Upon Harold Martin’s arrest in 2016, an Obama administration official said his case was being kept under wraps “to keep this guy from becoming another NSA martyr.” The tactic seems to be have paid dividends.
FORT MEADE, MARYLAND – In early October 2016, news broke that a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) had been arrested over the possible theft of state secrets. Since then, little media attention has been given to what the U.S. government has called the largest theft of classified information in U.S. history, or the man allegedly behind it.
Initially arrested in August 2016 — after terabytes upon terabytes of classified information were discovered at his home, information that was taken over a period of two decades — Harold T. Martin III has been held in pre-trial detention ever since. Martin, who worked for the same government contractor as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, has yet to enter into a plea agreement for the 20 felony counts he faces, as government prosecutors have struggled to build a strong case against him. Yet, unlike in the cases of Snowden and other alleged leakers awaiting trial like Reality Winner, the press coverage of Martin’s case has been scarce.
The lack of coverage stems in part from the fact that the government has struggled to build its case against Martin, who was initially nicknamed the “second Snowden,” as it remains unclear what Martin did with the estimated 50 terabytes of data – a cache nearly 20 times greater than the Panama Papers.
Given that the government has so far been unable to prove whether he intended to or succeeded in sharing the documents with others, Martin’s legal defense, led by public defender James Wyda, has worked to distance Martin from the cases of Snowden and other NSA whistleblowers — painting him instead as a “hoarder” who accumulated troves of classified documents driven by a “mental disorder” and an obsessive need to hone his craft and prove himself to dismissive co-workers. Wyda, who previously defended NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, has also argued that Martin “never tried” to give the documents – stored at his home and in his car – to the press, a foreign country, or anyone for that matter.
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Indeed, there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that Martin is, in fact, a hoarder or had some other type of mental condition that led him to pilfer so many classified documents over such an extended period. As John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who exposed the agency’s illegal torture program, told MintPress News, “There is a strong legal argument to be made for [Martin] having hoarded this information, these documents due to some sort of mental condition, whether it’s PTSD or a hoarding disorder.” If this is the case, Kiriakou asserted that Martin shouldn’t “necessarily even be held accountable. If he has a mental illness, he needs treatment, not prison.”
Yet, just as there is evidence that Martin accumulated such a massive cache of classified government documents due to a mental condition, there also exists evidence that suggests he may be a whistleblower. However, given the government’s crackdown on whistleblowers under Obama and now Trump, Kiriakou notes that Martin’s legal defense has avoided this evidence, as focusing on Martin’s mental health makes “a stronger legal defense than would a whistleblower defense.”
“It doesn’t serve him in any way to be called or known as a whistleblower, as very few legitimate whistleblowers come out ahead at the end of their cases,” Kiriakou told MintPress.
Hoarder or whistleblower?
While most recent reporting on Martin’s case has focused exclusively on legal proceedings and how Martin will plead, there has been little examination of the facts that don’t seem to fit with Martin’s portrayal as a loner with a hoarding disorder.
According to court documents, Martin’s case is just as complex as the man himself, making it difficult to ascribe his intent. For one thing, Martin’s habit of taking government documents home remained undetected for over 20 years – even after tightening of security following the Snowden leaks – and he extensively used “sophisticated encryption, anonymization, and virtual machine technologies” to hide his actions online.
He also possessed “remote data storage accounts” as well as “encrypted communication and cloud storage apps installed on his mobile device.” Federal prosecutors have also asserted that Martin “was in possession of a sophisticated software tool which runs without being installed on a computer and provided anonymous internet access, leaving no digital footprint.” And they have asserted that Martin “communicated online with others in languages other than English, including Russian” via an encrypted connection.
In addition, Martin’s cache of documents, stored at his home and in his car, were accompanied by “handwritten notes [that] also include descriptions of the most basic concepts associated with classified operations, as if the notes were intended for an audience outside of the Intelligence Community unfamiliar with the details of its operations.”
Martin was also heavily armed, a fact that was apparently unknown to his wife, who was shocked when the FBI removed 10 firearms from his residence, including an AR-style tactical rifle and a shotgun with a flash suppressor. Only two of the weapons were registered.
He also initially lied to authorities about the thefts of the documents, only admitting his unauthorized removal of the documents when confronted with examples of the classified information found in his possession.
There is also evidence suggesting that Martin may not be as “apolitical” as his defense has sought to portray him. Court documents reveal that he often complained about the NSA’s incompetence, claiming in one letter that his co-workers were “missing most of the basics in security practice.” In addition, Martin — who served in Operation Desert Storm — was deeply affected by his experiences in the military and, according to a former mentor, showed an “intense personal and professional interest in the post-traumatic stress disorder.”
However, the most compelling evidence that there is more to this case is how Martin’s theft of classified documents was discovered. According to The New York Times, federal investigators stumbled upon Martin’s trove of documents, investigating him only after uncovering a comment Martin had posted online – the contents of which are still unknown – made him a prime suspect in the “Shadow Brokers” leak.
The Shadow Brokers: love of money or country?
In August 2016, in the aftermath of the DNC leaks among others, the group known as Shadow Brokers made its debut, releasing computer exploits that the NSA had kept hidden from the public as well as auctioning off access to an encrypted file also containing NSA data to the highest bidder. More releases soon followed, including numerous tools developed by the NSA’s elite hacking group, Tailored Access Operations (TAO).
The fact that they apparently sought not to divulge the information from the public at large — instead choosing to auction it off — as well as the fact that some of the tools they have released were later used by others for nefarious purposes, initially suggested that the Shadow Brokers were essentially cyber-criminals seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the NSA and those who could be targeted by the content of their releases.
However, the Shadow Brokers have revealed themselves to be politically motivated, at least in part. For instance, some of their earlier manifestos condemn the “wealthy elites” and make other political references about the 2016 election and other related topics.
Yet, the strongest indication of the Shadow Brokers’ political motivations came in April last year. After President Trump ordered a unilateral strike against Syria, the Shadow Brokers wrote a message called “Don’t Forget Your Base,” where the Brokers attacked Trump for his “Goldman Sach [sic] (TheGlobalists) and Military Industrial Intelligence Complex (MIIC) cabinet” and “increased U.S. involvement in a foreign war (Syria Strike)” among other factors. They further expressed their displeasure by releasing new NSA documents that were by the far the most damaging.
Among the information exposed by the Shadow Brokers in this release, was the revelation that the NSA had developed code to hack into Palestinian banks specifically as well as the SWIFT banking system. “Potent exploits and hacking tools that target most versions of Microsoft Windows” were also made public. Currently, the group is still believed to be “holding plenty more incendiary material.”
Though the Shadow Brokers have remained relatively silent for more than a year, the leaks continue to weigh heavily on the federal government, which has shown that it is still as desperate as ever to find out what information the Shadow Brokers may have. As the New York Times and the Intercept reported last month, U.S. intelligence officials paid a shady Russian national $100,000 in the hopes that he would “deliver stolen National Security Agency cyberweapons” that were in the Shadow Brokers possession in order to “get a full inventory” of what had been taken. Instead of that information, however, the Russian national “produced unverified and possibly fabricated information involving” President Trump and others, frustrating U.S. government efforts.
Yet, investigators have long been “frustrated” in their attempts to prove that Martin had “deliberately leaked or sold the hacking tools to the Shadow Brokers or, alternatively, that someone hacked into his computer or otherwise took them without his knowledge.” While “forensic clues” do exist linking him to the group, that evidence is inconclusive.
One of those clues is the fact that Martin had more than 75 percent of the TAO’s library of hacking tools in his possession at the time of his arrest. Many of those hacking tools are the very ones that have already been released by the Shadow Brokers, as well as those suspected to remain in their possession. In addition, the Shadow Brokers have also released NSA “code [that] was designed to break through network firewalls and get inside the computer systems of competitors like Russia, China and Iran” while federal authorities found “highly classified computer codes developed to hack into the networks of foreign governments like China, North Korea and Iran” in Martin’s house.
Martin’s excessive use of anonymizing software and encryption makes the possibility that the information was stolen without his knowledge unlikely. In addition, his encrypted communications in foreign languages, handwritten notes meant to explain complicated technical information to the average person, and his remote data storage online all suggest that Martin could well have been much more than a “hoarder.” Yet, from a legal standpoint, such evidence is circumstantial and fails to prove intent.
As Kiriakou explained to MintPress, intent is key in Martin’s case when it comes to proving whether he is a whistleblower, a hoarder or a disgruntled employee:
It really is all a matter of intent. If his intent was to expose waste, fraud, abuse, illegality or threats to the public health or public safety, then absolutely by legal definition he is a whistleblower. Whether he got to the oversight committees or got to the inspector general is irrelevant at that point.”
However, as Kiriakou noted, the dangerous climate for whistleblowers in the U.S. makes this a much less attractive legal defense than claiming that Martin is a “hoarder,” particularly given the inconclusive links between him and the Shadow Brokers.
If Martin were indeed the source of the Shadow Brokers, their auctioning off of the information could mean that, instead of a whistleblower, he could have been motivated by more nefarious factors. Some analysts, however, have suggested that the Shadow Brokers’ “auctions” of the stolen information were meant to generate publicity – not ransom money — and that the Shadow Brokers are politically motivated to release information to expose U.S. government wrongdoing, as was the case in their release of damaging information following Trump’s strike on Syria last April.
If Martin was, in fact, the source of the Shadow Brokers, it is possible that he could have been unaware of the Shadow Brokers’ plans to auction the information and may have thought they would release the information to the public. However, making the case that Martin could be a whistleblower who leaked to the Shadow Brokers is again a matter of intent. As Kiriakou noted:
If his intent was to stop something that NSA was doing as a matter of policy and he went to the Shadow Brokers to stop it, then an argument can be made for whistleblowing. But if he did it just to do it or if he did it because he was disgruntled, then no, he’s not a whistleblower.”
Drawing the curtains
Given the complexity of this case as well as the fact that it is said to have been the largest breach of U.S. government data in history, it is shocking that Martin has received so little public attention. A likely explanation for the lack of media coverage is that the government wants it that way. Indeed, after news of Martin’s arrest broke, an Obama administration official told the press that Martin’s arrest and the case against him was being kept under wraps to prevent him from becoming “another NSA martyr.” Not only that, but many in the corporate press have been openly hostile to alleged whistleblowers of late, particularly to Reality Winner.
However, another reason for the lack of publicity surrounding Martin’s case is the fact that his legal defense hasn’t reached out to the press. Kiriakou noted:
[Martin] hasn’t sought the publicity and his attorneys haven’t sought the publicity. When Thomas Drake’s case was going on, his attorneys reached out to 60 Minutes and The New Yorker magazine and CNN to get the word out. They haven’t done this in this case.”
Given the dangerous climate for whistleblowers in the United States, it is likely that we will never know Martin’s true intent – even if more conclusive evidence existed to suggest that he sought to bring information to the public eye to stop government crimes – as any expression of an intent to whistleblow would likely only worsen his legal situation.
The situation for whistleblowers is so toxic that Kiriakou hypothesized that – were his own whistleblower case taking place today – he believes his legal defense would likely attempt to find another way to defend his actions aside from the whistleblower defense. Kiriakou stated:
[This is] because the precedent they [my attorneys] would be looking at would be the case of Reality Winner […] who is alleged to have passed document to the Intercept, […] and has been held without bond since June of last year. I would say that the courts right now are even tougher on whistleblowers or would-be whistleblowers than they were five years ago.”
Regardless of whether Martin is a whistleblower or a hoarder, his case deserves much more attention from the press than it has received. As Kiriakou mentioned, if Martin pilfered the documents as a result of a mental condition, he “needs treatment, not prison” and, thus, should be supported by mental health advocates and others who support the more compassionate treatment of those who commit crimes owing to an existing mental condition.
On the other hand, if there is even the possibility that Martin could have been trying to get information on government wrongdoing out to the wider public, this also deserves widespread attention, especially considering the fact that the Shadow Brokers have released information that has exposed dangerous and unconstitutional government practices.
Yet, above all, Martin’s case is a troubling indication of how the U.S. government treats its own, particularly those who risk making government information public – regardless of intent.
Top Photo | A courtroom sketch of Harold Thomas Martin III.
Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News who has written for several news organizations in both English and Spanish; her stories have been featured on ZeroHedge, the Anti-Media, and 21st Century Wire among others. She currently lives in Southern Chile.