US contractor charged with giving classified information to Ethiopia

By Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. government contract employee for the Justice and State Departments was arrested on espionage charges unsealed on Thursday, prosecutors said, accusing him of passing on classified information to Ethiopia.

Abraham Teklu Lemma, 50, was charged in a complaint from late August, which was unsealed on Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement.

He faced three charges including “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,” the Justice Department said.

Prosecutors did not name Ethiopia but said Lemma spied for a country where he had family ties and where he was previously a citizen. The Justice Department did describe Lemma as a “naturalized U.S. citizen of Ethiopian descent.”

A representative of Lemma could not immediately be reached.

Between December 2022, and August 2023, Lemma copied classified information from intelligence reports and deleted the classification markings from them, the Justice Department said.

Lemma then removed the information, which was classified as ‘secret’ and ‘top secret,’ from secure facilities at the State Department. He accessed, copied, removed and retained this information without authorization, prosecutors said.

Lemma used an encrypted application to transmit classified national defense information to a foreign government official associated with a foreign country’s intelligence service, the Justice Department said.

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.

The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it had undertaken a “self-initiated 60-day internal security review” in which it was uncovered that its contractor “may have removed, retained and transmitted classified national defense information without authorization.”

That review happened after the April arrest of an airman, Jack Douglas Teixeira, who was later indicted on accusations of posting classified documents on the messaging app Discord.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Richard Chang)