The Cable

NSA Contractor Could Face 200 Years in Prison for Massive Breach

Harold T. Martin III allegedly stole documents over a two-decade period.

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U.S. prosecutors unveiled an indictment Wednesday detailing what may amount to the largest data breach in the history of the National Security Agency — an archive of classified material that may total more than 500 million pages. The incident is a black eye on the secretive spy agency’s attempt to crack down on so-called insider threats and may have exposed some of the NSA’s most sensitive spy tools.

Prosecutors allege Harold T. Martin III stole a huge trove of classified documents, which he stored at his home in Maryland, while working as a contractor to the NSA and other intelligence agencies. While the full scope of Martin’s collection of top secret material remains unclear, Wednesday’s indictment includes 20 charges of improperly retaining classified information. If convicted, Martin could face a maximum of 200 years in prison.

In a statement, the acting assistant attorney general for national security, Mary McCord, said Martin “violated the trust our nation put in him by stealing and retaining classified documents and other material relating to the national defense” beginning as early as 1996 up until his arrest last year.

Initial court filings from October hinted Martin may have communicated with foreign powers, but Wednesday’s indictment includes no such allegations, only that the NSA contractor stole and improperly retained top secret information. An attorney for Martin declined to comment on the indictment.

While Martin’s stolen archive could total 500 million pages, Wednesday’s indictment includes charges for only 20 documents. Investigators didn’t clarify whether Martin’s material is less sensitive than previously suspected or whether they are only indicting him for possession of a portion of the material he stole.

Martin allegedly stored the documents at his home, where investigators discovered them stashed on digital devices and in hard copy. They include a “2014 NSA report outlining intelligence information regarding foreign cyber issues, containing targeting information;” another 2014 NSA report “containing foreign cyber intrusion techniques;” and an “NSA anti-terrorism operational document concerning extremely sensitive U.S. planning and operations regarding global terrorists.”

Martin’s archive also includes a CIA document and a National Reconnaissance Office document dated from 2007 that included “information relating to the launch of an intelligence collection satellite” and “an unacknowledged ground station.”

Prosecutors allege that Martin also brought home documents from United States Cyber Command, the branch of the United States military tasked with carrying out offensive cyber operations, that describe “capabilities and gaps in capabilities” of the American military.

U.S. officials have said Martin’s trove included NSA hacking tools leaked online by a mysterious hacker group calling themselves the Shadow Brokers. There’s speculation Martin may have been the group’s source, but Wednesday’s indictment includes nothing indicating that the contractor shared any of his material.

At the time of his arrest, Martin worked as a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton, the giant defense contractor. Martin’s role in the center of a massive breach of classified information is a huge embarrassment for the firm, which also employed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Since Snowden’s leaks, the agency has spent billions trying to improve internal security.

Martin’s motives for accumulating the documents remain unclear. U.S. officials have alternatively speculated that Martin was a hoarder, was trying to get ahead in his career by taking his work and classified documents home with him, or was carrying out espionage.

None of these allegations have been substantiated, and Wednesday’s indictment sheds no further light on his motives.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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