BALTIMORE — A former National Security Agency contractor accused in a theft of classified documents from the agency’s headquarters pleaded guilty Thursday to willful retention of national defense information.
In a federal courthouse in Baltimore, Harold T. Martin III pleaded guilty to the one count, which authorities said involved a top secret NSA leadership briefing from March 2014. Another 19 counts are expected to be dismissed at sentencing in July.
As part of plea agreement, Martin accepted nine years in prison with three years of supervised release.
The 54-year-old private contractor and former U.S. Navy lieutenant who held various security clearances was arrested at his Maryland home by heavily armed FBI agents in August 2016. He's been in federal custody ever since. Martin initially pleaded not guilty to 20 counts of willfully retaining classified information and was due to go to trial in June, but prosecutors announced this week that he would be arraigned again, signaling a change in plea.
After his change of plea on the one count, Martin’s federal defenders said he had no intention to harm his country or the intelligence agencies he served. During the Thursday hearing, Martin told a federal judge that he was diagnosed with ADHD and took medication for that disorder.
"Today's plea is an affirmation of what Mr. Martin and his defense team have maintained from the beginning of this case. His actions were the product of mental illness. Not treason," his federal defenders' statement said.
One of his lawyers has previously described Martin of Glen Burnie, Maryland, as a "compulsive hoarder" who took work documents home with him as he tried to be as committed to his job as possible. Authorities said they found a trove of classified documents stowed in his car and his Maryland home.
The NSA has suffered a series of significant breaches in recent years. Most notably, Edward Snowden disclosed a cache of classified material in 2013, exposing U.S. government surveillance programs.
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, said the breaches at the NSA are a reminder that keeping secrets is a tricky task, particularly now as technological advances allow large amounts of information to be stored inside routine devices.
"The string of breaches is a humbling reminder that keeping secrets is hard, that people are fallible, and that perfect security can never be achieved. What has changed over the past several decades or so is that the scale of the breaches has increased tremendously. Instead of individual secrets being compromised, it often turns out that entire databases or libraries of information," Aftergood said in an email.
People have stolen government secrets throughout history but intelligence contractors hoarding reams of classified information at their homes appears to be something new.
Last year, another Maryland man who had worked at NSA pleaded guilty to keeping numerous top secret U.S. defense materials at home. At his sentencing, Nghia Hoang Pho, 67, told a federal judge he took copies of U.S. government documents and writings containing national defense information so he could work from home and possibly earn a promotion. He got 5 ½ years in prison.
"I don't know if psychological screening can uncover hoarders before they are employed, and that might be especially challenging because the age of onset is typically not young. But once an employee is in the grip of a powerful obsessive compulsion like hoarding, I would imagine that they are extremely difficult to stop," said Gabriel Schoenfeld, a national-security policy expert and author of the book "Necessary Secrets."
It's not clear whether the NSA has instituted new protections in the wake of Martin's case.
“I don’t have any specific knowledge of new security measures. But every compromise of classified information is a learning opportunity, and security officials would be derelict if they did not use the occasion to make improvements,” said Aftergood, who writes the “Secrecy News” blog reporting on developments in secrecy policy.