 Intelligence Reports regarding many topics — the majority of which relate to the Relevant Country,” the FBI’s complaint against Mr Lemma reads.
He also allegedly accessed at least 48 additional intelligence reports.
Mr Lemma is also alleged to have printed out classified documents or made copies and stored them on CDs and DVDs.
The 50-year-old was observed printing classified documents, folding them tightly and placing them in his pants pockets, as well as taking the documents to his car, according to the FBI complaint.
His downloading of the documents was accompanied by frequent trips to Ethiopia, from where he downloaded more documents and copied and pasted dozens of classified reports into Microsoft Word documents before deleting US classification markings.
After traveling to Ethiopia, he deposited more than $55,000 into his US bank accounts, the complaint said.
A federal affidavit also alleged the accused spy used an encrypted messaging app to transmit the sensitive material to a foreign official associated with Ethiopia’s intelligence service.
“In these communications, Lemma expressed an interest and willingness to assist the foreign official in providing information,” the DC US Attorney’s Office said.
The affidavit showed in one communication, the foreign official stated: “[i]t’s time to continue ur support,” to which Mr Lemma responded: “Roger that!” In another chat, the foreign official praised Lemma’s efforts, stating: “[a]lways this beautiful country have [sic] some special people who scarify [sic] their life to protect our proud history. You always remembered. It doesn’t matter the results.”
The State Department said Mr Lemma’s alleged unauthorized gathering and disclosure of national security secrets was discovered after a “self-initiated 60-day Internal Security Review” implemented after Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixiera’s April arrest for allegedly leaking classified defense documents online.
Mr Teixeira, 21, is accused of sharing classified military documents on social media platform Discord.
It comes after former president Donald Trump was indicted for allegedly mishandling classified national security documents after leaving office.
His resort home was raided by the FBI in August 2022 as part of a hunt for search papers and other government records that should never have left the White House when his presidency ended in January 2021.
A 49-page, 37-count indictment unsealed on 9 June revealed Mr Trump allegedly showed highly-classified documents to unauthorised persons on two separate occasions.
If convicted, Mr Trump could face a maximum combined sentence of 100 years in prison.
The former president has pleaded not guilty to all 37 counts.