An Ethiopian-born American citizen with Top Secret clearance has been arrested and charged with passing classified information to Ethiopia.
Abraham Teklu Lemma, 50, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, could face the death penalty if convicted of espionage.
Lemma worked as an IT administrator for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as a management analyst for the Ministry of Justice.
He was arrested last month and his charges were released Thursday.
In charging documents the country is referred to as a ‘Relevant African Country’, but CNN confirmed it was Ethiopia.
Lemma was granted Top Secret clearance in 2020 and given access to sensitive compartmentalized information (SCI) the following year.
Abraham Teklu Lemma, 50, worked as a management analyst for the Ministry of Justice. He has been accused of espionage on behalf of Ethiopia
Lemma also worked as an IT administrator for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had no need to access documents about Ethiopia during his work, but did so anyway
According to the indictment, he began using his high-level security clearance to access documents related to Ethiopia in July 2022.
He searched for maps, satellite images, intelligence assessments and documents on Ethiopia and its neighbors.
Landlocked Ethiopia shares borders with Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan and Sudan.
Since 2020, Ethiopia has been at war with Eritrea over the northern Tigray region, and Sudan took advantage of the chaos to revive a long-simmering territorial dispute.
The charging documents state that Lemma obtained U.S. information “regarding the activities of a third country in the region of the Relevant County (Ethiopia).”
He began making copies of the classified documents in December 2022 and storing them on CDs and DVDs or printing them out.
Between December 2022 and August 2023, Lemma “copied and pasted information from at least 85 intelligence reports on many topics – the majority of which relate to the relevant country,” court documents allege.
He is also said to have had access to at least 48 additional intelligence reports.
He was observed printing documents, folding them tightly and putting them in his trouser pockets.
Several times he took his car into the parking lot with the documents and sat there for several minutes.
A convoy of World Food Program (WFP) trucks is pictured heading towards Tigrayn, Erebti village, Ethiopia, on June 9, 2022
Protesters take cover as security forces fire tear gas at them during a protest in Addis Ababa in May 2022
Downloading the documents involved frequent trips to Ethiopia, from where he sometimes downloaded even more documents. He also deposited thousands of dollars into his US bank accounts.
According to court documents, at one point he became angry when he deposited $11,600 in cash and was told by the teller that it had to be formally recorded because it exceeded the $10,000 limit.
Lemma’s alleged conversations with his Ethiopian spymasters were also recorded.
His handler wrote in a message received by prosecutors: “It is time to continue your support.”
Lemma replied, “Roger that!”
In another conversation, the foreign official praised Lemma’s efforts, saying, “This beautiful country always has some special people who risk their lives to protect our proud history. You always remembered it. It doesn’t matter what the results are.’
Lemma and his supervisor also discussed meeting in Ethiopia and named their hotel for the meeting.
At one point, Lemma is said to have sent an image back to his supervisors and told him, “Your team is analyzing this and providing an idea.”
The handler told Lemma, “We are making (sic) significant progress in preventing the… within a few days we will reach the critical milestones… not to happen again.” That’s why it’s not a long time for us to ask this. Good if you can check and (sic) return what you can do.”
The handler sometimes asked for specific details, such as, “It’s great to identify the forward command centers.”
A security camera can be seen near the Department of Justice in Washington DC
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Lemma’s alleged actions were discovered as part of a “self-initiated 60-day internal security review of the State Department’s Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Network (TS/SCI) , systems, and applications.’
The review was sparked by the arrest of Jack Teixeira, Miller said.
Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts National Guard, is accused of sharing classified military documents on Discord, a social media platform popular with people who play online games.
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Miller said Lemma was found thanks to the protocol review.
“During this investigation, information was uncovered indicating that a State Department information technology contractor may have deleted, retained, and transmitted classified national defense information without authorization,” Miller said.