US government contractor arrested on espionage charges for spying for Ethiopia

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A US government contractor who worked at the State and Justice departments has been arrested on charges of spying, reportedly for Ethiopia.

Abraham Teklu Lemma, 50, a US citizen of Ethiopian descent, was arrested August 24 and is charged with providing national defense information to a foreign government, the Justice Department said.

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The criminal complaint against Lemma, a Silver Spring, Maryland, resident whose LinkedIn profile describes him as an IT systems and data analyst, was unsealed on Friday.

In a statement announcing Lemma’s arrest, the Justice Department did not name the country he was allegedly spying for, but it was identified by the New York Times and other US media outlets as Ethiopia.

According to an affidavit filed by an FBI investigator, Lemma carried out his espionage activities between December 2022 and August 2023, depositing tens of thousands of dollars in cash into bank accounts in the Washington region.

Lemma copied secret and top secret information from dozens of intelligence reports at the State Department and provided it to an “official associated with a foreign country’s intelligence service” via an encrypted messaging service.

The information included documents, photographs, notes and maps relating to what the affidavit called the “Relevant Country.”

The affidavit quoted a September 2022 exchange of messages in which the foreign official told Lemma “It’s time to continue (your) support,” to which he replied, “Roger that!”

“Lemma’s communications with the Foreign Official... included a discussion of military activities of a rebel group involved in an armed struggle against the government of the Relevant Country,” it said, believed to be a reference to the Tigray conflict.

In addition to working at the State Department, Lemma, who has held a top secret security clearance since 2020, also worked as a contract management analyst at the Justice Department.

Ethiopia is a major recipient of US aid and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited there in March.

Lemma is charged with two counts of espionage and one of unlawfully retaining national defense information. The espionage charges carry a potential death sentence while the retention charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

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