US Federal Contractor Charged With Spying For Ethiopia
Maryland Resident Copied and Transferred Classified Secrets
A contract employee for the State and Justice departments has been charged with espionage, accused of passing on classified information to an official associated with Ethiopia's intelligence service. The charges were announced by U.S. prosecutors on Thursday, September 21.
The defendant, Abraham Teklu Lemma, a 50-year-old resident of Silver Spring, Md., was charged with conspiracy, gathering or delivering national defense information to aid a foreign government, and unauthorized possession and willful retention of national defense information.
If convicted, Lemma could face up to life in prison for the first two counts and up to 10 years for the last count.
Lemma, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ethiopia, held Top Secret/SCI clearance and had access to classified systems as an IT administrator for the Department of State and as a management analyst for the Justice Department. He was arrested on August 24 but no information about his bond hearing is currently available.
According to the charging affidavit released by the Justice Department, Lemma copied classified secret and top-secret information from over 100 intelligence reports and removed information from secure facilities without authorization.
From February to September 2022, he allegedly transmitted classified national defense information to the Ethiopian official, including satellite imagery and information related to Eritrean activities in Ethiopia's Tigray region.
While the charging papers did not explicitly name Ethiopia as the country Lemma was spying for, they accused him of spying for an unidentified country where he was previously a citizen, had family ties, and recently visited.
The FBI affidavit mentioned military activities consistent with those of armed rebels opposing Ethiopian and Eritrean government soldiers at the time.
The FBI also revealed that Lemma and the foreign official communicated through encrypted chat, discussing rebel military activity, and sharing photos of a "military compound." In one exchange, the official praised Lemma's efforts, stating "[a]lways this beautiful country have[sic] some special people who sacrify [sic] their life to protect our proud history. You will always be remembered. It doesn't matter the results."
The FBI confirmed that Lemma possessed classified national defense information, including digital photographic copies, notes, and maps, through an authorized search of his electronic accounts on non-secure networks. Furthermore, the FBI observed Lemma accessing classified intelligence reports outside of his authorized access using the State Department's classified computer system and copying information to paper or CD/DVD discs that he took home.
Additionally, Lemma's suspicious financial activities caught the FBI's attention. On July 15, he attempted to deposit over $11,700 at a Maryland bank branch shortly after copying 16 intelligence reports without authorization. This transaction was part of more than $55,000 in deposits deemed suspicious by a case agent, dating back to the beginning of 2022.
Lemma had previously worked for another government agency referred to as "U.S. Agency 1" from November 2020 to December 2021. He also worked for the State Department as a help desk technician and IT administrator during evening hours and as a contract management analyst for the Justice Department during the day since May 2022.