A scientist who worked for years at a federal spy satellite agency was sentenced Friday to a year and a day in prison for storing classified documents in his home.
Former National Geospatial Intelligence Agency employee Mohan Nirala, 52, received the sentence after his lawyers argued for leniency by noting that Gen. David Petraeus avoided jail altogether in a 2015 deal where he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for mishandling classified information and sharing it with his lover.
Prosecutors urged Alexandria, Virginia-based U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee to impose a “lengthy” term of imprisonment on Nirala, while his defense asked for a sentence of probation.
Nirala pleaded guilty in September to a single felony count of unauthorized retention of classified information under the Espionage Act. Prosecutors say FBI agents carrying out a search warrant at Nirala’s Maryland home found more than 20 classified documents there in 2014. When they returned to arrest him in 2016, an FBI “sweep” found “a white duct-taped box” containing over 500 pages of documents classified Secret or Top Secret.
Agents did not have a search warrant at the time the box was seized but later obtained one.
“As compared to the instant offense, Mr. Petraeus’s conviction was more serious in every measurable way — particularly in light of the sensitivity of information involved and the disclosure to an unauthorized person for use in writing a book,” Nirala’s attorney, federal defender Todd Richman, wrote.
An affidavit filed by an FBI agent early in the case suggests Nirala came under scrutiny because in 2013 he sent classified technical data via email to a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who is a Chinese citizen and U.S. green card holder.
However, that allegation does not appear to have been a focus of the indictment in the case or of a plea deal Nirala struck with prosecutors last year.
Nirala’s attorneys said he brought the documents to his home because he believed he needed them for discrimination complaints he was pursuing against his employer.
“Ultimately, believing that he had no safe place at work to store materials he believed necessary to demonstrate his value to the agency (and thus prove its unlawful discrimination against him), Mr. Nirala retained in his home a cache of work-related documents,” Richman wrote. “Mr. Nirala recognizes that having classified documents in his home was illegal, and he has taken responsibility for that. But the circumstances of this case demonstrate that there was no nefarious purpose at play.”
In a court filing in December, Nirala’s defense said the Ph.D.-holder began working last year as a used-car salesman.
Prosecutors said Nirala needed to be punished to set an example.
“This behavior is not excused by having a rigid personality or being stubborn. Such behavior must be deterred if the intelligence community is to function,” prosecutors wrote.
Nirala’s case has been far less publicized than the arrest on similar charges of another Maryland resident last year, National Security Agency contractor Hal Martin, who was discovered to have a huge stash of highly classified information in his home.
Investigators suspected Martin may have disclosed some of that information to others, but apparently haven’t come up with proof of that. He was indicted last month on 20 felony counts of retention of classified information. He has entered a not guilty plea.
Martin’s attorneys say he suffered from a hoarding disorder but had no intention to disclose the records he stored in his car and home office.