BALTIMORE — A former National Security Agency contractor who stored two decades’ worth of classified documents at his Maryland home was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison.
Harold Martin, 54, apologized to the federal judge who sentenced him for a theft that prosecutors have called "breathtaking" in scope.
"My methods were wrong, illegal and highly questionable," Martin told U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett.
The punishment was in line with the nine-year sentence called for under his plea agreement, in which he admitted guilt to a single count of willful retention of national defense information. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
A prosecutor and defense attorney both noted there is no evidence that Martin intended to transmit any of the classified information to anyone, but the judge said the trove of records contained "very sensitive material."
"That means people's lives were potentially in danger," Bennett said.
The sentencing resolves a mysterious case that broke into the open in 2016, when FBI agents conducting a raid found a massive trove of stolen government documents inside his home, car and storage shed.
"This case is enormously significant not only for the Justice Department but also for the intelligence community," Robert Hur, the United States attorney in Maryland, told The Associated Press in an interview before the sentencing. "In any case where you have someone who holds a security clearance at the level that Mr. Martin did and chooses to betray that public trust in such a profound way, it puts national security at risk."
Prosecutors initially said 50 terabytes had been found, though Hur said that estimate had been revised significantly downward. The information spanned from the mid-1990s to the present and included personal details of government employees and "Top Secret" email chains, handwritten notes describing the NSA's classified computer infrastructure, and descriptions of classified technical operations.
The case attracted particular attention since the raid took place just weeks after a mysterious internet group calling itself the Shadow Brokers surfaced online to advertise the sale of hacking tools stolen from the NSA. The U.S. believes that North Korea and Russia were able to capitalize on stolen hacking tools to unleash punishing global cyberattacks.
Prosecutors never linked Martin to the Shadow Brokers or charged him in the theft. But prosecutors say he nonetheless jeopardized national security through habitually taking home secret and classified government documents and carelessly storing them.
"He knew this was wrong, dangerous and illegal," Justice Department prosecutor Zachary Myers said.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, described him as a compulsive hoarder who never betrayed his country. One of his lawyers, James Wyda, said Martin struggled for years with an undiagnosed mental illness, autism spectrum disorder.
"Instability and isolation were constants throughout Mr. Martin's childhood and adult life," Wyda said, adding that the stolen documents "were profoundly important to him when he was in the throes of his mental health situation."
But Hur said defense attorneys' characterization minimized the crime.
"This isn't just hoarding," Hur told the AP. "It isn't like wandering into someone's house and finding stacks of newspapers or library books or junk. This is highly classified information, the compromise of which is going to do grave damage to national security."
Tucker reported from Washington.