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Ellicott City man sentenced to more than 5 years for taking government documents from NSA

An Ellicott City man and former employee of the National Security Agency who pleaded guilty in December to removing classified documents was sentenced Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Baltimore to 5 1/2 years in prison.

Nghia Hoang Pho, 68, who removed documents over a period of five years ending in 2015, testified at his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court that he had wanted extra time to work on his employee performance assessment after being repeatedly passed over for promotions other members of his team had received.

“Your employee performance assessment is not good enough,” he said a supervisor told him. “It’s not your turn right now.”

He will serve the sentence on the charge of willful retention of classified national defense information at a medium-security federal prison in Cumberland, beginning Jan. 7. It will be followed by three years of supervised release.

Ann Pho sobbed and stopped repeatedly to collect herself as she told the judge about her husband of 33 years, whom she called “the main provider for our family and four children, emotionally and financially.”

Pho worked at the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters from 2006 to 2016. He worked on “highly classified, specialized projects and had access to government computer systems, programs, and information, including classified information,” according to his plea agreement with prosecutors.

The former NSA employee is the latest person in recent years caught stashing sensitive national security information.

Reality Winner, a former Air Force linguist and intelligence contractor, pleaded guilty in June to leaking a top-secret government report on Russian hacking. She was sentenced to five years in prison in August. The case of Harold Martin, a former NSA contractor accused of keeping reams of information at his Glen Burnie home, is scheduled to go to trial in June 2019.

Pho is not accused of spreading the information he took home, but classified material was believed to have been stolen from his computer by Russian hackers, The New York Times has reported, based on interviews with unnamed government officials.

After hearing attorneys’ arguments and emotional testimony Tuesday from Pho’s wife, one of his sons and his best friend, U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III said he struggled with the case.

The sentence, the judge said, needed to balance deterring such behavior by other government employees with the fact that former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus had pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material, avoiding more severe charges and prison time, in a similar case.

“This was not an easy case for me to decide,” Russell said.

The public sentencing Tuesday afternoon followed an earlier part of the hearing, which contained classified information and was closed to the public and the press.

During the public part of the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Windom, who prosecuted the case, argued that the “massive trove” found at two of Pho’s homes ranged well beyond projects he worked on, and thus would not have been included in any resume he was building.

Windom called Pho’s explanation of why he brought the documents home “flatly inconsistent with the facts.” Pho was required to undergo near-annual training on handling classified information, he added.

“The ultimate point is the defendant knew exactly what he was doing,” Windom said. “He knew what would happen if the NSA found out. … He didn’t care. He took it anyway.”

Prosecutors had asked for an 8-year sentence, the top of the federal sentencing guidelines for the offense. U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur called the case “remarkable, due to the sheer amount of classified information taken.”

Pho’s defense attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, noted that a substantial investigation by the federal government had found no evidence his client ever attempted or intended to disseminate the classified information.

“It wasn’t there,” Bonsib said.

Pho’s son Michael said the past year since his father’s name became public “felt like a lifetime within a lifetime.” He said his father was a committed public servant who had suffered a heart attack and returned to work just days later.

“We were tried in the court of public opinion,” he said. “Any good he’s ever done — any good he ever does — will always be overshadowed.”

During his testimony, Pho told Russell he had been “so happy” upon being offered the job at the NSA: “It fit exactly what I wanted.”

The rest of his team were promoted after a project they worked on received a big award from the head of the agency, he said. But his broken English and his difficulty socializing with others in the office held him back, and he simply needed more time to work on his file.

“I did not betray the USA,” he said.

While Pho may not have shared the information, the judge said he couldn’t ignore that he’d illegally removed it from NSA premises.

“We wouldn’t be here if he’d just left the materials in the office,” Russell said.

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