NSA contractor arrest highlights challenge of insider threat

2016-10-06 17:04

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Washington — The arrest of a National Security Agency contractor for allegedly stealing classified information was the second known case of a government contractor being publicly accused of removing secret data from the intelligence agency since 2013.

The latest arrest came despite efforts to reform security after the Edward Snowden disclosures, especially in regard to insider threats.

Harold Thomas Martin III, 51, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, was arrested by the FBI in August, after federal prosecutors say he illegally removed highly classified information and stored the material in his home and car. A defence attorney said Martin did not intend to betray his country.

The fact that Snowden and now Martin — both working for Booz Allen Hamilton as contractors for NSA — were able to leave the NSA with highly classified documents, especially given the supposed security upgrades put into place, raises the question of whether the intelligence agency's efforts to tighten internal security afterward were effective or adequate. The NSA declined to comment.

"One key thing we don't have visibility into now is how he was caught, because that would provide some insight into whether the reforms that were put in post-Snowden were effective or not, or their relative efficacy," said Rajesh De, who was the NSA's general counsel when the Snowden story broke and remained there until last year. Snowden's 2013 theft of documents that were leaked to journalists revealed the NSA's bulk collection of millions of Americans' phone records.

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement that "it is painfully clear that the intelligence community still has much to do to institutionalise reforms designed to protect [US government secrets] from insider threats".

It's unlikely, given the thousands of people in the intelligence community, that "you're going to be able to stop every incident of somebody taking documents if they're determined to do so. But the real question is how quickly can you detect it, how quickly can you mitigate the harm of any such incident."

Admiral Mike Rogers, who heads the NSA, has spoken multiple times since 2013 about efforts the agency has taken to ensure that such a thing doesn't happen again. He has said the agency tried to strike a balance so as to not overly upset workers, who are law-abiding citizens, with aggressive internal security mechanisms.

Among the classified documents found with Martin, the FBI said, were six that contain sensitive intelligence — meaning they were produced through sensitive government sources or methods that are critical to national security — and date back to 2014. All the documents were clearly marked as classified information, according to a FBI affidavit accompanying the complaint.

White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama takes the situation "quite seriously. And it is a good reminder for all of us with security clearances about how important it is for us to protect sensitive national security information."

At Martin's home, investigators found stolen property valued at "well in excess of $1 000," the complaint said. He voluntarily agreed to an interview.

"Martin at first denied, and later when confronted with specific documents, admitted he took documents and digital files from his work assignment to his residence and vehicle that he knew were classified," the affidavit says. "Martin stated that he knew what he had done was wrong and that he should not have done it because he knew it was unauthorised."

He has been in custody since his arrest in August.

Read more on:    us  |  cyber security

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