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Ex-NSA worker sentenced for taking secret documents home

The Edward A. Garmatz U.S. Courthouse in Baltimore. (Daniel Leaderman/The Daily Record)

The Edward A. Garmatz U.S. Courthouse in Baltimore. (Daniel Leaderman/The Daily Record)

A former National Security Agency employee was sentenced Tuesday to 5 ½ years in prison for taking what prosecutors described as a “massive trove” of top secret U.S. defense materials back to his Maryland home over a period spanning years.

Nghia Hoang Pho, 68, of Ellicott City, Maryland, had pleaded guilty to willful retention of national defense information. At his sentencing in federal court in downtown Baltimore, Pho explained that he took copies of U.S. government documents and writings containing national defense information so he could work from home and boost his resume. He told the judge he was trying to earn a promotion.

“I do not betray U.S.A. I do not betray this country,” Pho, who was born in Vietnam and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, said in unsteady English before sentencing.

Regardless of his motivation, federal authorities asserted his actions put the United States at risk. He stored top-secret digital information on an unsecured computer system at his house.

“Pho’s intentional, reckless and illegal retention of highly classified information over the course of almost five years placed at risk our intelligence community’s capabilities and methods, rendering some of them unusable,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement.

His defense attorney, Robert Bonsib, said the thefts did create “risk and potential damage,” but that the NSA cubicle worker nearing retirement never hurt anyone or tried to disseminate the documents he took.

“This is a good guy who made a long-term series of bad judgments,” Bonsib told the court.

When asking for leniency, Bonsib contrasted the penalties Pho faced with the treatment wartime general and former CIA Director David Petraeus received when pleading guilty to mishandling classified information relating to documents he provided to his biographer, with whom he was having an affair. That case was downgraded to a misdemeanor and Petraeus never spent a day behind bars.

Pho faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, but prosecutors sought eight. U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III issued the 5 ½ year sentence, followed by three years of supervised release. He also recommended Pho receive vocational training with English classes and mental health treatment.

Pho had worked as a developer in the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations unit, which is involved in cyber operations. Authorities say the work involved operations and intelligence collection from foreign automated information systems or networks, among other things.

Headquartered in Fort Meade, Maryland, the NSA has suffered a series of setbacks in recent years.

Most notably, former contractor Edward Snowden disclosed a cache of classified material in 2013 exposing U.S. government surveillance programs. In August 2016, Harold Thomas Martin III of Glen Burnie, Maryland, was arrested by the FBI after federal prosecutors said the former NSA contractor illegally removed highly classified information and stored the material in his home and car.

Reality Winner, a former Air Force linguist who worked as an NSA contractor at a facility in Georgia, was charged with copying a classified U.S. report and mailing it to a news organization. She was sentenced to more than five years in prison. Prosecutors say it’s the longest sentence ever for a federal crime involving leaks to the media.

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