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State Dept IT contractor charged with espionage, allegedly sent classified information to Ethiopia

Washington — A State Department IT contractor was charged with espionage after investigators alleged he sent classified documents from sensitive federal systems to foreign government contacts — and likely gave those contacts access to his U.S. government account, the Justice Department announced Thursday.

Abraham Teklu Lemma — described by officials as a naturalized U.S. citizen of Ethiopian descent with a top-secret security clearance — was allegedly working for and accessing sensitive U.S. government records at the bidding of Ethiopia since at least last summer, two sources familiar with the investigation confirmed to CBS News.

According to court documents, Lemma is accused of illegally accessing numerous intelligence reports that were mostly related to a single country and using his credentials to print or download secret and top secret classified records from those reports onto discs.

During this period, investigators say Lemma made several trips to the country and has familial contacts there.

Court records do not mention the country by name, but sources confirmed that it’s Ethiopia.

The charges against Lemma and his work on Ethiopia’s behalf were first reported by The New York Times.

Lemma allegedly used an encrypted messaging app last year to send a foreign contact classified national defense information including maps, photographs, rebel group activity and satellite imagery, prosecutors wrote in court documents.

“[Y]our team analyze this and establish some sort of sense to this,” Lemma allegedly wrote to his contact, according to charging documents, and included an image related to the country.

“It’s time to continue ur support,” the official wrote to Lemma in September 2022, court files said. “Roger that!” he allegedly responded.

And between April 12 and June 21, court documents say Lemma’s electronic accounts were accessed from Ethiopia 31 times including during periods of time when Lemma was not in the country, indicating he allegedly provided another person in a foreign country access to his accounts, the documents said.

Lemma is a U.S government contractor with past posts in numerous federal agencies dating back to at least 2019, according to charging documents. He started in information technology work at the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research in 2021, where he maintained a security clearance. He also currently works as a “contract management analyst” at the Justice Department, court papers said, and had access to classified information.

According to a State Department spokesperson, Lemma’s clandestine activity was uncovered during a self-initiated 60-day review of classified networks and systems after revelations that Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira had allegedly accessed classified Defense Department records, in part related to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and posted them in an online chat forum. Teixeria was charged with espionage earlier this year and pleaded not guilty. He currently remains detained.

After Lemma came to the attention of federal investigators, court records say he was observed a number of times last month using his classified State Department account to access top secret intelligence reports without authorization. He was also seen taking notes on or copying the classified information into Word documents. And multiple times last month, according to prosecutors, Lemma allegedly stored the sensitive information onto a disc and illegally transported it to his Maryland residence.

In a statement, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller praised the FBI and Justice Department “for the diligent work that led to an arrest and charges in this matter.” He added that the State Department would “review the national security and foreign policy implications” and would “continue to implement recommendations from the Internal Security Review to strengthen how we provide access to [top secret/sensitive compartmented] information, enhance continuous security monitoring, and protect sensitive information to minimize the risk of similar incidents in the future.”

He faces three federal counts including gathering or delivering defense information to aid a foreign government and having unauthorized possession of national defense information and willfully retaining it.

If Lemma is convicted, the maximum penalty for the two espionage charges could be death or life in prison, and the retention charge could result in a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Last year, former Navy engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana were sentenced to approximately two decades in prison after they admitted to conspiring to sell information on nuclear-powered submarines to a foreign nation. Investigators alleged Jonathan Toebbe went as far as hiding a memory card in a peanut butter sandwich in an attempt to pass the secret information to the nation.

CBS News was unable to immediately identify an attorney for Lemma.

Olivia Gazis contributed to this report.

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