Former NSA contractor pleads guilty after largest security breach in US history

Former NSA contractor Harold “Hal” Martin, accused of the largest known security breach in US intelligence history, pleaded guilty in federal court on Thursday to one count of willfully stealing classified information.

He admitted to taking a 2014 National Security Agency leadership briefing that’s classified as Top Secret. The government has agreed to drop 19 similar counts at Martin’s sentencing hearing in July.

Martin, 54, spent 23 years working as a contractor for companies hired by the US, particularly on jobs with the NSA. His defense counsel has consistently maintained that Martin took files home because he was a hoarder — the FBI said it found more than 50 terabytes of government files in drives at his home and in his car — and that he did not intend to leak them.

In a statement, Martin’s defense team led by Richard Wyda, said that the “plea is an affirmation of what Mr. Martin and his defense team have maintained from the beginning of this case. His actions were the product of mental illness.”

Wearing a striped gray and charcoal shirt with “inmate” scrawled across the back, Martin entered the court about 10 minutes before the judge. He sat between his attorneys, quietly conferring with them before the hearing began.

Martin’s plea agreement with the government recommends a 9 year federal sentence with three years of supervised release, the judge noted and both prosecutors and defense attorneys affirmed.

After Martin changed his plea in count one to guilty, Judge Richard Bennett ran through a series of questions with Martin to make sure he understood the plea agreement and was fit to accept responsibility.

“It’s time to close the lid on Pandora’s box,” Martin responded to the judge when asked if he had read and understood the plea agreement.

“Do you still wish to plead guilty?” Judge Bennett asked after he had finished questioning both the government and the defense.

“I do,” Martin said with a small sigh.

Bennett said Martin will likely get time served for the roughly two-and-a-half years he’s already spent in federal prison.

Before dismissing the court the judge described it as an “intense” case but one with a “high level of professionalism” from the government, the public defender’s office and the investigatory agencies.

“Harold Martin was entrusted with highly classified national defense information,” US Attorney Robert Hur said in a prepared statement. “We will prosecute government employees and contractors who flagrantly violate their duty to protect classified materials.”

With his plea, Martin has become the fourth NSA employee or contractor to admit to stealing agency files in violation of classification laws since 2013. One, privacy advocate Edward Snowden, has asylum in Russia. The other two, Reality Winner and Nghia Pho, are currently serving five-year sentences.

Martin is scheduled to appear for sentencing in mid-July.