The Chief U.S. District Judge, Gina M. Groh of the Northern District of West Virginia sentenced Elizabeth Jo Shirley, an Air Force veteran to more than 11 years in prison. Shirley’s crime stemmed from her July 2019 absconding with her child to Mexico City, Mexico in attempt to parley national defense information to the Russian Federation, in exchange for resettlement in Russia. The root cause for her decision to seek resettlement is tied to her divorce and child custody arrangements with her ex-husband which was less than amicable.

Sentencing for Shirley

  • For her crime of “unlawfully retaining documents containing national defense information” she was sentenced to 97 months incarceration.
  • For her crime of “international parental kidnapping” she was sentenced to 36 months incarceration.

Interestingly, Shirley’s sentencing for her retaining classified information, which she attempted to provide to the Russia Federation, was 11 months less than that received by Harold Martin, who pleaded guilty to hoarding classified NSA information and was sentenced in 2019 to 9 years incarceration for his 20 years of retaining reams of classified materials. This difference in sentencing may have to do with the sheer magnitude of Martin’s data acquisition. He had suitcases of classified content, which was conservatively estimated to contain more than 50 terabytes of information.

Shirley Retained Classified Information for Years

Throughout her career, Shirley enjoyed the trust of the United States by virtue of being granted a TS/SCI and Q security clearances.

She held a variety of positions within the U.S. intelligence community which commenced during the period of her active duty with the U.S. Air Force when she was assigned to the National Security Agency. In addition to the NSA, the Department of Justice tells us she spent time within the “U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force, and at least five different cleared defense contractors.”

It is clear from court documents (which have now been sealed) that Shirley’s acquisition of national defense information was not a spur of the moment decision. She hoarded documents; her plea agreement tells us beginning in the 1990s and apparently continuing until 2012, the timeframe associated with her classified engagement within the U.S. intelligence community.

Insider threat program failure

Her motivation has not been thoroughly fleshed out in court given she pleaded guilty to the two charges enumerated above. Her hoarding of classified information pre-dates the birth of her daughter, who at the time of her trip to Mexico City was six years of age. To this seasoned eye, this is indicative of a pre-existing rationale beyond a parental custodial dispute.

Shirley’s period of document acquisition ranged from 1994 through 2012, which predates the mandate for insider threat programs. Her actions serve as a ready example for all information security professionals as to the need to monitor unauthorized access through strict adherence to the need-to-know principles and to have in place capabilities to be memorialize when classified materials are accessed, stored or printed.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of