- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2017

A former employee of the U.S. National Security Agency’s elite hacking team has pleaded guilty in connection with mishandling top-secret documents reportedly stolen afterwards by Russian hackers.

Nghia Hoang Pho, 67, pleaded guilty in a Baltimore federal court Friday to a single count of willfully retaining national defense information in violation of federal law, the Department of Justice announced afterwards.

Pho was hired in 2006 as a developer for the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) team, and from 2010 through 2015 he brought home both hard copies and digital versions of sensitive documents containing closely held secrets, the Justice Department said in a statement.

“In connection with his employment, Pho held various security clearances and had access to national defense and classified information. Pho also worked on highly classified, specialized projects,” the statement said. “Pho removed and retained U.S. government documents and writings that contained national defense information, including information classified as Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information.”

Some of the classified files were transferred onto Pho’s personal computer at some point and likely compromised by Russian hackers, The New York Times reported Friday, citing government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pho is the same former NSA employee implicated in previous reports involving the Russian government and Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based antivirus vendor accused of being a conduit for the Putin administration’s international espionage efforts, both The Times and Reuters reported Friday.

Russian state-sponsored hackers exploited a security flaw in Kaspersky’s antivirus software in order to steal files from customers’ computers, including at least one user hoarding NSA secrets, The Times reported previously.

The NSA has not commented on the report, but the Department of Homeland Security subsequently issued a directive banning all U.S. agencies from using Kaspersky products.

Russia has denied hacking U.S. targets, and Kaspersky has denied being in cahoots with Moscow.

Pho faces up to 10 years in prison, according to the Justice Department. He’s currently scheduled to be sentenced on April 6, 2018.

“Any conversations regarding this case will be made in the courtroom during the sentencing,” his attorney, Robert Bonsib, told Reuters.

Pho is at least the third person with NSA ties charged within the last two years in connection with mishandling classified information. Former NSA contractor Harold Martin was indicted in February on charges related to hoarding secrets at his home near agency headquarters in Ft. Meade, Maryland;  NSA contractor Reality Winner was charged in June with leaking classified material to an online news outlet.

Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and NSA contractor, leaked a trove of classified documents to the media in 2013, but has avoided prosecution after receiving asylum for Russia.

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