A State Department contractor stole classified documents that included satellite imagery and other sensitive information about military activities in Africa, federal prosecutors said in a criminal complaint unsealed on Thursday.
Abraham T. Lemma, 50, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Ethiopian descent from Silver Spring, Md., was charged with two counts of espionage and willful retention of national defense information. The espionage charges carry a potential death sentence and up to life in prison, the Justice Department said in a news release.
The case comes after several leaks from within the American government raised questions about security and employees’ level of access. In April, prosecutors arrested a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman accused of sharing a vast array of national security secrets to an online gaming chat group. Last month, two Navy sailors in California were charged with giving military secrets to Chinese intelligence officers.
The court documents provide new details about the documents Mr. Lemma is believed to have taken from a secure facility at the State Department. The New York Times revealed this month that he had been arrested in August and charged with spying for Ethiopia, a country that is a significant recipient of aid from the United States, but little else was known.
While the complaint does not disclose what country Mr. Lemma was working for, U.S. officials identified it as Ethiopia and described the suspected spying as narrow in focus. In a statement, the State Department said it would work with intelligence agencies and conduct a review of the national security and foreign policy implications of the case.
According to a court filing, Mr. Lemma had been employed by the State Department since at least 2021, working during the evenings at a secure facility in Washington. Around May 2022, he began working during the days as an analyst at the Justice Department, where he had access to classified information.
At the State Department, Mr. Lemma served as an information technology administrator in its intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as I.N.R., and had access to classified systems, the filing said. The intelligence arm handles some of the most sensitive American intelligence, which is used to better inform ambassadors and other senior diplomats.
While some of the intelligence the bureau would have gathered would include less sensitive economic data, it would also include up-to-the minute assessments of a war in Ethiopia involving its neighbor Eritrea, information the Ethiopian government would have a keen interest in understanding.
In his role at the State Department, Mr. Lemma was authorized to move highly sensitive material among classified systems and could send classified information to unclassified systems. Some of the documents he is accused of taking were marked secret or top secret, prosecutors say.
From December 2022 to August 2023, Mr. Lemma copied information from dozens of intelligence reports on an array of topics, according to the court filing. In some instances, he would delete the classification markings and paste the contents into Word documents. A majority of reports appear to be related to Ethiopia, where Mr. Lemma has family.
Mr. Lemma is accused of taking more than 100 documents containing classified information since returning in July 2022 from a trip to Africa. Investigators said he made a second trip in mid-April.
Mr. Lemma had been repeatedly observed retrieving classified material without authorized access and taking handwritten notes, the filing added. He sent classified documents, photographs, notes, maps and details about other countries neighboring Ethiopia using an encrypted platform with his overseas handler, prosecutors said.
In September 2022, Mr. Lemma shared information about another country’s activities in East Africa, investigators said.
Ethiopia, situated on the geopolitically important Horn of Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world, facing drought, famine, political unrest and a bloody civil war. In recent years, the United States has provided the country more than $3 billion in aid, according to the State Department. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Ethiopia to bolster ties with the United States amid the rising influence of China and Russia.
Poor spy tradecraft appears to have played a part in helping the F.B.I. confirm that Mr. Lemma was in contact with a foreign intelligence official.
While the two communicated over an encrypted platform, they freely discussed the military activities of a rebel group and identified command and logistic centers. The court filings portray Mr. Lemma as an enthusiastic spy.
In one exchange, the intelligence official provided specific subjects for Mr. Lemma to gather information about. Around September 2022, investigators wrote, the intelligence official stated that it was “time to continue ur support.”
Mr. Lemma responded, “Roger that!”
In another chat, the intelligence officer praised Mr. Lemma, perhaps in the hopes that he would continue spying, extolling the “special people” who sacrifice their lives to “protect our proud history.” The officer added: “You always remembered. It doesn’t matter the results.”
Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.