WASHINGTON - A former National Security Agency employee who worked in its elite hacking unit pleaded guilty on Friday to illegally taking classified information outside the spy agency, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Nghia Hoang Pho, 67, retained U.S. government documents containing top-secret national defense information between 2010 and March 2015, according to a plea agreement.
Pho faces up to 10 years in prison. He is not being held by authorities as he awaits his sentencing, which is scheduled for April 6, 2018, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Pho is at least the third NSA employee or contractor to be charged within the past two years on counts of improperly taking classified information from the agency, breaches that have prompted criticism of the secretive NSA.
Contractor hoarded information
A federal grand jury indicted former NSA contractor Harold Martin in February on charges alleging he spent up to 20 years stealing up to 50 terabytes of highly sensitive government material from the U.S. intelligence community, which were hoarded at his home.
In June another NSA contractor, Reality Winner, 25, was charged with leaking classified material about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to a news outlet. She pleaded not guilty.
And in 2013, former contractor Edward Snowden pilfered secrets about NSA's surveillance programs and shared them with journalists. He now lives in Moscow.
Pho took both physical and digital documents that contained "highly classified information of the United States," including information labeled as "top secret," according to court records unsealed Friday. Pho was aware the documents contained sensitive information and kept them at his residence in Maryland, the records said.
No comment from US agencies
Asked for comment, Pho's attorney, Robert Bonsib, said, "Any conversations regarding this case will be made in the courtroom during the sentencing." He declined to comment further.
Officials at the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The NSA, whose main mission is gathering and analyzing foreign communications for potential security threats, is based at Fort Meade, Maryland.