An IT contractor working for the State Department has been accused of espionage on behalf of Ethiopia.
The Justice Department revealed on Thursday that an individual working as an information technology contractor for the State Department was arrested last month. This person had access to classified U.S. intelligence reports and is now facing charges of espionage for selling confidential information to Ethiopia.
Abraham Teklu Lemma, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Ethiopian descent, was arrested Aug. 24 and charged with using his access to computers at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research to download documents and copy information classed at the top-secret level and above.
According to court documents, the intelligence data was subsequently exchanged for a substantial sum of money with an agent from an undisclosed country, potentially located in Africa. The New York Times, along with other news sources referring to government insiders, claimed that Ethiopia was the nation in question.
Based on a legal document, the breach of intelligence seems to be of significant concern.
An FBI affidavit in support of an arrest warrant stated the information believed to have been shared with a foreign power included satellite photos, intelligence reports and “SCI” information – short for sensitive compartmented information that is regarded by U.S. intelligence agencies as among the government’s most sensitive secrets.
Details about the case, which remained under court seal until Thursday, were unusually sparse. The identification of the nation involved in the spy case was not disclosed.
The name of the FBI counterintelligence agent responsible for the case, which is typically revealed in court records, was also withheld in the documents that were made public.
Mr. Lemma’s previous nationality also was not stated in court papers, other than to say he had previously been a foreign national in an African nation. However, the nation linked to the spy case and identified only in documents as “the Relevant Country” could be Ethiopia, based on a description of Mr. Lemma’s travel there.
According to the FBI affidavit, Mr. Lemma visited the destination country in February 2022 and has familial connections to that particular nation.
Mr. Lemma has been employed as an IT help desk contractor since 2019. From November 2020 to December 2021, he worked for a different federal agency that remains undisclosed. During this period, he was assigned to the INR bureau of the State Department.
Mr. Lemma managed to acquire confidential information from computer networks of various intelligence agencies through an INR office.
Since May 2022, he has been employed in the Justice Department and had authorized access to classified information within the department’s systems.
According to the affidavit, Lemma has held a highly classified security clearance since at least 2020 and acquired SCI access in July 2021.
According to the affidavit, Mr. Lemma engaged in actions to acquire confidential documents. He copied certain sections of the secret files, removing any classification labels. Additionally, he stored information on CDs and DVDs and transmitted them to a foreign agent using a secure messaging app.
The FBI was able to identify the foreign official who received the information through a visa application, although their name was not mentioned in the affidavit.
The document stated that Lemma communicated with a foreign official using an encrypted messaging application. Their conversation included a discussion about the military actions of a rebel group that is engaged in an armed conflict against the government of the relevant country.
At one moment, the foreign official expressed appreciation for Mr. Lemma’s ability to locate the rebel group’s forward deployed command centers and logistic centers.
In April, the Ethiopian government engaged in discussions with rebels from the Oromiya region who have been in conflict with the government for many years. These rebels, called the Oromo Liberation Army, are a faction that has broken away from the Oromo Liberation Front, a previously prohibited opposition party.
According to the affidavit, Mr. Lemma’s bank records showed that he made deposits totaling more than $55,000, which were suspected to be payments from a foreign government.
Matthew Miller, the spokesperson for the State Department, mentioned that the department collaborated with investigators regarding the case.
“In the future, the department will carry out suggestions from the Internal Security Review to improve our methods of granting access to TS/SCI information, increase ongoing security monitoring, and safeguard sensitive data in order to reduce the likelihood of similar incidents occurring again,” stated Mr. Miller.
If found guilty, Mr. Lemma could be sentenced to either death or life imprisonment as the maximum penalty. The charge of retaining classified documents carries a prison term of 10 years.
A lawyer for Mr. Lemma could not be identified.
On the LinkedIn job networking site, Mr. Lemma identified himself as a systems analyst for the State Department. Previous employment included work with the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.