Going Big: Prosecutors Call Alleged NSA Hoarder's Defense Strategy 'Absurd'

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Prosecutors and the defense attorneys for a government contractor accused of stealing and hoarding classified information got into a legal tiff recently that resulted in the government accusing the defense of putting forward an "absurd" argument.

Harold T. Martin, who was a contractor with the National Security Agency, was arrested in late August 2016 and accused of stealing what amounts to 500 million pages of documents from government agencies beginning back in 1996.

Investigators discovered the material, which ranged from unclassified to extremely highly classified, around his home, in his vehicle and in storage sheds, the Justice Department said in a press release following Martin's arrest. The case was puzzling in that it did not appear Martin did anything with the documents he allegedly took, but was something of a hoarder -- "more weirdo than whistleblower," as some senior officials put it to ABC News at the time.

The startling breadth of the alleged crime, however, may prove an asset to Martin's defense, if his attorneys prevail in recent court arguments. In filings last week, Martin's public defenders wrote that for Martin to be convicted of retaining classified information, he had to know precisely what documents he had.

"In regards to possession, the Court has proposed a hypothetical fact pattern: 'Assuming the Government will prove that Document A was included within a pile of documents and that Martin knew he possessed the pile, must he have known that the pile includes that specific document?' The answer, again, is yes: the government must prove that Mr. Martin knew that the specific charged document (e.g., Document A) was in the pile," the attorneys wrote. "To hold otherwise would eliminate the requirement that Mr. Martin knew he possessed the charged document. It also flies in the face of pattern jury instructions stating that, where an offense contains a 'knowing' requirement with respect to an element of the offense, the government must prove that the defendant 'was conscious and aware of the nature of [his] actions and of the surrounding facts and circumstances.'"

In a response filing the same day, prosecutors were having none of that.

"Requiring proof that the Defendant knew precisely what documents he possessed, or that he knew the precise reason that his retention of those documents was unlawful, would be inconsistent with the statute and case law. Moreover, such a requirement would cause the absurd result that a defendant could avoid culpability merely by committing a crime of such magnitude that he could claim ignorance of the details," the prosecution's brief says. "In this case, the Defendant appears to believe that, because he stole and retained such a vast quantity of classified information from secure facilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community, he could not know exactly what he stole, and therefore cannot be convicted of retaining any particular stolen classified documents."

The dueling filings come after Martin indicated last month that he was willing to plead guilty to one count against him, in hopes the prosecution would drop the other 19. A few days later court papers show the defense requested the cancellation of the hearing in which Martin was to change his plea, writing that, "The parties are continuing negotiations with the hope of resolving the entire case."

The more recent filings indicate the negotiations haven't yet resolved Martin's case, and for now both parties requested a continuance until mid-April.

(A curious aside: In another recent, hand-written motion, Martin asks the court to compel the government to return his property, including jewelry and several firearms he said were confiscated when he was arrested. The government said they do not have the jewelry and would be willing to return the firearms after the case is decided.)

 Harold Martin's firearms arsenal, according to a hand-written court filing.

Harold Martin's firearms arsenal, according to a hand-written court filing.

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