A member of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) elite hacking team pleaded guilty Friday to illegally removing top secret materials.
Nghia Hoang Pho, 67, a 10-year veteran of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations unit, agreed pleaded guilty to a single charge of removing and retaining top-secret documents from the agency, said officials at the Department of Justice (DoJ).
Pho’s computer was the one Russian hackers accessed via his use of Kaspersky software to steal files and programs the NSA developed for its own hacking operations, according to a report in The New York Times. He kept the material at his Ellicott City, Maryland home.
Pho had taken printed and digital copies of documents and writings labelled “secret,” and containing sensitive “national defense information,” and stored them in his home from 2010 until he was caught in 2015, according to the DoJ report.
It gave no detail on why he did that, and did not say whether Pho had revealed or lost any of the information.
He was the third NSA employee charged in the past two years for taking home top-secret information.
In October The Wall Street Journal reported Russian hackers exploited anti-virus software made by Kaspersky Lab to steal top secret materials from an unnamed NSA employee.
The Journal said the 2015 hack led to the Russians obtaining information on how the NSA itself penetrates foreign computer networks and protects itself from cyberattacks.
According to his plea agreement, beginning in April 2006, Pho was employed as a Tailored Access Operations (TAO) developer for the NSA, the DoJ said. The NSA’s TAO involved operations and intelligence collection to gather data from target or foreign automated information systems or networks and also involved actions taken to prevent, detect, and respond to unauthorized activity within Department of Defense information systems and computer networks, for the United States and its allies.
In connection with his employment, Pho held various security clearances and had access to national defense and classified information, the DoJ said. Pho also worked on highly classified, specialized projects. According to the plea agreement, beginning in 2010 and continuing through March 2015, Pho removed and retained U.S. government documents and writings that contained national defense information, including information classified as Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information. This material was in both hard copy and digital form.
Pho faces up to 10 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for April 6.