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Ellicott City man, former NSA employee pleads guilty to taking classified information home

An Ellicott City man and former employee of the National Security Agency pleaded guilty Friday in federal court in Baltimore to removing classified documents and bringing them home — the latest in a series of similar breaches at the spy agency to be publicly revealed.

Nghia Hoang Pho, 67, removed the documents over a period of five years ending in 2015, according to a plea agreement made public by the Justice Department. The material is reportedly believed to have been stolen from his computer by Russian hackers exploiting his personal antivirus software.

Pho took the documents home to help him write his resume but hackers are believed to have accessed them through antivirus software made by Kaspersky Lab, The New York Times reported Friday based on interviews with unnamed government officials.

The alleged hack had been previously reported by the Times, The Wall Street Journal and others, but the employee’s identity had not previously been revealed.

The Trump administration ordered federal agencies in September to remove the Kaspersky software from its computers, and Congress has held several hearings on the company.

Kaspersky executives have repeatedly denied allegations that the company is working with Russian intelligence.

Pho pleaded guilty to one count of willful retention of national defense information, which prosecutors said carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

U.S District Judge George L. Russell III has scheduled a sentencing hearing for April 6.

The plea agreement indicates the material was seized at Pho’s home in early 2015.

Pho worked at the agency’s Tailored Access Operations unit from 2006 to 2016, according to the agreement. The elite cyberwarfare unit is based at the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.

He worked on “highly classified, specialized projects and had access to government computer systems, programs, and information, including classified information,” according to the agreement.

The NSA has wrestled with several similar cases in recent years. Harold T. Martin III, a Glen Burnie man and former NSA contractor, was indicted this year after being accused of stealing a “breathtaking” number of classified documents. He pleaded not guilty to espionage charges in February.

Reality Leigh Winner, a Texas native who had been stationed in Maryland, was charged in June with sending a classified report to a news organization. Winner is a former NSA contractor and Air Force veteran.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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