The Justice Department has announced the previously secret August arrest of Harold Martin III, 51, an NSA contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton who is accused of stealing government data, just like Edward Snowden.
The New York Times learned of the arrest and notified the government it was preparing to publish a story about Martin, prompting the Justice Department to unseal the legal complaint against him.
As Politico reported on Wednesday, the FBI approached this investigation very differently than a previous instance of a certain well-known individual who retained classified data at her home without proper authorization:
Martin, 51, was charged with felony theft of government information and misdemeanor unauthorized retention of classified information. He appeared at a closed hearing in federal court in Baltimore on Aug. 29 and has been in government custody since, according to court records.
During a court-ordered search of Martin’s home, the FBI “seized thousands of pages of documents and dozens of computers or other digital storage devices and media,” prosecutor Zachary Myers said in a court filing made public Wednesday afternoon. “The digital media contained many terabytes of information that must be reviewed by appropriate authorities.”
“When Booz Allen learned of the arrest of one of its employees by the FBI, we immediately reached out to the authorities to offer our total cooperation in their investigation, and we fired the employee,” the company wasted no time in declaring. “We continue to cooperate fully with the government on its investigation into this serious matter. There have been no material changes to our client engagements as a result of this matter. Booz Allen is a 102-year-old company, and the alleged conduct does not reflect our core values.”
The Washington Post quotes U.S. officials who said Martin was “hoarding” classified materials “going back as far as a decade in his house and car, and the recent leak of the hacking tools tipped investigators to what he was doing.”
According to these sources, some of the documents found at his home “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”
The “hacking tools” referenced in the Post story are the cyber-weapons put up for auction by a group calling itself the “Shadow Brokers” in August. These wares were purportedly the best hacks from the NSA’s Equation Group, and a number of observers at the time said they looked like the real deal. NBC News reports some of the hacking code in Martin’s possession was the same as the material offered by the Shadow Brokers.
It would appear investigators were able to track Martin down as the source of this leak very quickly. (Or, as the Politico report suggests, the timeline of Martin’s arrest might make it difficult to connect him to the Shadow Brokers.)
The Washington Post calls Martin’s arrest “another humiliating lapse for both Booz Allen and the NSA,” following Snowden absconding with a vast trove of sensitive documents. The New York Times cites officials attempting to defend the administration by pointing out many of the documents taken by Martin were evidently taken before the Snowden story broke, and new security measures were put in place.
Politico suggests the delay in publicly announcing Martin’s arrest and initial court appearance could mean he is cooperating with the government. He has voluntarily waived his right to be indicted or released within 30 days, giving prosecutors until March 1st to prepare an indictment.
Prosecutors appear to be working on a plea-bargain deal, telling the court that trying Martin would be difficult because defense lawyers would not have the security clearances necessary to review the evidence. The sensitive nature of the evidence is also why it is so difficult for the public to be told the extent of the damage he might have caused to national security.
“At this point, these are mere allegations. There is no evidence that Hal Martin intended to betray his country. What we do know is that Hal Martin loves his family and his country. He served our nation honorably in the United States Navy, and he has devoted his entire career to serving and protecting America,” said the defense lawyers in question, Jim Wyda and Deborah Boardman.
However, FBI agents noted Martin falsely denied taking the sensitive documents found in his home and car, then later admitted he knew taking them was wrong.
NBC News noticed Snowden weighing in on the Martin arrest:
This is huge. Did the FBI secretly arrest the person behind the reports NSA sat on huge flaws in US products? https://t.co/otgOwB5efm
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 5, 2016
In other words, he thinks Martin might have been the source for media reports that the NSA knew about critical security flaws in various software products, but kept its knowledge secret — putting consumers, businesses, and other government entities at risk — because the NSA wanted to exploit those flaws for its own intelligence-gathering purposes.
Interestingly, the New York Times notes that among the “many terabytes of information” found in Martin’s possession were documents produced in 2014, which is when some major stories accusing the NSA of knowing about critical commercial security flaws were published, concurrent with the public’s discovery of the Heartbleed bug.