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US contractor originally from Ethiopia arrested on espionage charges, Justice Department says

September 22, 2023

Abraham Teklu Lemma, who is originally from Ethiopia, had a top secret security clearance and access to classified information through contracting positions with the departments of State and Justice.

He is accused of using an encrypted messaging application to transmit maps, photographs and satellite imagery to the foreign government, according to court documents.

Court papers do not identify the country Lemma is accused of spying for, and a Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. But the documents do refer to travel back and forth over the past year and a half to a country where he has family ties.

The New York Times, which first reported the arrest, identified Ethiopia as the country for which Lemma is alleged to have spied.

Prosecutors say he accessed dozens of intelligence reports, copying information from them and downloading it to CDs and DVDs.

Lemma faces charges of delivering national defense information to aid a foreign government and conspiring to do so, as well as the willful retention of national defense information. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf.

Lemma, 50, of Silver Spring, Maryland, is a naturalized U.S. citizen, the Justice Department said.

Besides the material that prosecutors say Lemma provided, he also communicated with a foreign official who tasked him with supplying information on certain subjects of interest to the country. They discussed military issues, such as command centers and the activities of rebels who were fighting against the government, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit.

When the official told Lemma last September that it was time for him to continue his support, the affidavit says, Lemma responded, “Roger that!”

The State Department said in a statement that it learned that Lemma may have improperly removed classified information from its systems during an internal 60-day security review prompted by the April arrest of a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman accused of leaking highly classified military documents on a social media platform.

The department said it would continue to implement recommendations from that review to improve its protection of classified information.

Ethiopia’s federal government in late 2020 went to war with authorities in the country’s Tigray region, teaming up with the military of neighboring Eritrea. Tigray was cut off from the world for much of the conflict that ended with a peace deal in November, meaning satellite imagery was a crucial source of information on the fighting.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. United Nations-backed experts say the situation remains “extremely grave” even now, with Eritrean fighters still present.


AP writer Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this story.

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