Trove of solen data included top-secret U.S. hacking tools

Investigators pursuing what they believe to be the largest case of mishandling classified documents in U.S. history have found that the huge trove of stolen documents in the possession of a National Security Agency contractor included top-secret NSA hacking tools that two months ago were offered for sale on the internet.
They have been hunting for electronic clues that could link those cybertools — computer code posted online for auction by an anonymous group calling itself the Shadow Brokers — to the home computers of the contractor, Harold T. Martin III, who was arrested in late August on charges of theft of government property and mishandling of classified information.
But so far, the investigators have been frustrated in their attempt to prove that Martin 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 they have found some forensic clues that he might be the source, the evidence is not conclusive, according to a dozen officials who have been involved in or have been briefed on the investigation.
All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Martin, an enigmatic loner who according to acquaintances frequently expressed his excitement about his role in the growing realm of cyberwarfare, has insisted that he got in the habit of taking material home so he could improve his skills and be better at his job, according to these officials. He has explained how he took the classified material but denied having knowingly passed it to anyone else.
“As a contractor, he gets to see a slice of the overall picture,” said one person familiar with the exchanges, summarizing Martin’s explanation. “He wanted to see the overall picture so that he could be more effective.”
The material the FBI found in his possession added up to “many terabytes” of information, according to court papers, which would make it by far the largest unauthorized leak of classified material from the classified sector. That volume dwarfs the hundreds of thousands of NSA documents taken by Edward J. Snowden in 2013 and exceeds even the more voluminous Panama Papers, leaked records of offshore companies obtained by a German newspaper in 2015, which totaled 2.6 terabytes. One terabyte of data is equal to the contents of about 1 million books.
FBI agents on the case, advised by NSA technical experts, do not believe Martin is fully cooperating, the officials say. He has spoken mainly through his lawyers, James Wyda and Deborah Boardman of the federal public defender’s office in Baltimore. They declined to comment before a detention hearing set for Friday in federal court.
In interviews, officials described how the Martin case has deeply shaken the secret world of intelligence, from the NSA’s sprawling campus at Fort Meade, Maryland, to the White House. They expressed astonishment that Martin managed to take home such a vast collection of classified material over at least 16 years, undetected by security officers at his workplaces, including the NSA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Pentagon offices. And they are deeply concerned that some of the mountain of material may, by whatever route, has reached hackers or hostile intelligence services.
Investigators discovered the hacking tools, consisting of computer code and instructions on how to use it, in the thousands of pages and dozens of computers and data storage devices that the FBI seized during an Aug. 27 raid on Martin’s modest house in suburban Glen Burnie, Maryland. More secret material was found in a shed in his yard and in his car, officials said.
The search came after the Shadow Brokers leak had set off a panicked hunt at the NSA. Martin attracted the FBI’s attention by posting something on the internet that was brought to the attention of NSA. Whatever it was — officials are not saying exactly what — it finally set off an alarm.
The release of NSA’s hacking tools, even though they dated to 2013, is extraordinarily damaging, said Dave Aitel, a former NSA employee who now runs Immunity Inc., an information security company.
Martin, 51, a Navy veteran who was completing a Ph.D. in information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has worked for several of the contracting companies that help staff the nation’s security establishment. After stints at the Computer Sciences Corp. and Tenacity Solutions, where he was assigned to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, he joined Booz Allen Hamilton in 2009. He worked on that firm’s NSA contract until 2015, when he was moved to a different Pentagon contract in the area of offensive cyberwarfare.
He has long held a high-level clearance and for a time worked with the NSA’s premiere hacking unit, called Tailored Access Operations, which breaks into the computer networks of foreign countries and which developed the hacking tools later obtained by the Shadow Brokers. According to one person briefed on the investigation, Martin was able to obtain some of the hacking tools by accessing a digital library of such material at NSA.
One possibility investigators are considering is that Martin did not knowingly share the Shadow Brokers material but that it was physically stolen from him — conceivable given the descriptions of the chaos of his house, shed and car — or more likely, grabbed by hackers. But the forensic examination of Martin’s computers has so far turned up no evidence that he was hacked, officials say.
At the core of the investigation, if Martin deliberately shared the secret NSA tools, is the mystery of his motive. People who know him call him deeply patriotic and say they do not believe he would have given classified information to another country. They also say he has never been interested in politics, making unlikely a politically motivated leak like that of Snowden, who thought the NSA was violating Americans’ privacy.
The FBI is considering whether he might have sold the hacking tools or other materials for money. His annual salary in recent years has exceeded $100,000 and he owns his house without a mortgage. But he has long bought expensive suits and Rolex watches, according to an old acquaintance, and a person familiar with his finances says he has struggled with debt. Court records show one past lien, an $8,997 state tax bill imposed in 2000 and not paid off until 2014.
Some people who know Martin favor a psychological motive for taking the documents home — one that echoes what he is himself telling investigators: a drive to distinguish himself and prove that his computer knowledge was equal to that of NSA’s top operators.
“He always thought of himself like a James Bond-type person, wanting to save the world from computer evil,” said a person who knows him well but would not speak about him on the record for fear of being pulled into the criminal case.
Not long before his arrest, Martin exchanged emails with Aitel about attending the latter’s annual security conference, called Infiltrate, scheduled for April in Miami.
“He sounded completely normal,” Aitel said. “Making plans for the future.”

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