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Former N.S.A. Employee Pleads Guilty to Taking Classified Information

A former National Security Agency employee admitted on Friday that he had illegally taken from the agency classified documents believed to have subsequently been stolen from his home computer by hackers working for Russian intelligence.

Nghia H. Pho, 67, of Ellicott City, Md., pleaded guilty to one count of willful retention of national defense information, an offense that carries a possible 10-year sentence. Prosecutors agreed not to seek more than eight years, however, and Mr. Pho's attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, will be free to ask for a more lenient sentence. He remains free while awaiting sentencing on April 6.

Mr. Pho had been charged in secret, though some news reports had given a limited description of the case. Officials unsealed the charges on Friday, resolving the long-running mystery of the defendant's identity.

Mr. Pho, who worked as a software developer for the N.S.A., was born in Vietnam but is a naturalized United States citizen. Prosecutors withheld from the public many details of his government work and of the criminal case against him, which is linked to a continuing investigation of Russian hacking.

But in court documents, prosecutors did disclose that he worked from 2006 to 2016 for the N.S.A.'s "Tailored Access Operations." The unit, whose name has now been changed to Computer Network Operations, is the N.S.A.'s fastest-growing component. Its hackers break into foreign computer networks to gather intelligence, often leaving behind software implants that continue to collect documents and other data and forward it to the agency for months or years.

Prosecutors said that from 2010 until March 2015, Mr. Pho began removing classified documents and writings. He kept those materials, some in digital form, at his home in Maryland, according to prosecutors.

It appears he was charged in March 2015.

Mr. Pho is one of three N.S.A. workers to be charged in the past two years with mishandling classified information, a dismal record for an agency that is responsible for some of the government's most carefully guarded secrets.

The leaks have come to light as investigators scramble to trace the source of an even worse breach of N.S.A. security: the public release of the agency's hacking tools by a still-unidentified group calling itself the Shadow Brokers. Some of those tools have been subsequently used for "ransomware" attacks that shut down or disrupted businesses, hospitals, railways and other enterprises around the world this year.

Government officials, who would speak of the classified details of the case only on condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Pho took the classified documents home to help him rewrite his resume. But he had installed on his home computer antivirus software made by Kaspersky Lab, a top Russian software company, and Russian hackers are believed to have exploited the software to steal the documents, the officials said.

It is not clear whether anyone at Kaspersky Lab was aware of the document theft. The company has acknowledged finding N.S.A. hacking software on a customer's computer and removing it, but says the material was subsequently destroyed. It has denied that it works with Russian intelligence.

The sensitivity of the case was evident on Friday, when one courtroom official described the charges against Mr. Pho as "super-sealed" before the hearing. The aggressive hacking of American targets by the Russian government, including the Democratic National Committee during last year's election campaign, is a high-priority concern for the United States, and forensic information from Mr. Pho's computer might provide useful clues.

In addition to Mr. Pho, an N.S.A. contractor, Harold T. Martin III, was arrested last year after F.B.I. agents found some 50 terabytes of data and documents that he had taken from the N.S.A. and other agencies over 20 years. The material was stuffed into a garden shed and car, among other places, and investigators have considered the possibility that the Shadow Brokers might have obtained the hacking tools from Mr. Martin, who had also worked at one point for agency's Tailored Access Operations.

A contract linguist who worked for the N.S.A. in Georgia, Reality Winner, was arrested in June and charged with providing a single N.S.A. document to the online publication The Intercept. Both Mr. Martin and Ms. Winner are being held awaiting trial.

[Source: By Scott Shane and Adam Goldman, The New York Times, Baltimore, 01Dec17]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 11Sep18 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.