State Department official recalled

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Reginald Eugene Hopson, a 30-year State Department foreign service officer, was summoned back to Washington from South Africa in October, stripped of his top-secret security clearance and questioned by federal investigators, records show.

He was an information management specialist and pouch control officer who processed classified information at U.S. embassies in Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, and South Africa. His interrogators wanted to know about a raft of classified documents found in his possession — documents they said he had no business having.

The documents included a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) file on a confidential undercover operation and eight classified State Department cables, two of which related to intelligence matters and national defense.

A search of a storage locker containing boxes he had shipped to suburban Maryland from his recent post abroad also turned up five diplomatic passports, a Bolivian passport and bank documents from Italy, Spain, Honduras and the Cayman Islands.

“I have [reason] to believe that Mr. Hopson has violated” laws prohibiting removal of classified information concerning national defense or foreign relations, Special Agent Stanwyn A. Becton of the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) wrote in a federal affidavit seeking a judge’s approval to search Mr. Hopson’s storage locker.

“None of the cables would have required Hopson to print and retain copies of them,” the affidavit said.

One of the national defense-related cables, according to the affidavit, “was an extremely sensitive document whose subject matter had no relation to Hopson’s job responsibilities and should not have been in his possession.”

The affidavit also said that when Mr. Hopson started answering their questions, federal investigators found he changed his story and offered explanations that did not make sense.

The OIG referred inquiries of the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, which neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a criminal investigation.

Mr. Hopson, who received his first top-secret security clearance in 1981, could not be reached for comment. He has not been charged with a crime.

A State Department spokesman said Mr. Hopson, who joined the foreign service in 1979 and was listed by the department in 2005 as being among the “key officers of foreign service posts,” is now stationed in the Washington area. The spokesman said department policy prohibits comment on active investigations. He also declined to describe Mr. Hopson’s job status.

A source with the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the State Department division that also is investigating the matter and determines eligibility for access to classified material, said: “Annually, there are a limited number of instances where the DSS performs investigations resulting in the curtailment of an individual’s assignment abroad which are serious enough to warrant suspension of their security clearance.”

Violations of the security laws listed in the affidavit can result in a fine and up to 10 years in prison.

Daniel Hirsch, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, the bargaining unit that represents foreign service officers, confirmed that a union representative accompanied Mr. Hopson to a Nov. 11 interview at the DSS in Arlington, Va., but declined to comment on the interview or the case.

When asked about the classified documents, Mr. Hopson told investigators that a co-worker must have put them there.

“Hopson’s claim makes little sense as no one knew that law enforcement agents would be inspecting either his office or the boxes prior to the classified documents being discovered,” Mr. Becton wrote. The agent also noted that the cables originated from previous posts where Mr. Hopson had served; one was attached to a personal e-mail.

It was not the only time Mr. Hopson would be at a loss to explain being caught with documents he was not supposed to have. In 2009, investigators found two confidential cables addressed to U.S. embassies in his shipping boxes. Neither of the cables required him to print and retain copies, the affidavit said.

Mr. Hopson said during the interview that when he was assigned in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in 2006 there were not enough desks so he worked in an abandoned annex building for two years.

Last June, he left that post a week earlier than scheduled without certifying that he was not taking classified material. DSS and OIG agents were investigating visa fraud at the embassy at the time and discovered that Mr. Hopson was storing classified information in his unauthorized work space. The affidavit said when his supervisor told him to relocate to a secure facility, he failed to comply.

After Mr. Hobson left for his new post in Pretoria, South Africa, a search of his work space revealed a sensitive DEA document and a “confidential” State Department cable in an unlocked desk drawer. The affidavit said the DEA document detailed “an ongoing undercover operation that Hopson had no reason to have in his possession.”

A 2009 OIG report described Port of Spain as “an exceptionally attractive transshipment point for drugs.” The report said the DEA has a six-person embassy team “to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking networks.”

The report also said the embassy’s facilities “do not further a sense of team or collective activity, either on or off the job,” adding that “for decades, the department has found it difficult to attract quality officers to small islands where service can be mind-numbing and perceived as inconsequential to Washington.”

Investigators learned that Mr. Hopson had shipped four boxes from Port of Spain to Pretoria. Inside one, they found eight classified State Department cables, two of which related to intelligence matters and national defense. Search of another revealed two more “confidential” cables, neither of which would have required Mr. Hopson to print copies.

At an interview with DSS investigators in September, Mr. Hopson initially said he had “dumped” the contents of his personnel files into the shipping boxes. Later, he “changed his story and said that he had, in fact, looked through the documents before putting them in the boxes.”

Mr. Hopson further said he had no idea how the cables got into his boxes, and speculated that he was set up. He called the discovery of the documents “very suspicious … especially the quantity of the documents found.”

As for the documents found in the annex building, Mr. Hopson told investigators he had not worked in that space immediately before his departure, he did not store classified material there, other personnel had access to the area, and he had completely cleaned out his desk when he left.

A week after the State Department suspended Mr. Hopson’s security clearance, monitors observed him pack his belongings to return to the U.S. A final search of one those boxes contained two more classified cables. He said he was using the documents for training purposes.

In a written statement he gave to investigators last September, Mr. Hopson “volunteered that he ‘in no way sold or gave any classified or unclassified documents to anyone not cleared to see them’ …” the affidavit said.

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