BALTIMORE—A former National Security Agency contractor who stored two decades’ worth of classified documents at his Maryland home was sentenced on July 19 to nine years in prison.
Harold Martin, 54, apologized to the federal judge who sentenced him for a theft that prosecutors have called “breathtaking” in scope.
“My methods were wrong, illegal and highly questionable,” Martin told U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett.
The punishment was in line with the nine-year sentence called for under his plea agreement, in which he admitted guilt to a single count of willful retention of national defense information. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Martin gets credit for the nearly three years he has spent behind bars since his arrest.
A prosecutor and defense attorney both noted there is no evidence that Martin intended to transmit any of the classified information to anyone, but the judge said the trove of records contained “very sensitive material.”
“That means people’s lives were potentially in danger,” Bennett said.
The sentencing resolves a mysterious case that broke into the open in 2016, when FBI agents conducting a raid found a massive trove of stolen government documents inside his home, car and storage shed.
“This case is enormously significant not only for the Justice Department but also for the intelligence community,” Robert Hur, the United States attorney in Maryland, told The Associated Press in an interview before the sentencing. “In any case where you have someone who holds a security clearance at the level that Mr. Martin did and chooses to betray that public trust in such a profound way, it puts national security at risk.”
Prosecutors initially said 50 terabytes had been found, though Hur said that estimate had been revised significantly downward. The information spanned from the mid-1990s to the present and included personal details of government employees and “Top Secret” email chains, handwritten notes describing the NSA’s classified computer infrastructure, and descriptions of classified technical operations.
The case attracted particular attention since the raid took place just weeks after a mysterious internet group calling itself the Shadow Brokers surfaced online to advertise the sale of hacking tools stolen from the NSA. The U.S. believes that North Korea and Russia were able to capitalize on stolen hacking tools to unleash punishing global cyberattacks.
Prosecutors never linked Martin to the Shadow Brokers or charged him in the theft. But prosecutors say he nonetheless jeopardized national security through habitually taking home secret and classified government documents and carelessly storing them.
“He knew this was wrong, dangerous and illegal,” Justice Department prosecutor Zachary Myers said.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, described him as a compulsive hoarder who never betrayed his country. One of his lawyers, James Wyda, said Martin struggled for years with an undiagnosed mental illness, autism spectrum disorder.
“Instability and isolation were constants throughout Mr. Martin’s childhood and adult life,” Wyda said, adding that the stolen documents “were profoundly important to him when he was in the throes of his mental health situation.”
But Hur said defense attorneys’ characterization minimized the crime.
“This isn’t just hoarding,” Hur told the AP. “It isn’t like wandering into someone’s house and finding stacks of newspapers or library books or junk. This is highly classified information, the compromise of which is going to do grave damage to national security.”
Harold Martin’s arrest followed news of a devastating disclosure of government hacking tools by a mysterious internet group calling itself the Shadow Brokers. It seemed to some that the United States might have found another Edward Snowden, who also had been a contractor for the agency.
The U.S. believes North Korea and Russia relied on the stolen tools, which provide the means to exploit software vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure, in unleashing punishing global cyberattacks on businesses, hospitals and cities. The release, which occurred while the NSA was already under scrutiny because of Snowden’s 2013 disclosures, raised questions about the government’s ability to maintain secrets.
“It was extraordinarily damaging, probably more damaging than Snowden,” cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier said of the Shadow Brokers leaks. “Those tools were a lot of money to design and create.”
In a likely reference to the Shadow Brokers disclosures, investigators said tweets from Martin’s account were sent hours before stolen government records were advertised and posted online. Investigators also alleged that Martin would have had access to the same classified information as what appeared online.
The NSA has since done more to protect its network and security and increased the monitoring of its employees, said security and counterintelligence director Marlisa Smith.
“I won’t tell you we’ve erased the risk of insider threat, it will never be down to zero, but we’ve worked very hard to mitigate and minimize the risk,” Smith said.
As for the mystery of who or what is behind the Shadow Brokers, there’s little certainty that the government will ever publicly resolve that lingering question, especially given the classified nature of the theft.
By Eric Tucker and Michael Kunzelman