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An Ellicott City, MD, man and former National Security Agency worker who pleaded guilty in December to removing classified documents will end up doing 5 ½ years in federal prison.

Nghia Hoang Pho, 68, who removed documents over a period of five years ending in 2015, said at his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court he had wanted extra time to work on his employee performance assessment after being repeatedly passed over for promotions.

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He will serve the sentence on the charge of willful retention of classified national defense information at a medium-security federal prison in Cumberland, beginning Jan. 7. It will be followed by three years of supervised release.

Pho worked at the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters from 2006 to 2016. He worked on “highly classified, specialized projects and had access to government computer systems, programs, and information, including classified information,” according to his plea agreement with prosecutors.

Cyber Security

The former NSA employee is just another person caught taking sensitive national security information.

Reality Winner, a former Air Force linguist and intelligence contractor, pleaded guilty in June to leaking a top-secret government report on Russian hacking. She was sentenced to five years in prison in August. The case of Harold Martin, a former NSA contractor accused of keeping reams of information at his Glen Burnie home, is scheduled to go to trial in June next year.

Pho is not accused of spreading the information he took home, but classified material was believed to have been stolen from his computer by Russian hackers.

After hearing attorneys’ arguments and emotional testimony Tuesday from Pho’s wife, one of his sons and his best friend, U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III said he struggled with the case.

The sentence, the judge said, needed to balance deterring such behavior by other government employees with the fact that former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus had pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material, avoiding more severe charges and prison time, in a similar case.

During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Windom, who prosecuted the case, argued the “massive trove” found at two of Pho’s homes ranged well beyond projects he worked on.

Prosecutors had asked for an 8-year sentence, the top of the federal sentencing guidelines for the offense. U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur called the case “remarkable, due to the sheer amount of classified information taken.”

Pho’s defense attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, said a substantial investigation by the federal government had found no evidence his client ever attempted or intended to disseminate the classified information.

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