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Prosecutors: NSA contractor's alleged theft 'breathtaking' in scope

Former NSA contractor Harold Martin is now accused of stealing government documents going back 20 years.

The alleged theft of classified documents by a former NSA contractor was "breathtaking" in its scope, federal prosecutors said in a court filing Thursday.

They said Harold T. Martin III, 51, took documents dating from the year he first obtained a security clearance in 1996 and continued until his arrest this year, amassing an archive many times larger than the haul Edward Snowden is suspected of taking from the intelligence agency headquartered at Fort Meade.

Documents that Martin is alleged to have taken detail some of the country's most sensitive intelligence operations. Authorities have not said why he allegedly stole the documents, or whether they believe he planned to do anything with them.

Martin, a Navy veteran who lives in Glen Burnie, was charged in August with stealing government documents. Prosecutors said they anticipate filing more serious charges against him under the Espionage Act.

The new filing came on the eve of his first public appearance in court, when he will seek to be released from jail while his case moves forward. Prosecutors said the accusations against him and the risk he would pose if he goes free are too grave for a judge to take that step.

"The defendant knows, and, if no longer detained may have access to, a substantial amount of highly classified information, which he has flagrantly mishandled and could easily disseminate to others," two Justice Department lawyers wrote in the filing.

The government has not accused Martin of sharing documents with anyone.

Such a sweeping campaign of theft, if that's all it was, would alone be deeply embarrassing for the intelligence community — particularly after the government tightened access to classified materials after Snowden leaked secrets about NSA spy programs to journalists.

But it's difficult to evaluate what harm it might have caused to the nation's security.

Mark Stout, a former CIA and State Department intelligence analyst, said keeping the files on a computer at home would have left them vulnerable to hackers, especially if a foreign spy agency knew where Martin worked.

Yet Stout, the director of the intelligence program at the Johns Hopkins University, said Martin probably wouldn't have taken that risk if he had been working on behalf of a foreign government.

"I'd be stunned if it turned out he was on the take from the Russians or the Chinese," he said.

John C. "Chris" Inglis, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency, said that it's likely only because Martin was keeping the files to himself that he went undetected for so long. But the case still leaves the intelligence community facing serious questions about security.

"They're going to have to up the ante," Inglis said. "Clearly, what we're doing isn't good enough, so what do we do?"

Inglis said preventing every theft will probably never be possible — "unless you do cavity searches, unless you are watching people moment by moment."

Martin's lawyers declined to comment on the new allegations. They said in a court filing Thursday that there was no legal basis for holding him in detention and that defendants in similar cases were freed pending trial.

"The government focuses almost exclusively on the potential danger that might result if Mr. Martin is released," the attorneys wrote. "We disagree with this as a factual matter."

Martin left active military service in 1995 and worked for a string of defense contractors. He was employed by Booz Allen Hamilton at the time of his arrest.

He was also pursuing a doctorate in information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studying a subject that prosecutors said was closely related to his government work.

Authorities said they seized some 50 terabytes of digital information — the equivalent of half a billion pages of documents — from Martin's home and car in late August. They said the files were scattered across different computers, external hard drives, CDs and USB drives.

The amount of data they said they seized dwarfs the 1.5 million files that authorities say Snowden, also an agency contractor, shared with news organizations in 2013.

Prosecutors said the earliest documents Martin had taken dated to 1996, the year Snowden turned 13. It's not clear what finally led investigators to Martin after so many years, but his arrest in the summer coincided with an online leak of NSA hacking tools by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers.

Investigators said they recovered a document that detailed plans for an operation against an enemy of the United States. It was marked with a lengthy, capitalized warning that it should be shared only on a need-to-know basis.

Prosecutors said Martin took steps to cover some of his digital tracks, encrypting communications and using special tools to avoid leaving traces on his computer. But they also said he appeared to take few precautions with the sensitive documents, many of which they said "were lying openly in his home office or stored in the backseat and trunk of his vehicle."

Shortly before Martin was arrested, prosecutors said, he went to Connecticut to buy a police-grade Chevrolet Caprice and had gathered an arsenal of weapons, including a military-style rifle.

Martin's lawyers have said there's no evidence he betrayed the country. Prosecutors have said he told them he collected the classified information for his own edification.

But authorities asked why he kept much of the material alongside a gun in his car, "as though he were trafficking in dangerous contraband."

Martin knows Russian, prosecutors said, and presents a flight risk if he's released. Even if he has no intention of fleeing, they said, he would be a prime target for a foreign intelligence agency.

"It is readily apparent to every foreign counterintelligence professional and nongovernmental actor that the defendant has access to highly classified information, whether in his head, in still-hidden physical locations, or stored in cyberspace — and he has demonstrated absolutely no interest in protecting it," the Justice Department lawyers wrote.

Martin's lawyers said their client would not try to run — he doesn't even possess a valid passport, they said — and said the government was concocting "fantastical scenarios" to justify keeping him in jail.

"Mr. Martin's wife is here in Maryland," the lawyers wrote. "His home is here in Maryland."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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