Department of State IT contractor arrested on espionage charges

The IT contractor, who has had a top secret security clearance since at least 2020, allegedly distributed defense information with a foreign government.
The US Department of State building is seen in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019. (Photo by ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images)

A federal IT contractor working for the State Department and Justice Department was arrested on espionage charges last month for allegedly sharing national defense information with a foreign government, the DOJ said Thursday. 

Abraham Teklu Lemma, 50, allegedly accessed secret and top-secret information unlawfully and distributed that information to an unspecified African country, according to a press release and an accompanying affidavit. Lemma is a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and was previously a citizen of an African country, according to the affidavit. According to the DOJ press release, Lemma is of Ethiopian descent.

Lemma was arrested on charges of gathering or delivering and conspiracy to gather and deliver defense information to aid a foreign government, in addition to having unauthorized possession of defense information and willfully retaining it, according to the criminal complaint that was unsealed Thursday. 

While working as a contractor for the State Department, Lemma allegedly searched classified portals to access non-DOS intelligence reports without “a need-to-know the classified information.” He then copied and pasted information from at least 85 reports – the majority of which was about the undisclosed African country – and printed and downloaded secret and top-secret information from the reports, the affidavit alleged.


The court document also alleges that Lemma used an encrypted messaging application to send classified national defense information to a phone number believed to be used by on or on behalf of an intelligence official for the undisclosed African country. In one such message, the foreign official praised Lemma, saying “[a]lways this beautiful country have [sic] some special people who scarify [sic] their life to protect our proud history. You always remembered. It doesn’t matter the results,” according to the court document.

Lemma has been working as a help desk technician in the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research since at least 2021 and as a contract management analyst at the Department of Justice since about May 2022. He has had a top-secret security clearance since at least 2020 and had been working with U.S. government agencies since at least July 2019, the court document said.

The Department of State said Thursday it found information indicating that an “information technology contractor may have removed, retained, and transmitted classified national defense information” during an internal security review. That 60-day review was in response to the arrest of a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard who allegedly disclosed classified national defense information. 

The DOS commended the FBI and DOJ for their work that led to Lemma’s arrest, and said it “pledges its continued full support to the investigation.”

Madison Alder

Written by Madison Alder

Madison Alder is a reporter for FedScoop in Washington, D.C., covering government technology. Her reporting has included tracking government uses of artificial intelligence and monitoring changes in federal contracting. She’s broadly interested in issues involving health, law, and data. Before joining FedScoop, Madison was a reporter at Bloomberg Law where she covered several beats, including the federal judiciary, health policy, and employee benefits. A west-coaster at heart, Madison is originally from Seattle and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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