State Department IT contractor charged with spying for Ethiopia
A State Department information technology contractor who had access to secret U.S. intelligence reports was arrested last month on espionage charges for selling secrets to Ethiopia, the Justice Department disclosed Thursday.
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.
The intelligence information was then shared with an agent of an undisclosed nation, possibly in Africa, in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars, according to court papers. The New York Times, citing government sources, and several other news outlets reported that the nation involved was Ethiopia.
According to one court document, the intelligence breach appears serious.
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 identification of the FBI counterintelligence agent in charge of the case, usually disclosed in court documents, also was kept secret in the released documents.
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.
The FBI affidavit stated that in February 2022 Mr. Lemma traveled to the target country and has “family ties” to that nation.
From an INR office, Mr. Lemma also was able to obtain secrets from other intelligence agency computer networks.
He also worked within the Justice Department since May 2022 and had access to secrets on that department’s systems.
“Lemma has had a top secret security clearance since at least 2020, and obtained SCI access in July 2021,” the affidavit said.
During the alleged activities to obtain classified documents, Mr. Lemma copied portions of secret documents, deleting classification markings from the files, the affidavit stated. Information also was placed on CDs and DVDs and sent to a foreign agent over an encrypted messaging application.
The foreign official who received the information was identified by the FBI from a visa application but was not identified by name in the affidavit.
“Lemma’s communications with the foreign official over encrypted messaging application A included a discussion of military activities of a rebel group involved in an armed struggle against the government of the relevant country,” the document said.
The foreign official at one point told Mr. Lemma, “It is great to identify the forward deployed command centers and logistic centers” of the rebel group.
Ethiopia’s government in April held talks with rebels from the Oromiya region that have battled the government for decades. The rebels are known as the Oromo Liberation Army, an outlawed splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front that was formerly a banned opposition party.
Bank records revealed Mr. Lemma deposited over $55,000 in suspected payments for the foreign government, the affidavit said.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the department worked with investigators on the case.
“Moving forward, the department will continue to implement recommendations from the Internal Security Review to strengthen how we provide access to TS/SCI information, enhance continuous security monitoring, and protect sensitive information to minimize the risk of similar incidents in the future,” Mr. Miller said in a statement.
If convicted, Mr. Lemma is facing a maximum penalty of death or life in prison. The retention of classified documents charge carries a penalty of 10 years in prison.
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.