Pentagon & Congress

Defense Department linguist charged with leaking classified information to terrorist organization

A linguist with the Defense Department has been charged with illegally transmitting “highly sensitive classified national defense information” to an individual connected with a foreign terrorist organization, according to a Justice Department press release.

Mariam Taha Thompson, 61, is accused of delivering classified information to an unidentified co-conspirator who worked for the Lebanese government and has “apparent connections” to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.

While working as a contract linguist assigned to a special operations task force in Erbil, Iraq, Thompson allegedly “accessed dozens of files concerning human intelligence sources, including true names, personal identification data, background information, and photographs of human assets” during a six-week period between late December and early February, the release stated.

“While in a war zone, the defendant allegedly gave sensitive national defense information, including the names of individuals helping the United States, to a Lebanese national located overseas,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, in the release. “If true, this conduct is a disgrace, especially for someone serving as a contractor with the United States military. This betrayal of country and colleagues will be punished.”

Thompson was arrested by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Feb. 27 at the overseas military facility where she worked. Throughout her time as a linguist, she held a top-secret security clearance.

“The Department of Defense is aware that the Department of Justice charged a DoD contractor with serious criminal offenses," Alyssa Farah, Defense Department press secretary, said in an emailed statement. "DoD will continue to cooperate with the DOJ throughout its investigation. DoD is taking all necessary precautions, including the protection of U.S. forces. At this time, we refer all questions on this matter to DOJ.”

The arrest came after a multi-agency investigation which involved the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, the release added.

“The conduct alleged in this complaint is a grave threat to national security, placed lives at risk, and represents a betrayal of our armed forces,” said Timothy J. Shea, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, in the release. “The charges we’ve filed today should serve as a warning to anyone who would consider disclosing classified national defense information to a terrorist organization.”

Around Dec. 30, officials noticed a “notable shift” in Thompson’s network activity on classified systems around the time protesters attempted to storm the U.S. embassy, a day after U.S. military airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia forces.

In this Dec 31, 2019, file photo, protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)
In this Dec 31, 2019, file photo, protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

U.S. forces struck five targets of Iraqi-based Hezbollah affiliates in both Iraq and Syria, two days after a rocket attack from Iranian-backed militias on an Iraqi Security Forces base in Kirkuk, Iraq, Military Times previously reported. That attack led to the death of one American contractor.

These exchanges led to a spiraling of tensions which culminated in the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, near Baghdad International Airport in early January, and an Iranian ballistic missile response on two Iraqi bases housing coalition troops.

This attack resulted in over 100 U.S. service members sustaining mild traumatic brain injuries, according to the latest Pentagon figures.

On Feb. 19, a search of the linguist’s living quarters “led to the discovery of a handwritten note in Arabic concealed under” Thompson’s mattress, which contained classified information, the release stated.

When asked by investigators if her co-conspirator was involved in Hezbollah or a separate Shiite Lebanese political party, the linguist responded “Yeah, one of the two. They are the same,” according to the Justice Department affidavit.

The affidavit also states that Thompson took screenshots of handwritten Arabic notes containing memorized classified information, often naming human assets in the area of operations. Thompson admitted to having a “romantic interest” in the co-conspirator, the release said.

Thompson appeared briefly in Washington’s federal court, where she was ordered held without bond pending a detention hearing next week. Neither she nor her lawyer addressed the allegations in court.

If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

Story has been updated to include a statement from the Pentagon.

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