WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — A man from Maryland who was working as a government contractor was charged with espionage Thursday.

50-year-old Abraham Teklu Lemma of Silver Spring was arrested and arraigned on Aug. 24.

He is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was working as an IT administrator for the Department of State and as a management analyst for the Department of Justice. Through these two positions, he had “top secret security clearance” with access to “classified systems.”

According to criminal complaints that were filed on Dec. 19, 2022, and Aug. 7, 2023, Lemma copied classified information from Intelligence Reports and deleted the classified markings from them. He would remove the information which was noted as secret and top secret and that was against protocol. He accessed them, copied, removed and retained the information without authorization.

Lemma allegedly used an encrypted application to transmit classified national defense information to other foreign officials.

According to a news release, in one of their chats, the foreign official stated, “[i]t’s time to continue ur support.” Lemma responded, “Roger that!” 

The foreign official also praised Lemma’s efforts in another conversation stating “[a]lways this beautiful country have [sic] some special people who scarify [sic] their life to protect our proud history. You always remembered. It doesn’t matter the results.”

According to the New York Times, sources said he was spying for Ethiopia.

“It’s odd to even hear that. We’ve got somebody from Ethiopia spying on the U.S. I mean, our country set a partnership with that country since, I think 1903, founded on things like peace and economic stability in the Horn of Africa. So it’s a little odd to even hear that out of the gate,” said Shane Sims, CEO of Kivu Consulting, a global cybersecurity firm.

Lemma is being charged with:

  • Gathering or delivering national defense information to aid a foreign government.
  • Conspiracy to gather or deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government.
  • Having unauthorized possession of national defense information and willfully retaining it.

His charges carry a potential death sentence or any terms of years up to life. The retention charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years.

Sims, a former FBI special agent and national security expert, said it’s surprising that Ethiopia could be involved, but said it’s possible another government was actually behind it.

“We’ve seen this before many times before with government contractors who steal sensitive information,” Sims said. “In this case, it could be as simple as it’s just a rogue actor or somebody that has the access. They decide to take certain information and then try to figure out later how to monetize that.”

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 this case.