US government IT contractor could face death penalty over espionage charges

States Capitol building photographed in Washington D.C., United States on September 24, 2023
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A US government IT contractor has been handed two espionage charges due to allegations of passing state secrets to a foreign government. 

Abraham Teklu Lemma, a naturalized US citizen of Ethiopian descent, faces three charges related to the alleged gathering or delivery of national defense documents to aid a foreign government, the Department of Justice (DoJ) said.

Lemma also faces charges of unauthorized possession of national defense information and “willfully retaining” said materials. 

Both espionage charges carry a potential death sentence, according to prosecutors, or “any term of years up to life”. 

The retention charge also carries a maximum sentence of ten years, court filings showed. 

According to court documents, Lemma worked as an IT administrator for the Department of State and as a management analyst for the DoJ. 

During his tenure at both government departments, he was granted ‘top secret’ security clearance and access to classified systems. 

Prosecutors claimed that between December 2022 and August 2023, Lemma made copies of classified information and was able to remove the markings from documents that made clear they were classified.

“Lemma then removed the information, which was classified as ‘secret’ and ‘top secret’, from secure facilities at the Department of State against protocol,” prosecutors said.


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“Lemma accessed, copied, removed, and retained this information without authorization.”

Prosecutors did not divulge the content of the documents, but it was revealed that materials allegedly stolen by Lemma related to a “specific country and/or geographic region”. 

According to CBS News, the unnamed country is believed to be Ethiopia. 

Investigators said that Lemma made “several trips” to Ethiopia, and has family contacts in the country. 

Lemma is also accused of having used an “encrypted application” to send the stolen classified material, which related to national defense, to a contact believed to be tied to the intelligence service of the officially unnamed country.

“In these communications, Lemma expressed an interest and willingness to assist the foreign official in providing information,” court filings stated. 

“In one communication, the foreign official stated, “[i]t’s time to continue ur support.”  Lemma responded, ‘Roger that’.”

Lemma’s charges mark the second cyber espionage-related incident involving US government IT workers in the space of a year. 

In September 2022, Jareh Sebastian Dalke, an information systems security designer at the National Security Agency (NSA) was also charged with transmitting classified national defense information to a representative of a foreign government. 

Between June and July 2022, Dalke used an encrypted email account to transmit excerpts of three classified documents to an individual he believed worked for a foreign intelligence agency. 

The individual in question, however, was an undercover FBI agent, court documents revealed. 

“Dalke told that individual that he had taken highly sensitive information relating to foreign targeting of US systems and information on US cyber operations, among other topics,” prosecutors said at the time. 

Ross Kelly
News and Analysis Editor

Ross Kelly is ITPro's News & Analysis Editor, responsible for leading the brand's news output and in-depth reporting on the latest stories from across the business technology landscape. Ross was previously a Staff Writer, during which time he developed a keen interest in cyber security, business leadership, and emerging technologies.

He graduated from Edinburgh Napier University in 2016 with a BA (Hons) in Journalism, and joined ITPro in 2022 after four years working in technology conference research.

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