Spy satellite scientist sent down for a year for stowing secrets at home

Document hoarding 'must be deterred for the sake of intelligence community'

Mohan Nirala, 52, a former employee of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, received a prison sentence of 12 months and a day on Friday for storing national defense information in violation of the law.

According to the Department of Justice, Nirala, who worked for the NGA from February 2009 until 2015, pled guilty on September 16, 2016 to a single felony count under the Espionage Act.

Nirala appears to have come to the attention of supervisors on September 11, 2013, when NGA security personnel were notified that he had included classified information in a discrimination complaint.

Eight days later, according to an FBI affidavit filed with the District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, that heard the case, Nirala allegedly sent an email containing classified information to a Chinese citizen residing in the US.

Then on January 10, 2014 FBI agents searched Nirala's residence in Laurel, Maryland, and found over 20 classified documents, as described in the statement of facts [PDF] filed with the court.

When FBI agents returned to Nirala's residence on March 8, 2016, after months of negotiation in relation to the case, they found a FedEx box sealed with white duct tape beneath an unfinished basement stairway. The box contained more than five hundred pages of documents, many marked Top Secret or Secret. Among them was a copy of the warrant presented to Nirala when federal agents conducted their 2014 search.

No reference is made to the discrimination claim in the plea agreement filed with the court, by which Nirala accepted responsibility for Willful Retention of National Defense Information, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 793(e).

In court documents, Nirala argued that the searches of his property had been improper, that NGA and FBI agents had lied under oath, that NGA documents in question were not classified, and that FBI agents had targeted him because of his race as an Asian American.

A court statement by Nirala claims his record as an employee was exemplary, apart from "the retaliatory action of his supervisors." NGA supervisors, the document says, "provided negative references because Dr Nirala exercised his rights to complain about unlawful discrimination and retaliation and reprisal for whistleblowing."

The court record also includes a sealed psychiatric report.

The sentencing memorandum from US Attorney Dana J Boente notes that Nirala "was explicitly warned of the consequences for stealing and removing classified information from his workplace." It also points out that all three instances in which the FBI recovered classified information occurred after Nirala had lost his security clearance and had acknowledged he was no longer entitled to possess such information.

"Such behavior must be deterred if the intelligence community is to function," said Boente. ®

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