Three former US intelligence and military officials have admitted providing sophisticated computer hacking technology to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The defendants are accused of working as senior managers at a UAE-based company that conducted hacking operations on behalf of the government.
Prosecutors say the men provided hacking and intelligence-gathering systems that were used to break into computers in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
The trio – Marc Baier, Ryan Adams and Daniel Gericke – have agreed to pay nearly 1.7 million US dollars (£1.2 million) to resolve criminal charges in an agreement that the Justice Department described as the first of its kind.
The department alleges that the men committed computer fraud and violated export control laws by providing defence services without the required licence.
The case also appears to be part of a growing trend highlighted earlier this year by the CIA of foreign governments hiring former US intelligence operatives to bolster their own capabilities — a practice officials have said risks exposing American secrets.
Professor Bobby Chesney, from the University of Texas School of Law, said “this is a loud statement” that the Justice Department takes such cases seriously.
The charges were filed under a deferred prosecution agreement that, in addition to requiring a 1.68 million US dollars payment, will also force the men to co-operate with the department’s investigation, to sever ties with any UAE intelligence or law enforcement agencies and to forego any security clearances. If they comply with these and other terms for three years, the Justice Department will abandon the prosecution.
As part of the agreement, the three men did not dispute any of the facts alleged by prosecutors.
The Justice Department described it as the “first-of-its-kind resolution of an investigation into two distinct types of criminal activity”, including providing unlicensed technology for the purposes of hacking.
“Hackers-for-hire and those who otherwise support such activities in violation of US law should fully expect to be prosecuted for their criminal conduct,” Mark Lesko, acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s national security division said in a statement.
According to court documents, the trio left a US-based company that was operating in the UAE to join an Emerati company that would give them “significant increases” in their salaries.
The companies are not named in charging documents, but Lori Stroud, a former National Security Agency employee, said she worked with the three men in the UAE at US-based CyberPoint and then for UAE-based DarkMatter.
Ms Stroud said she left because she saw DarkMatter hacking US citizens. She said she assisted the FBI in its investigation and was glad to see the case come to a resolution.