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Defense Department Linguist Charged with Espionage

Defense Department Linguist Charged with Espionage
6-8 minutes

Mariam Taha Thompson, 61, formerly of Rochester, Minnesota, was charged today in the District of Columbia with transmitting highly sensitive classified national defense information to a foreign national with apparent connections to Hizballah, a foreign terrorist organization that has been so designated by the Secretary of State. According to the affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint, the information Thompson gathered and transmitted included classified national defense information regarding active human assets, including their true names. By compromising the identities of these human assets, Thompson placed the lives of the human assets and U.S. military personnel in grave danger.

The announcement was made by John C. Demers, the Assistant Attorney General for National Security; Timothy J. Shea, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia; Robert Wells, Acting Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division; and Timothy R. Slater, the Assistant Director in Charge of the Washington Field Office.

“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 Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “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.”

“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. 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,” said U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Shea for the District of Columbia.

“This case shows the value of cooperation across the U.S. Government. Working closely with the Department of Defense, the FBI was able to investigate this willful disregard for keeping national defense information safe and partnered to bring the defendant to the United States to face justice,” said Acting Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division Robert Wells.

“Today’s announcement is a testament to the U.S. government’s commitment to protecting the U.S. from the unauthorized disclosure of classified information that can put our country at serious risk of damage – damage to people and damage to our country’s capabilities,” said Timothy R. Slater, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “Human assets are the core of the U.S. government’s intelligence, and they have our assurance that we will go above and beyond to protect them. I want to thank the men and women at the FBI and our partners here and abroad who answered the call to assist on this fast-moving investigation. The FBI is charged with protecting our nation’s security and information for a safe and secure tomorrow for all Americans – we take this duty seriously and will not stand by while supposedly trusted individuals violate that trust in such an egregious way.”

Thompson was arrested by FBI Special Agents on February 27, 2020, at an overseas U.S. military facility, where she worked as a contract linguist and held a Top Secret government security clearance.

The investigation leading to this arrest revealed that starting on or about December 30, 2019, a day after U.S. airstrikes against Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, and the same day protesters stormed the U.S. embassy in Iraq to protest those strikes, audit logs show a notable shift in Thompson’s network activity on United States Department of Defense classified systems, including repeated access to classified information she had no need to access. Specifically, during a six-week period between December 30, 2019, and February 10, 2020, Thompson accessed dozens of files concerning human intelligence sources, including true names, personal identification data, background information, and photographs of the human assets, as well as operational cables detailing information the assets provided to the United States government.

A court-authorized search of Thompson’s living quarters on February 19, 2020, led to the discovery of a handwritten note in Arabic concealed under Thompson’s mattress. The note contained classified information from Department of Defense computer systems, identifying human assets by name, and warning a Department of Defense target who is affiliated with a designated foreign terrorist organization with ties to Hizballah. The note also instructed that the human assets’ phones should be monitored.

Thompson transmitted the classified information in the handwritten note to a co-conspirator, in whom she had a romantic interest. The FBI’s investigation revealed that Thompson knew the co-conspirator was a foreign national whose relative worked for the Lebanese government. The investigation also revealed that the co-conspirator has apparent connections to Hizballah. Further investigation revealed that, in a separate communication, Thompson also provided information to her co-conspirator identifying another human asset and the information the asset had provided to the United States, as well as providing information regarding the techniques the human assets were using to gather information on behalf of the United States.

In today’s Criminal Complaint, Thompson was charged with Delivering Defense Information to Aid a Foreign Government in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 794(a) and conspiring to do so in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 794(c).

Thompson is scheduled to make her initial appearance before United States Magistrate Judge Robin M. Meriweather later this afternoon. A Criminal Complaint is a formal accusation of criminal conduct for purposes of establishing probable cause, not evidence of guilt. The defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. If convicted, Thompson faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for violating § 794. The maximum statutory sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only. If convicted of any offense, the sentencing of a defendant will be determined by the court based on the advisory Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Trial Attorneys Jennifer Kennedy Gellie of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, Jennifer Levy of the Counterterrorism Section, and Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia John Cummings are prosecuting the case.


Zimbabwe, Botswana vow to push for rights to trade in wildlife products


PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa and his Botswana counterpart Mokgweetsi Masisi have declared they will continue pushing for the right to trade in wildlife products, saying communities that have done well in conserving wildlife must be allowed to enjoy the benefits of such efforts.

Several Sadc countries have voiced their concern over the restrictive Convention of Trade in Endangered Species’ (CITES) provisions concerning live elephant and rhino trade, ivory and rhino horn trade bans and the contentious listing of the unthreatened giraffe population.

Speaking during the just ended Botswana-Zimbabwe Bi-National Commission (BNC), leaders from the two countries said environmental conservation efforts, including wildlife, would not be fully realised given the restrictive conditions governing global trade in wildlife related products.

President Mnangagwa said wildlife resource rich countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana must be allowed to trade and realise benefits of their conservation efforts.

He commended Botswana and regional sister countries on the preservation and defence of the wildlife economy, whose full dividend has not been realised because of restrictions in wildlife trade.

“Let those who co-exist and help in the preservation of our wildlife enjoy benefits accruing from the effective wildlife management strategies they have adopted. We reiterated our common position of this very sensitive and emotive matter to have exclusive rights to trade in our wildlife products.”

Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi said the regional leadership was on the right direction in terms of environmental conservation and that such efforts need to be supported by enabling wildlife trade rules and regulations.

Last year in May, Botswana hosted the historic Elephant Summit in the Kasane area, which was followed by the Africa Wildlife Economy Summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, in June 2019.

“These will indeed go a long way in improving regional advancement for the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation area (Kaza). It will also contribute significantly towards sustainable economic and ecological benefit for local communities and Africa as a whole,” said President Masisi.

Speaking on the same issue, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister, Dr Sibusiso Moyo, said CITES “has done more harm than good” in terms of assisting developing nations on the conservation front.

“In 2019 that fraternal spirit was demonstrated as our two countries joined hands towards a common position at the CITES Cop 18 meeting where our two countries once again called for the review of the 1989 CITES ban on global ivory trade, which has done more harm than good to our elephant conservation efforts,” he said.


U.S. officials worried about Chinese control of American drug supply


Ken Dilanian

Antibiotics, which turn life-threatening infections into minor nuisances, are considered the single biggest advance in modern medicine.

But imagine if the supply of antibiotics to the United States was suddenly cut off.

American national security officials are worrying about that scenario as they come to grips with this little understood fact: The vast majority of key ingredients for drugs that many Americans rely on are manufactured abroad, mostly in China.

As the U.S. defense establishment grows increasingly concerned about China’s potentially hostile ambitions, the pharmaceutical supply chain is receiving new scrutiny.

“If China shut the door on exports of medicines and their key ingredients and raw material, U.S. hospitals and military hospitals and clinics would cease to function within months, if not days,” said Rosemary Gibson, author of a book on the subject, “China Rx.”


Or, Gibson told NBC News, China could potentially “weaponize our medicines. They can sell us medicines without any medicine in them. They can sell medicines that have lethal contaminants in it.”
Prometheus Books

Other generic drugs whose key ingredients are manufactured in China include medicines for blood pressure medicine, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and depression, Gibson says.


“We can’t make penicillin anymore,” said Gibson. “The last penicillin plant in the United States closed in 2004.”


A Chinese manipulation of drug ingredients or supply may seem like a fairly remote possibility. A state-run Chinese paper said this week that there’s little chance the government would deliberately harm Americans by cutting off the flow of antibiotics.

But as the Trump administration’s trade war with China heats up, a leading Chinese economist gave voice to the worst fears of U.S. policymakers in March, in a speech to an annual national congress.

“China is the world’s largest exporter of vitamins and antibiotic raw materials,” he said, according to an NBC News translation. “Once the export is reduced, the medical systems of some developed countries will not work.”

The Pentagon has noticed.

Workers sort pig intestines in a Chinese factory. A mucous membrane from the intestines is cooked to produce a dry substance known as crude heparin, a first step in producing the drug known as heparin.Qilai Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

“The national security risks of increased Chinese dominance of the global API market cannot be overstated,” Christopher Priest, the acting deputy assistant director for health care operations and Tricare for the Defense Health Agency, told a U.S.-China advisory panel in Washington this summer.

The Defense Health Agency provides health care and prescription drugs to the military.

Priest told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that the White House National Security Council is trying to identify medications most at risk if the Chinese decide to use drug supply as a weapon. An NSC spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

“Basically we’ve outsourced our entire industry to China,” retired Brig. Gen. John Adams told NBC News. “That is a strategic vulnerability.”

Adams, who during a 30-year career served as a military intelligence officer, a military attache in South Korea and deputy U.S. military representative to NATO, added that he believes China understood the implications as it was building a drug ingredients industry.

“I think they know exactly what they’re doing and they’re incredibly good strategists. They’re doing this, they select their industries for the future and they’ve got a plan.”

Chairwoman Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., conducts a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health markup on July 11, 2019.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

Congress is also focusing on the issue. Two leading House Democrats from California, Adam Schiff and Anna Eshoo, warned in a recent op-ed that “If relations decline further, the Chinese government could look for ‘pressure points’ where it can wield outsize leverage or force a change of U.S. policy. Pharmaceutical ingredients could be such a vulnerability: By cutting back their supply or manipulating prices, China could cause pharmaceutical costs to surge. Or worse, we could experience shortages.”

The lawmakers plan to hold hearings soon, they said.

“We should not be held hostage by any foreign country,” Eshoo told NBC News. “We need to move away from any country having a monopoly on the ingredients that we depend upon our antibiotics — anthrax [vaccine], penicillin, high blood pressure drugs.”

Even if China doesn’t restrict supply, there are also questions about the safety of the manufacturing process.

Contaminated supplies of the blood thinning drug Heparin in 2008 led to the deaths of 149 Americans, the government says, prompting the Food and Drug Administration to establish a new policy of stationing inspectors in overseas plants.

But the FDA’s inspection and regulatory regime is widely seen as lax. A congressional investigation in 2016 found that one Chinese company that barred inspectors received only a warning letter, for example.

Last year, the FDA issued an alert over a cancer-causing ingredient used in the blood pressure medication valsartan, made by Chinese company Zhejiang Huahai, resulting in a recall of affected drugs.

Also last year, a scandal over tainted vaccine doses sold in China led to the arrests of executives of Changsheng Biotech, which was also accused of forging data during the production of a rabies vaccine given to infants.

“The FDA is having to make terrible choices between allowing defective medicines on the market and averting drug shortages,” Rosemary Gibson told NBC News.

She argues that the U.S should resume making drug ingredients at home.

“We have a lot of empty manufacturing facilities in the United States, and what it takes is refurbishing those with newer technology that can truly make medicines at up to 40 percent less cost,” she said. “We just need the upfront investment. And it won’t happen unless there is public support and public funding for that.”