Harare — An American citizen of Ethiopian descent who had Top Secret clearance was detained and accused of giving sensitive information to Ethiopia, AFP reports.
On Friday, September 22, the criminal complaint against Abraham Teklu Lemma, a resident of Silver Spring, Maryland, who is listed as an IT systems and data analyst on LinkedIn, was made public.
Lemma allegedly conducted his espionage operations between December 2022 and August 2023, placing tens of thousands of dollars in cash into bank accounts in the Washington area, according to an affidavit submitted by an FBI inspector.
Lemma allegedly took sensitive and top-secret data from a variety of intelligence reports at the State Department and gave it to a "person connected to a foreign intelligence service" using an encrypted messaging platform. The data includes records, images, notes, and maps pertaining to the "relevant country," as described in the affidavit. The affidavit cited a messaging exchange from September 2022 in which a foreign official informed Lemma that "it's time to continue (your) support," to which he allegedly responded, "Roger that!"
It stated that "Lemma's communications with the foreign official included a discussion of military activities of a rebel group involved in an armed struggle against the government of the "relevant country", which is thought to be a reference to the fighting in Tigray. Lemma, who has had a top secret security clearance since 2020, worked in both the State Department and the Justice Department. He also worked there as a contract management analyst.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ethiopia in March, which is a key beneficiary of U.S. funding. Lemma is accused of two counts of espionage and one of illegally holding information on national defense. While the retention allegation has a maximum 10-year sentence, the espionage charge entails a potential death sentence.
In June 2023, the WFP and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) halted food assistance to Ethiopia in response to a widespread diversion of donations. The committee established by the interim regional administration of Tigray to investigate diversion of humanitarian food in the region revealed that the Ethiopian federal government entities and Eritrean forces had higher roles in the widescale food aid diversion.
Ethiopia and Tigray had been at war from November 2020, and signed a peace deal in November 2022. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to neighbouring countries to avoid the conflict and the ensuing food crisis.