A former National Security Agency contractor accused of stealing a massive quantity of classified information over two decades has agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge of illegal retention of national security information.
The ex-NSA worker, Harold Martin, 53, however, has not reached a full agreement with prosecutors to resolve the twenty felony charges he was indicted on after being arrested in 2016 during a raid of his Maryland home.
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The move appears to be a gamble by Martin’s defense that the government will conclude that a trial on the remaining charges is unnecessary, particularly given the possibility that it will disclose sensitive details about the capabilities of the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
Martin, who’s been held without bail since his arrest nearly a year and a half ago, could be sentenced to up to 10 years on the charge to which he is offering to plead guilty.
Prosecutors said in a court filing that sentencing guidelines will call for Martin to receive the full 10 years. However, government lawyers have agreed to postpone sentencing until all other counts are resolved — an arrangement which suggests some possibility the other charges could be dropped.
Martin reportedly spent several years working in NSA’s elite hacking unit, known as Tailored Access Operations. Investigators initially suspected his removal of classified files from NSA headquarters led to a public disclosure of U.S. hacking tools released online by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers.
However, prosecutors have never formally accused Martin of a role in that hack or alleged that information he took from the NSA somehow made its way to the Shadow Brokers.
A statement of facts prosecutors drafted about the single count Martin is offering to plead guilty to says the particular classified document at issue in that charge is “a March 2014 NSA leadership briefing outlining the development and future plans for a specific NSA organization.”
“The information contained within this document related to United States military and naval establishments and related activities of national preparedness, as well as the defense of the United States against its enemies,” prosecutors said.
At early court hearings in the case, officials said they seized more than 50 terabytes of data from Martin’s home, along with thousands of pages of hard copy documents, many of them classified “Top Secret.”
Martin’s attorneys had no immediate comment on the plea offer.
During unsuccessful efforts to get Martin out of jail, Martin’s defense team portrayed him as a well-intentioned, but socially-awkward patriot, who meant no harm by gathering the information at his home over a period of years. Federal public defender Jim Wyda called Martin “a compulsive hoarder,” who believed he was making technical breakthroughs that his colleagues did not always appreciate.
“There’s nothing to indicate Hal Martin is a traitor,” Wyda said at an October 2016 hearing.
As the Trump administration enters its second year in office, the topics competing for attention on the national security agenda look eerily similar to those that confronted the Obama administration during its last year in the White House. These include the growing threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, the fight against the Islamic State and global terrorism, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and a series of thorny bilateral issues with major countries such as China, Mexico and Russia.
So, despite great fluidity in the international system, the Trump team has at least been able to focus onsecurity challenges for which there is a common understanding of the issues and a familiar policy playbook. And so far, there has been no unforeseen crisis, no dangerous single event to test the mettle of America’s new president.
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But is this good fortune likely to continue in 2018? The history of several recent administrations would suggest not. Every president is eventually forced to grapple with the national security equivalent of a black swan event (a Balkans conflict, 9/11, or Arab Spring), a crisis that is largely unanticipated, emerges rapidly, and has sufficient impact that it demands a full-throated U.S. response. The protests in Iran, which nobody seems to have predicted, might evolve into such a crisis. But for now, let me highlight a few security threats that are percolating just over the horizon and might soon require the White House’s full attention.
First, there is a growing threat posed by a number of increasingly fragile states that are on the verge of collapse, and whose failure would directly affect U.S. security interests.
In Yemen, the nearly three-year-old conflict grinds along with no end in sight, triggering the collapse of the country’s already fragile institutions, a humanitarian catastrophe (with more than 1 million cholera cases reported along with a surge in both diphtheria and malaria rates), and a series of ominous new security threats. In just the past month, Houthi fighters have launched two missiles at Riyadh—both were intercepted by the Saudis before striking their targets—and they continue to threaten the nearby Bab-al-Mandeb Strait, through which nearly all maritime trade between Europe and Asia passes. The Houthis are a predominantly Shiite-led religious and political movement that seized Yemen’s capital in 2014 and then tried to take over the entire country.
At the moment, no party to the conflict, including Saudi Arabia (which views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy) seems anxious for a settlement, suggesting the crisis is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. And how might this affect the United States? The longer this conflict drags on, the greater the likelihood there will be a major attack within Saudi Arabia or against U.S. forces operating in the area. Such an event would dramatically increase pressure on the White House to directly involve the U.S. military in the conflict. Meanwhile, al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters, including a potential surge of those recently displaced from Iraq and Syria, will undoubtedly exploit Yemen’s chaos and try to use its vast ungoverned spaces as a base of operations for future attacks against U.S. interests. We should not expect Yemen’s misery to stay contained within its borders for too much longer.
Much closer to home, Venezuela’s economy has deteriorated sharply in the past few years, and the country appears on the verge of a full-blown meltdown. Although the Venezuelan government has not released key economic data since January 2016, the International Monetary Fund forecasts that the economy will contract by 6 percent next year, after suffering a 12 percent decline in 2017. This has been coupled with a sharp decline in food imports and the steady erosion of the country’s currency; in just the past year, Venezuela’s bolivar has weakened nearly 98 percent against the U.S. dollar. Not surprisingly, this has triggered a wave of woes including rising violent crime rates, a spike in malnutrition and the spread of preventable diseases such as tuberculosis. President Nicolas Maduro shows no sign that he’s willing to reach an accommodation with his political opponents, so an already fraught situation might soon turn into a full blown political and humanitarian crisis—potentially involving mass protests and a more violent government crackdown—on a scale that the U.S. has not had to deal with in the Wetsern Hemisphere for at least the past two decades.
A few other states with outsized importance that are at risk of rapid deterioration include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon.
When states collapse, they often create shock waves beyond their borders—such as the dramatic spike in human displacement, which as of last June was at 66 million people worldwide and rising. When the final estimates are tallied, 2017 will mark the single greatest year for human displacement since World War II. These stunning refugee flows reflect the intense degree of instability in the world today, but they also drive more of it—posing a serious challenge to the political stability of countries from Europe to Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the simultaneous collapse of various countries’ health care systems is heightening the potential for the spread of infectious diseases, such as Ebola, the Zika virus and the Plague, which have demonstrated an uncanny ability to transit borders rapidly and with little warning.During the recent West African Ebola epidemic, for example, the first cases of the virus were recorded in Guinea in late 2013, and in less than 21 months had affected nearly 30,000 people across six countries. It’s clearly impossible to forecast precisely when or where a tipping point will be reached in a refugee crisis or a disease outbreak, but as we enter the new year, international relief agencies are already stretched to the breaking point, and many first asylum countries (particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey) have little remaining capacity to accept additional refugees. So, policymakers would be wise to start thinking in earnest now about how the U.S. government is positioned to respond to the sudden emergence in the coming year of a new refugee crisis or global pandemic.
A third, less visible threat is the risk of an incidental clash involving U.S. forces and the potential for it to escalate unintentionally into a broader crisis. As the Trump administration has increased the scope and pace of U.S. military operations globally, it has also placed U.S. troops within increasingly close proximity to potentially hostile forces. In Syria, U.S. forces accompanying Syrian Democratic Forces—mostly Kurdish groups opposed to the Syrian regime— have been routinely operating within only a few miles of Assad regime, Russian and Iranian units. And in the skies above, this threat was recently highlighted when two U.S. Air Force attack aircraft flying east of the Euphrates River narrowly avoided a collision with an oncoming Russian aircraft that was only 300 feet away.
In Iraq, meanwhile, U.S. advisers are routinely operating within a few miles of Iranian elements (including Iranian-backed Shia militia), and in some cases are virtually co-located with them. And as the U.S. Navy has routinized its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, it’s regularly operating within a short distance of Chinese military forces—much to Beijing’s intense chagrin.
While there are sound military reasons for these deployments and processes in place in both the Middle East and the South China Sea to avoid accidental contact, the presence of U.S. and hostile forces operating in such close quarters clearly heightens the risk of an accident—recall the Hainan Island incident, which involved a mid-air collision between a U.S. P-3 and Chinese fighter jet in 2001, and which triggered an intense, 11-day diplomatic stalemate that threatened to derail U.S.-China relations. Even when nobody desires a conflict, such incidents are difficult to prevent and control.
So, what does this mean for U.S. policymakers? First, even as they tackle clear and present threats, they need to ensure that the agencies that are the eyes and ears of the U.S. government abroad, including the State Department, are appropriately staffed and tasked to provide as much early warning as possible on emerging challenges and rapidly changing situations. Just consider—if we have all been caught off guard this week by the nature and geographic spread of the protests in Iran, might a similar surprise be lurking in other countries of strategic significance (Pakistan or Russia, for example)? Second, policymakers might be wise to carve out at least some time on the National Security Council agenda to consider low-level conflicts with the potential to go in short order from simmering disputes to outright wars (the situations in eastern Ukraine and along the India-Pakistan border come to mind), and to regularly review and tighten up processes for conflict de-escalation in areas where U.S. troops are deployed. And finally, it means that as 2018 begins, policymakers might usefully pause and reflect on the simple reality that administrations do not always get to choose the international crisis that will define their tenure, and that if recent history is a guide, the defining national security challenge for the Trump team may be yet to emerge from the shadows.
The investigation led by special counselor Robert Mueller is zeroing in on money laundering and individuals with close ties to President Donald Trump, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said in interviews for a forthcoming book, characterizing Mueller’s aim “plain as a hair on your face.”
Of particular interest to Mueller’s team, Bannon said, are Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and his son in law and senior aide Jared Kushner. “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” Bannon said in interviews for the forthcoming book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff, portions of which were read in advance by The Guardian.
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“You realize where this is going,” Bannon reportedly said in the book. “This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose [senior prosecutor Andrew] Weissmann first and he is a money-laundering guy. Their path to f—— Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr and Jared Kushner … It’s as plain as a hair on your face.”
Already, Mueller’s team has indicted two former Trump campaign officials, Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, on charges including money laundering, making false statements and failing to register as agents of a foreign government. Attorneys for the president have argued that the charges against Manafort and Gates are unrelated to their work for the Trump campaign.
Bannon, though, predicted that there will be more shoes to drop and that Kushner, who was a prominent real estate magnate in New York before joining his father-in-law’s administration, will be of particular focus. The New York Times reported last month that federal investigators had subpoenaed from Deutsche Bank records related to the Kushner family business.
“It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner s—. The Kushner s— is greasy. They’re going to go right through that. They’re going to roll those two guys up and say play me or trade me,” Bannon said. The former White House chief strategist, who left the administration over the summer and returned to his role as the head of the alt-right publication Breitbart, characterized the White House’s response to the ongoing investigation as “sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five.”
Bannon was also critical of the decision by Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner to meet in the summer of 2016 with a Russian attorney who claimed to have incriminating information about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, in the form of hacked emails, sourced from the Russian government. He told his interviewer that the meeting should never have happened, especially inside Trump Tower and without any lawyers present.
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad s—, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately,” he said, adding that if the meeting were to happen, it should have occurred “in a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, with your lawyers who meet with these people” and then the information “dump[ed] … down to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication”.
11 a.m.: President Donald Trump will receive his daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.
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12:30 p.m.: Trump will have lunch with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the White House.
DAILY BRIEFING: Press secretary Sarah Sanders will brief the press at the White House at 3 p.m.
TRUMP’S TWITTER THIS MORNING: “Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!”
TRUMP’S BIG TUESDAY NIGHT ON TWITTER: From POLITICO’s Cristiano Lima: “On Tuesday evening, Trump seemingly cast aside his prior comments expressing optimism about finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with North Korea, sending a warning to leader Kim Jong Un that the U.S.’s nuclear button is ‘much bigger & more powerful one than his,’ and that unlike Kim’s, his actually ‘works.’ ‘North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,”’ the president tweeted. ‘Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!’ The rhetoric marked a momentary shift for Trump, who earlier Tuesday appeared to entertain the possibility that South Korea would be able to persuade the Kim government to scale back their weapons testing after the North Korean leader appeared to offer up an olive branch of sorts to their neighbor to the south during a national address. And within 16 minutes President Trump returned to firing jabs at the media, reviving the tactic he has deployed since the early days of his presidential campaign.”
TRUMP-ROMNEY RIVALRY:From POLITICO’s Alex Isenstadt: “Donald Trump had just returned from Utah last month when the president placed a call to his longtime nemesis Mitt Romney. Trump was ostensibly trying to ease tensions between the two men, after a trip dominated by news reports that he was courting Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to run for reelection in order to keep Romney from seeking the seat. But the 10-minute chat only further raised suspicions within Romney’s inner circle that the president was out to stymie the former GOP presidential nominee’s political ambitions. The president told Romney that he knew he was thinking about running. But according to one person familiar with the conversation, the details of which have not been reported before, Trump didn’t press the former Massachusetts governor about his thinking or ask why he might be interested in being a senator. Romney’s aides came away convinced the president was trying to suss out Romney’s intentions and position himself as an ally, when he’d been anything but. The conversation highlighted the fraught relationship between the Republican heavyweights — one that will now take center stage as Romney prepares a Senate bid in the wake of Hatch’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t seek another term, contrary to Trump’s wishes. Should Romney run and win, as many expect, he will be poised to be Trump’s most prominent GOP foil, representing the wing of traditional Republicanism that the president has purposefully cast aside.”
BANNON FIREWORKS:From The Guardian’s David Smith: “Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has described the Trump Tower meeting between the president’s son and a group of Russians during the 2016 election campaign as ‘treasonous’ and ‘unpatriotic,’ according to an explosive new book seen by the Guardian. Bannon, speaking to author Michael Wolff, warned that the investigation into alleged collusion with the Kremlin will focus on money laundering and predicted: ‘They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.’”
DACA WATCH:From The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, David Nakamura and Ashley Parker: “President Trump escalated tensions with Democratic leaders Tuesday over the fate of young undocumented immigrants known as ‘dreamers,’ claiming the lawmakers are ‘doing nothing’ to protect them from deportation as a key deadline nears, even though last year he ended the Obama-era program that allowed those immigrants to stay in the country. But the Twitter salvo masked a murkier reality as lawmakers returned to Washington: Trump remains open to negotiations on a charged issue that has vexed him since his presidential campaign — and his brash partisanship was widely seen as a nod to his base rather than a sudden turn in the talks. Inside the White House and the Republican Party, Trump is caught in a thicket of political pressures as he maps out possible requisites for a deal. Many of his supporters are clamoring for a standoff over funding for his promised, gigantic wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, while some aides and GOP officials are reminding him of his pledge last year to ‘show great heart’ toward dreamers — immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.”
According to a new book seen by the Guardian, Bannon said the meeting that occurred during the 2016 presidential race was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.”
“They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” Bannon reportedly told author Michael Wolff, referring to the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
After news of the meeting surfaced last year, Bannon reportedly said: “The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor — with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers.”
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately,” Bannon said, according to the book.
The quotes were chronicled in the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which is scheduled to be released next week.
Last month, CNN reported that the British publicist Rob Goldstone, who arranged the June 2016 meeting, sent multiple follow-up emails later that summer to President Trump’s social media director and a Russian who was at the meeting.
Congressional investigators discovered the emails from Goldstone during a hearing behind closed doors with Trump Jr. None of the emails were sent directly to the president’s eldest son, CNN reported last month.
The emails raised new questions for congressional investigators looking into the details of what was discussed at the Trump Tower meeting.
Goldstone helped set up the meeting between Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who had promised damaging material on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.