Document Collector Charged Under Espionage Statute

11.07.12 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In a new case of alleged mishandling of classified materials, a Navy contract linguist who served in Bahrain until earlier this year was charged with unlawful retention of national defense information after several classified documents were found in his possession.

But although James F. Hitselberger, an experienced Arabic translator, was charged under an Espionage Act statute (18 USC 793e), he is not suspected of espionage.  The government “concedes that Defendant… did not disseminate the classified information to a ‘foreign power’,” a Magistrate Judge noted on Monday when the case was unsealed.

Rather, Mr. Hitselberger told NCIS agents that “his sole purpose was to take the materials to his quarters to read” and he “claimed not to know that the documents… were classified, notwithstanding their clear markings.”

The case has a number of unusual features, beginning with the defendant himself, who is a peripatetic collector of rare documents. While at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, he was said to have been “working on an open-ended Ph.D. in an unknown subject.”  His living quarters in Bahrain, in which a classified document was allegedly found in April of this year, were “extremely cluttered and contained hundreds of newspapers [and] numerous books.”

Remarkably, Mr. Hitselberger had donated many of his most valuable documentary discoveries over the years to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which actually maintains a James F. Hitselberger Collection. It notably includes political posters and leaflets that he gathered in pre-revolutionary Iran.

Unfortunately, according to a newly unsealed complaint, Hoover’s Hitselberger Collection also contained classified records that he had contributed.

“Agents visited the Hoover Archives and reviewed the collection.  In an area open to the public, the agents found a classified document titled Bahrain Situation Update dated February 13, 2012…. In a secure, non-public area of the Archives, agents also discovered two other documents marked SECRET.”

A disconcerted Hoover Institution archivist told Mr. Hitselberger in May by email that “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.”

In April of this year, Mr. Hitselberger was dismissed from his post in Bahrain and was expected to return to the United States.  Instead, however, he traveled for months through Germany, Sweden, Malta, Bulgaria and the United Kingdom, and was beyond the reach of U.S. authorities.

“Although the government was aware of Defendant’s whereabouts during that time, the countries would not extradite him [to the U.S.] because the offense charged was characterized as a ‘political offense’,” according to a November 5 memorandum of findings of fact by DC District Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson.

But last month, when it was learned that he was traveling to Kuwait, the Government of Kuwait agreed to expel him into U.S. custody if he arrived there without a valid passport.  So the U.S. suspended his passport, and upon arrival placed him under arrest.

In traditional espionage cases, a suspected spy is sometimes identified by unexplained affluence or ostentatious behavior.  But, as noted, this is not an espionage case and there is no question of affluence.

To the contrary, the government and the court seemed disturbed by Mr. Hitselberger’s extraordinary frugality which, they suggested, might enable him to quietly vanish.

“Defendant has demonstrated his ability to live abroad and survive on his apparently modest means,” wrote Judge Robinson. “Defendant’s pattern of residing in, and relocating to, various countries without ascertainable income bespeaks his ability to live abroad undetected with limited resources.”

Mr. Hitselberger was ordered detained without bond.