State and Justice Department contractor charged with spying for Ethiopia
The Washington Post September 21, 2023
A contract employee for the State and Justice departments has been charged with espionage, U.S. prosecutors announced Thursday, accused of passing on classified information since August 2022 to an official associated with Ethiopia’s intelligence service.
Abraham Teklu Lemma, 50, of Silver Spring, Md., was charged in an Aug. 23 complaint unsealed Thursday on three counts: conspiracy, gathering or delivering national defense information to aid a foreign government, and unauthorized possession and willful retention of national defense information, Justice Department and FBI officials said. The first two counts are punishable by up to life in prison and the last count by up to 10 years.
An attorney for Lemma could not immediately be identified.
In a statement announcing the charges, the U.S. attorney’s office and FBI field office in Washington said Lemma is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ethiopia who had Top Secret/SCI clearance and access to classified systems as an IT administrator for the Department of State and as a management analyst for the Justice Department. He was arrested Aug. 24, but a scheduled bond hearing Thursday before a federal judge in Washington was not held, and no information was immediately available on the court’s public docket system.
A charging affidavit released by the Justice Department alleges that since February 2022, Lemma copied classified secret and top secret information from more than 100 intelligence reports and removed information from secure facilities without authorization. In August and September that year, Lemma allegedly transmitted classified national defense information to the official associated with Ethiopia’s intelligence service, including satellite imagery and information related to Eritrean activities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Charging papers did not name Ethiopia but accused Lemma of spying for a country where he was previously a citizen, had family ties and recently visited. An FBI affidavit also described military activities consistent with those of armed rebels battling allied Ethiopian and Eritrean government soldiers at the time.
According to the FBI, Lemma communicated with the foreign official by encrypted chat, where they discussed rebel military activity and Lemma sent photos of a “military compound.” The official advised Lemma, in those chats, “[i]t is great to identify the forward deployed command centers and logistic centers.”
In another communication, the foreign official stated, “[i]t’s time to continue ur support,” and Lemma responded, “Roger that!” according to the complaint. The foreign official allegedly 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 FBI said an authorized search of Lemma’s electronic accounts on nonsecure networks confirmed that he possessed classified national defense information including digital photographic copies, notes and maps that he sent to the foreign official.
On four days in August, Lemma was observed at work reviewing classified intelligence reports outside of his authorized access using the State Department’s classified computer system and accessing non-department classified portals, either writing information on sheets of paper he folded and carried out of the department in his pockets or copying and pasting information into documents he burned onto a CD/DVD disc and was observed taking home with him, according to the FBI.
Most recently, on Aug. 18, State Department records indicate Lemma completed approximately 10 downloads, most of which were classified at the “TOP SECRET” or “SECRET” level.
The FBI said Lemma was also seen angrily discouraging a Maryland bank branch employee from filing a currency transaction report when he attempted to deposit more than $11,700 on July 15, shortly after he had copied without authorization at least 16 intelligence reports. The transaction was part of more than $55,000 in deposits dating to the beginning of 2022 that a case agent deemed suspicious.
Lemma previously worked for another government agency identified in court papers only as “U.S. Agency 1” from November 2020 to December 2021, in addition to working during evening hours as a State Department bureau of intelligence and research help desk technician and IT administrator, and as a daytime contract management analyst since May 2022 for the Justice Department.