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A former Arab linquist for the military has been charged under the Espionage Act with allegedly copying classified documents and shipping them back to the United States, including to Stanford University, which maintains a collection in his name.
A Navy commander said the security breach by James F. Hitselberger, who previously lived in Wisconsin, has the potential to compromise "everything with respect to source operations in Iraq," according to documents unsealed in Wisconsin and elsewhere last week.
Despite the dire warning, the military and civilian contractors failed to root out Hitselberger years earlier, when he was admonished for discussing sensitive information in a public place, court documents show.
Authorities then failed to arrest Hitselberger after he was caught with classified documents in April. They allowed him to fly home from Bahrain on his own. He left an airport in Germany, claiming he was too sick to travel home, but then he traveled throughout Europe for eight months. He wasn't arrested until last month, when he went to Kuwait, which handed him over to the U.S.
Shortly after his arrest, FBI agents searched the home of Hitselberger's parents in Fond du Lac, taking photographs but not seizing anything, according to a search warrant. Hitselberger had shipped six boxes to his parents from Bahrain. His parents did not return a call for comment Monday.
Hitselberger, 55, was indicted on two counts of taking national defense information. He has been ordered detained without bail in Washington.
From the fall of 2011 to April, Hitselberger worked as a translator for the U.S. Navy in Bahrain, with unlimited access to sensitive material. Commanders were alarmed when they learned he was accused of stealing secret documents. The documents contained sensitive information about troop positions, gaps in U.S. intelligence and commanders' travel plans.
Hitselberger had access to "all communications with sensitive sources in highly sensitive locations, including communication procedures, true names and tradecraft used by the sources," an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit for the search warrant. "The witness (a commander) related Hitselberger's access could have potentially compromised everything with respect to source operations in Iraq."
Despite the sensitive nature of where he worked, no video surveillance or electronic card swipe devices monitored who came and went from the work space, "giving Hitselberger unfettered access to information 24 hours a day," according to the affidavit.
Some of the classified documents ended up at Stanford's Hoover Institute, which holds the " James F. Hitselberger collection 1977-2012."
According to Hoover's website, the collection features fliers, photographs and sound recordings relating to political conditions before and after the 1979 revolution in Iran. FBI agents found a classified document from February in a public section of the collection. Three more classified documents were in a closed part of the collection. Officials from the Hoover Institute did not return a call for comment.
Hitselberger wrote to an archivist at the institute that he knew a document from March 2005 he was sending to his collection was classified and would be until 2015.
"Regardless of the case, this material seems to warrant archival preservation. I will leave the matter up to you to determine when researchers can have access to these items, as I am fully confident that your institution balances national security concerns with the needs of researchers of original source material," he wrote, according to the affidavit.
The FBI noted that neither Hitselberger nor anyone at Stanford has the power to declassify such military documents.
Once the Hoover Institute learned of the alleged breach, an archivist wrote Hitselberger, "in light of the FBI investigation of your collection here at Hoover, we will no longer accept additions to the collection, as we don't want to risk receiving more classified material."
Hitselberger wrote back, apologizing and saying he didn't know the documents were classified. As for the investigation, Hitselberger said he had accidentally removed classified material.
"I was not able to locate my regular reading glasses that day over a month ago and I did not notice the 'secret' designation at the bottom," Hitselberger wrote.
The FBI agent noted the word "secret" was in all capital letters, in red and bolded.
Hitselberger attended Georgetown University in the 1980s, studying Arabic and history. He later attended graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s, studying politics and government.
It is unclear when he lived in Wisconsin. Online records show him living in Fond du Lac until 1979.
From October 2004 to February 2007, Hitselberger worked as a contract linguist for Titan Corp., a subsidiary of L3 Communications. He worked for the military in several camps in Iraq, including in Fallujah and Ramadi. He received a "secret" level security clearance and was trained on how to handle classified information, the affidavit said.
During his time in Iraq working for Titan, Hitselberger was admonished twice for discussing sensitive documents outside his work area. The affidavit does not say how Hitselberger left the employment with Titan, but it ended in 2007.
From early 2007 to mid-2011, he was self-employed in property rental and renovation in Michigan. He was listed as living recently lived in Ontonagon, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
In June 2011, he was hired by Global Linguist Solutions LLC and underwent training on handling classified materials in Virginia and later overseas. He was sent to Bahrain in September 2011 and went to work for a naval warfare group under a joint special operations task force. Its mission is to fight terrorism with direct action, unconventional warfare and surveillance.
"Multiple forces relied on Hitselberger's expertise in the Arabic language and sent raw data to him regularly for translation," according to the FBI affidavit. "Through this data, Hitselberger obtained intimate knowledge of sensitive source operations, including true names and addresses of sources."
Problems arise again
Shortly after he arrived in Bahrain, Hitselberger was loudly discussing a secret document dealing with human intelligence that he had translated while eating at the commissary. One of his supervisors told him to stop. Hitselberger laughed at him and began talking again, according to the FBI affidavit.
It does not indicate whether any discipline was taken against Hitselberger. What is clear is that he continued to work in a highly classified area with sensitive documents.
On April 11, 2012, two of Hitselberger's supervisors saw him copy classified documents, put them in his Arabic dictionary and stuff them in his backpack. A supervisor and a commander confronted Hitselberger. He pulled out one of the documents but didn't surrender the second until pressed.
That second document was an analysis discussing gaps in U.S. intelligence concerning the situation in Bahrain, which at the time was volatile, the affidavit said.
Agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service searched Hitselberger's room and found it cluttered with hundreds of newspapers, books and storage containers. They found a classified document on his desk. The "secret" markings were cut off the top and bottom.
In an interview, Hitselberger denied he had received training on classified documents, even though he had received intensive training twice in the previous nine months. On the classified document he trimmed, he said he could not defend himself, according to the affidavit.
The agents also found Hitselberger had mailed 86 packages from Bahrain to the U.S.
The Navy asked Global Linguist Solutions to replace Hitselberger, but he was not arrested. He left Bahrain on April 12, with a 41/2-hour scheduled layover in Germany. But Hitselberger didn't get on his flight to the U.S. His employer contacted him, but he was "highly deceptive," the affidavit said. He said he felt a stroke coming on and couldn't travel.
But in subsequent months he traveled to five different countries. He was scheduled to return to the U.S. in August but changed his ticket to 2013. It was unclear where he was getting money to travel or to purchase property in the U.S. for $19,000 from overseas, according to court documents.
Hitselberger was arrested when he traveled to Kuwait last month. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Hitselberger's attorney and the prosecutor did not return calls for comment.