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National Security

Ex-NSA staffer gets 21 years for trying to sell defense information to 'friends' in Russia

The letter from the former National Security Agency employee, written in Cyrillic characters, is not at all what you would expect to end up in the hands of a Russian agent.

“My friends!" Dalke told the purported operative, according to court documents. “I am very happy to finally provide this information to you . . . I look forward to our friendship and shared benefit."

Moments after Jareh Sebastian Dalke hit send, FBI agents arrested him. His supposed Russian handler was an undercover FBI agent and the operation was part of a sting operation that on Monday ended with Dalke getting a 21-year federal prison sentence for attempted espionage.

Dalke, 32, a former information systems security designer at the NSA, was heavily in debt with student loans and credit card debt. He said in what he thought were secret letters that he wanted $85,000 for sensitive national security information that he told his supposed contact would help Russia.

“This defendant, who had sworn an oath to defend our country, believed he was selling classified national security information to a Russian agent, when in fact, he was outing himself to the FBI,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said Monday. “This sentence demonstrates that that those who seek to betray our country will be held accountable for their crimes.”

Ex-NSA agent drowning in debt

Dalke, of Colorado Springs, said in his contacts with the undercover agent that he sought to help Russia because he “questioned [U.S.] role in damage to the world in the past and by mixture of curiosity for secrets and a desire to cause change.”

"There is an opportunity to help balance scales of the world while also tending to my own needs," Dalke told the agent, according to court papers. He requested payment in cryptocurrency because “as in these things privacy is extremely important.”

Dalke had nearly $84,000 of credit card and student loan debt, according to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Rebecca Shaw.

After working at the NSA for less than a month, Dalke handed in his resignation, indicating it was due to a family illness and that the agency was unable to grant him nine months off as he requested.

Weeks after leaving the NSA, Dalke sent excerpts in August 2022 from three classified documents, including a threat assessment of sensitive U.S. defense capabilities, to prove his access to information and "willingness to share," according to a federal affidavit. Shaw wrote that Dalke held a top-secret security clearance, signing "a lifetime binding non-disclosure agreement" to guard protected government information.

Dalke transferred four additional classified files to the covert FBI agent on Sept. 28, 2022, the Justice Department said, and he was arrested moments later. Dalke pleaded guilty to the charges in October.

Established in 1952, the NSA leads the United States government in cryptology and is a combat support agency responsible for securing military communications and data, as well as providing electronic intelligence.

A spokesperson for the NSA declined to comment when reached by USA TODAY. Dalke’s attorney listed in court records did not immediately return requests for comment Monday.

Breaches are rare but treacherous

Javed Ali, a former senior official for the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, told USA TODAY there are multiple potential motivating factors for divulging classified information. There hasn’t been a clear common denominator among espionage cases which makes it hard to “spot in advance," Ali said, but money, discontent with government policy and lack of self-worth have all played roles in previous cases.

“It’s still rare, but when it happens, it can cause serious risk to national security," Ali said.

Every time an agent attempts – and sometimes succeeds – in a breach, the agency traces back its steps and reevaluates what went wrong to prevent a repeat case.

“It doesn’t mean you're ever going to be 100% immune from this type of activity, but you try to plug the holes that you know were compromised, and then you also have to trust your employees to do the right thing.”

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