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U.S. Government Contractor Arrested on Espionage Charges

A U.S. government contractor was arrested on Aug. 24 based on espionage charges in a complaint unsealed today. Abraham Teklu Lemma, 50, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Ethiopian descent, of Silver Spring, Maryland, is charged with delivering national defense information to aid a foreign government, conspiracy to deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government, and the willful retention of national defense information.

According to the criminal complaint, between on or about Dec. 19, 2022, and Aug. 7, 2023, Lemma copied classified information from intelligence reports and deleted the classification markings from them. Lemma then removed the information, which was classified as SECRET and TOP SECRET, from secure facilities at the Department of State. This material related to a specific country and/or geographic region. Lemma accessed, copied, removed, and retained this information without authorization.

According to the charging documents, Lemma used an encrypted application to transmit classified national defense information to a foreign government official associated with a foreign country’s intelligence service. In these communications, Lemma expressed an interest and willingness to assist the foreign government official by providing information. In one communication, the foreign official stated, “[i]t’s time to continue ur support.” Lemma responded, “Roger that!” In other chats, the foreign official tasked Lemma to focus on information related to particular subjects, and Lemma responded “[a]bsolutely, I have been focusing on that all this week . . . .” As alleged in the criminal complaint, the classified national defense information Lemma transferred to the foreign official included satellite imagery and other information regarding military activities in the foreign country and region.

The two espionage charges carry a potential penalty of death or any term of years up to life in prison, and the willful retention charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. A federal judge will determine any sentence based on the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors. The FBI’s Washington Field Office, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, and the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General are investigating the case. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tejpal Chawla and Alexandra Hughes for the District of Columbia and Trial Attorneys Heather Schmidt and Kathryn DeMarco of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section are prosecuting the case.