The Ultimate Insider: FBI Analyst Steals National Secrets
In a case of espionage inside the White House, the technology that fed the plot also helped the government track down the conspirators and build a case against them.
On the morning of Aug. 5, 2005, an FBI intelligence analyst sat at his desk and accessed the agency's main database. He downloaded a classified document, copied it onto a disc and dropped it into a bag beside his desk.
Leandro Aragoncillo -- a career Marine who had served under two vice presidents in the White House -- was stealing information in an attempt to foster a political coup in the Philippines, his home country. He knew he had no authorization to take or pass along the information, but, so far, it had been so easy.
What Aragoncillo didn't know was that on this particular morning, after nearly four years of espionage, the feds were spying on the spy. Agents were watching him at his desk via video surveillance. At the end of the workday, the man who was set up as the perfect inside threat, took the bag with the disc inside and left the office. Agents tailed him as he drove home and took the bag, with the stolen classified information, inside.
A little more than a month later, federal agents would execute search warrants on the houses of Aragoncillo and his U.S.-based conspirator, Michael Ray Aquino, a resident of the Philippines who was in the country on a visa. Both men were arrested that day after agents found more than 736 classified documents between the two homes.
The arrests marked the end of what prosecutors called a "criminal conspiracy against the United States that spanned the globe, involved the theft of classified national defense documents" from the White House, the FBI, the Department of Defense and the U.S. State Department. The scheme included a group of conspirators who ranged from the former Marine turned FBI analyst to an ousted Philippine president to a foreign intelligence officer on the lam from double murder charges.
It is the first time in modern history that someone has been charged with spying out of the White House.
As it stands today, both Aragoncillo and Aquino have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing this summer in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J. Aragoncillo faces a maximum of 15 to 20 years based on his plea agreement. Aquino faces a max of 10 years, but after he serves his time here, he's expected to be shipped back to the Philippines to face various charges there.
It's still unclear what, if anything, will happen to the other conspirators, who are not U.S. residents. It's also unclear what steps the FBI and the White House have taken to shore up their information safeguards and to better vet the people working there.
What is clear is that the technology -- text messages, Web-based e-mail accounts and database queries -- that fed their plot also helped the government track them down and build an air-tight case against them. The e-mails sent, the phone calls made and the stolen information that one man actually archived on a set of CDs like a catalogue of wrong-doing all left a digital trail that was their ultimate undoing.
"In this particular espionage investigation, the computer forensic work, as it relates to tracking Aragoncillo's information to his co-conspirators, was critical to prosecuting and ultimately obtaining guilty pleas for Aquino and Aragoncillo," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Karl Buch, who prosecuted the case, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Buchanan. "The information we were able to derive from searches of the e-mail accounts and the home computers provided overwhelming evidence of the conspiracy."
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