Judge eases feds' case against NSA hoarder

- Maret 17, 2018

A federal judge handed prosecutors a significant win this week over a computer specialist accused of stealing a massive quantity of classified documents and data during two decades working at the National Security Agency and other agencies.

U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis suggested last month that he might require prosecutors to prove that the contractor formerly assigned to an elite NSA hacking unit, Harold Martin, knew he had the 20 specific documents listed in a 20-count indictment accusing him of illegally retaining national security information at his Maryland home.

That might have been a tough burden for prosecutors to meet in view of the sheer volume of records Martin is accused of taking home over the course of his career. The judge said the documents number in the millions. Defense attorneys have said Martin was hoarding and suffered from mental health issues before he was arrested by the FBI in 2016.

In a ruling this week, Garbis backed away from his earlier concerns and ruled that prosecutors won't have to show Martin knew the contents of any of individual documents. The government can prove its case by showing that the ex-NSA contractor knew it was wrong to remove the records he took home, regardless of what was in them, the judge decided.

"The Court does not find it wrong to burden a defendant who has stolen and retained a tremendous collection of documents taken from a secured facility with the obligations imposed by the security character of the documents he took," Garbis wrote in his 11-page decision. "Proof that the defendant knew he was wrongfully retaining the mass of stolen documents is sufficient to satisfy the Government’s willfulness mens rea obligation under [the Espionage Act], if the Government can prove that the specified Charged Documents were in the mass of documents taken and wrongfully retained."


At a hearing in Baltimore federal court earlier this month, Martin's defense argued that it would set a dangerous precedent to allow a jury to convict someone who might have knowingly taken something from a government office without permission, but had no idea it was classified.

However, Garbis said Martin's situation was akin to someone who carries out an assault not knowing that the person being assaulted is a federal officer. The law still imposes a severe penalty in such cases and allows their prosecution in federal court, even if the accused didn't know the victim was a federal official, the judge noted.

During the hearing, Garbis — an appointee of President George H.W. Bush — expressed some doubt on the question raised by Martin's situation and said it appeared to be legally unprecedented. A glimpse of that remained in the judge's ruling this week, as he noted that the defense will be free to argue the issue to an appeals court if Martin is convicted.

Before the judge raised the unusual proof question last month, the two sides in the case appeared to be at an impasse in plea negotiations. Martin offered to plead guilty to one of the 20 felony counts he faces, but prosecutors were unwilling to agree to dismiss the remaining charges. If convicted on all counts, Martin could spend the rest of his life in prison, although defendants in cases involving mishandling of classified information rarely get more than a couple of years behind bars.

Martin was denied bond and has already spent more than a year and a half in jail.

Martin's defense did not immediate respond to requests for comment on the ruling, which could toughen prosecutors' stance in discussions about resolving the case.


 

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