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Federal Prosecutors: Former NSA Contractor's Alleged Theft Is 'Breathtaking'


A federal judge says a former National Security Agency contractor, who allegedly took home a huge trove of secrets, presents a flight risk. So the judge ordered Harold Martin detained in federal custody until he faces trial. In court today, lawyers sparred over what motivated Martin to collect top-secret information. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was at the courthouse, and now she's with us to talk about the case. Carrie, what exactly did Harold Martin take from the NSA and why?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Justice Department says, Robert, this was an effort that was 18 to 20-years long and breathtaking in its longevity and scope. Authorities say they seized 50 terabytes of information, digital material and banker's boxes worth of paper documents from Harold Martin's home that included operational plans against an enemy of the U.S. and its allies, personal information of government workers and notes about the NSA computer infrastructure, things DOJ says Harold Martin had no business possessing.

The why remains an open question. Prosecutors have presented no evidence that Martin passed this information to anyone else, including a foreign power, but agents are still looking. They said in court today they don't think he's been fully truthful or cooperative.

SIEGEL: Well, what is Martin saying to defend himself?

JOHNSON: Public defenders say Harold Martin started taking these papers home almost 20 years ago to study for his job and be a better computer expert. But they say somewhere along the line that turned into some kind of bizarre compulsion, some kind of hoarding, Robert. And Martin wound up taking home so much stuff, he couldn't even absorb it all. A lot of it the FBI found gathering dust in an unlocked shed in Martin's backyard. Defense lawyers point out that Martin has been locked up since the FBI raid of his home in late August, and they argued for him to be released. But that was not enough today for the judge.

SIEGEL: He did appear though in court today.

JOHNSON: He did. We caught a glimpse of him for the first time. His wife was sitting right in front of me alongside her pastor and Martin's brother, who had flown in from Florida. He walked into the courtroom wearing a blue striped jumpsuit, waved and winked at his family, exchanged some personal greetings, too.

SIEGEL: Now, what was the judge's reasoning as to why Martin needs to remain in government custody?

JOHNSON: Robert, under the Bail Act, the key question legally is whether the defendant presents a flight risk, plus some kind of evaluation of the seriousness of the crime. And the judge concluded that Martin could indeed flee. The judge says this guy seems to be two people - one, a do-gooder who's trying to protect the NSA and another one who was swiping secrets and taking them out the backdoor for nearly 20 years.

The judge pointed out there could be mental health issues at play here, but there also could be more. Considering all of that, he said Martin should remain in custody for now.

SIEGEL: What happens next in this case?

JOHNSON: Well, federal prosecutors in Baltimore and at the Justice Department say they're going to charge Martin with some violations of the Espionage Act, which would be a significant acceleration in seriousness of this case. He would face a lot more time. The FBI and NSA are still investigating how this guy could have gotten away with this for so long. And defense lawyers are really going to be putting up a fight along the way. They say Martin is not Aldrich Ames, that spy who was motivated by personal greed. And they say he's not Edward Snowden, accused of taking on a whole - another whole bunch of NSA secrets possibly for political or ideological reasons.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks. Carrie.

SIEGEL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.