Former NSA Employee Sentenced to Prison for Willful Retention of Classified National Defense Information
Nghia Hoang Pho, 68, of Ellicott City, Maryland, and a naturalized U.S. citizen originally of Vietnam, was sentenced today to 66 months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, for willful retention of classified national defense information. According to court documents, Pho removed massive troves of highly classified national defense information without authorization and kept it at his home.
The sentence was announced by Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Robert K. Hur, and Special Agent in Charge Gordon B. Johnson of the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office. U.S. District Judge George L. Russell, III issued the sentence.
“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Demers. “Today’s sentence reaffirms the expectations that the government places on those who have sworn to safeguard our nation’s secrets. I would like to thank the agents, analysts and prosecutors whose hard work brought this result.”
“Removing and retaining such highly classified material displays a total disregard of Pho’s oath and promise to protect our nation’s national security,” said U.S. Attorney Hur. “As a result of his actions, Pho compromised some of our country’s most closely held types of intelligence, and forced NSA to abandon important initiatives to protect itself and its operational capabilities, at great economic and operational cost.”
“The privilege of working for the U.S. Intelligence Community requires strict adherence to laws governing the lawful secrecy of its work,” said Special Agent in Charge Johnson. “We cannot have a functioning Intelligence Community without the protection of sources and methods, and taking classified information and placing it in a vulnerable setting has profound and often disastrous consequences. This case is a clarion call to all security clearance holders to follow the law and policy regarding classified information storage. The FBI will leave no stone unturned to investigate those who compromise or mishandle classified information.”
According to his plea agreement, beginning in April 2006, Pho was employed as a developer in Tailored Access Operations (TAO) at the National Security Agency (NSA). NSA is a component of the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The NSA's TAO involved operations and intelligence collection from foreign automated information systems or networks, as well as actions taken to prevent, detect and respond to unauthorized activity within DoD information systems and computer networks, for the United States and its allies.
Pho held various security clearances in connection with his employment, including Top Secret and Top Secret // Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). Pho had access to national defense and classified information and worked on highly classified, specialized projects. Over his years of holding a security clearance, Pho received training regarding the proper handling, marking, transportation and storage of classified information. Pho was also told that unauthorized removal of classified materials, and the transportation and storage of those materials in unauthorized locations, risked disclosure of the materials and could endanger the national security of the United States. Pho signed numerous non-disclosure agreements demonstrating that he understood the trust that the United States places in individuals who receive a security clearance.
According to the plea agreement, beginning in 2010 and continuing through March 2015, Pho removed and retained U.S. government property, including documents and writings that contained national defense information classified as Top Secret and SCI. This material was in both hard copy and digital form, and was kept in a number of locations in Pho’s residence in Maryland. Pho knew that he was not authorized to remove the material or store it at his home.
Assistant Attorney General Demers and U.S. Attorney Hur commended the FBI and the NSA for their work in the investigation. This prosecution was handled by the District of Maryland, and the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.