NSA staffer pleads guilty over taking home top secret files

A computer workstation bears the National Security Agency logo inside its Fort Meade Maryland headquarters in a 2006 file

The Department of Justice announced Friday that a former National Security Agency (NSA) employee pleaded guilty to removing classified information from the agency's offices.

Pho faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.

He worked on "highly classified, specialized projects and had access to government computer systems, programs, and information, including classified information", according to the agreement.

Pho's sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 6, 2018.

Beginning in 2010 and continuing through March 2015, Pho regularly removed and stored government documents that contained sensitive national defense information, including documents classified as Top Secret-the highest level of classified information that is defined by the government as information that "unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security".

Some of the classified files were transferred onto Pho's personal computer at some point and likely compromised by Russian hackers, The New York Times reported Friday, citing government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. That incident is believed to be among the reasons the Trump administration banned the use of Kaspersky software. US officials have said that Kaspersky Lab, by virtue of being located in Moscow, is subject to Russian surveillance. Kaspersky has repeatedly denied the allegations but acknowledged its software in 2014 took NSA code for a hacking tool from a customer's computer before its chief executive, Eugene Kaspersky, ordered the code destroyed.

Pho is the same former NSA employee implicated in previous reports involving the Russian government and Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based antivirus vendor accused of being a conduit for the Putin administration's worldwide espionage efforts, both The Times and Reuters reported Friday.

The two breaches are compounded by the August 2016 release online of a cache of sensitive NSA hacking tools that are similar to those Martin took.

Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee and NSA contractor, leaked a trove of classified documents to the media in 2013, but has avoided prosecution after receiving asylum for Russian Federation.

Reality Leigh Winner, a Texas native who had been stationed in Maryland, was charged in June with sending a classified report to a news organization.

"Any conversations regarding this case will be made in the courtroom during the sentencing", his attorney, Robert Bonsib, told Reuters. The elite cyberwarfare unit is based at the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.

And Harold T. Martin III was arrested in 2016 after Federal Bureau of Investigation agents discovered some 50 terabytes of data and documents that Martin had taken from the NSA and other agencies over a period of 20 years. She pleaded not guilty.

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