Ex-NSA employee pleads guilty to taking classified info home

A computer workstation bears the National Security Agency logo inside its Fort Meade Maryland headquarters in a 2006 file

A former National Security Agency employee pleaded guilty Friday to keeping top secret US defense material at his home - the latest in a series of breaches involving workers at the nation's largest spy shop.

The guilty plea said that between 2010 and March 2015, Pho removed and retained at his home paper and digital copies of USA government documents and writings containing national defense information. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

U.S District Judge George L. Russell III has scheduled a sentencing hearing for April 6.

Pho's home computer was using antivirus software made by the Russian software company Kaspersky Lab and Russian hackers are thought to have exploited it to steal the documents, the officials said. It is further alleged by USA government sources that Russian spies were able to get their hands on the top-secret code via the antivirus package, although Kaspersky denies any direct involvement.

The NSA has not commented on the report, but the Department of Homeland Security subsequently issued a directive banning all US agencies from using Kaspersky products. US officials have said that Kaspersky Lab, by virtue of being located in Moscow, is subject to Russian surveillance.

In a November investigative report on the incident, Kaspersky Lab said its software had "inadvertently" retrieved the NSA tools because they were contained in a larger file that had NSA code in it that the firm classifies as malicious. However, the New York Times cited a confidential source who said Pho is the NSA staffer in question in a report Friday.

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Pho, a naturalized citizen, worked as a developer in Tailored Access Operations (TAO), the agency's elite hacking unit, which gathers intelligence by penetrating the computers of foreign governments and other targets overseas.

The charges come on the heels of another government investigation in relation to a larger breach of NSA security, in which the NSA's hacking tools were released to the public past year by an unidentified group called the Shadow Brokers, Wired reported. Meade, Maryland; NSA contractor Reality Winner was charged in June with leaking classified material to an online news outlet.

Both have pleaded not guilty, and are being held by authorities as they await trial for their alleged offenses. Victor is a former NSA contractor and Air Force veteran. He now lives in Moscow.

On Friday, the 67-year-old Nghia Hoang Pho pleaded guilty to removing the top-secret data and storing it in his Maryland home. He declined to give further details about the case.

Officials at the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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