U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official pleads guilty to removing classified documents

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Jul. 22—An executive assistant at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Operation Center who was temporarily assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Manila pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to removing classified national security information and transporting it to an unauthorized location, according to the U.S.

Department of Justice.

Asia Janay Lavarello, 31, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Chief Judge J. Michael Seabright to one count of knowingly removing classified information concerning U.S. national defense or foreign relations and retaining it at an unauthorized location, according to a news release.

Lavarello will be sentenced Nov. 4 and is facing up to five years in prison and other penalties. She is free on an unsecured bond.

"Protecting the national security of the United States is our highest priority, and failing to adhere to the most basic security practices, as this defendant did, is contrary to this critical priority, " said acting U.S. Attorney Judith A. Philips in a news release.

"Government employees are entrusted with a responsibility to ensure classified information is properly handled and secured. Asia Janay Lavarello failed in her duty when she removed classified documents from the U.S. Embassy Manila, " FBI Special Agent in Charge Steven B. Merrill said in a statement.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service also was involved in the investigation. "For those entrusted with safeguarding our national security interests, this case underscores the far-reaching ramifications of violating that trust, " said NCIS Special Agent in Charge Norman Dominesey in a news release.

Lavarello, a civilian U.S. Department of Defense employee since 2011, admitted to taking numerous classified documents, writings and notes relating to the national defense or foreign relations of the United States without permission. She served as an executive assistant at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii before accepting a temporary assignment working at the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines and Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo, the general headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Quezon City.

Throughout her time there she was a student at the National Intelligence University working on her thesis project, according to federal court documents. She attended classified meetings at the embassy every Wednesday and had multiple meetings throughout the week.

In Manila, Lavarello had access to classified computers and documents and attended classified meetings as part of her official duties. Authorities said that on March 20, 2020, she removed classified documents from the embassy, taking them to her hotel room before hosting a dinner party.

Among the guests were two foreign nationals and three Americans who worked at the embassy. DOJ did not list which countries the two foreign nationals were from, the release said.

During the party a co-worker found the documents in her bedroom, including items classified at the "secret " level. Lavarello's assignment in the Philippines was terminated due to her mishandling of the documents. When confronted, she told her co-worker they were for her thesis, according to court documents.

Around March 28, 2020, Lavarello returned to Hawaii, and in June 2020 federal agents executed a search warrant at her workplace at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and found a notebook containing her handwritten notes of meetings she attended while working at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, according to the release.

The notes contained facts and information classified at the "confidential " and "secret " levels. Investigators determined Lavarello did not send the classified notebook via secure diplomatic pouch from the embassy to Hawaii as required. Instead, she personally transported the documents to Hawaii, unsecured, and kept the classified notebook at an unauthorized location until at least April 13, 2020.

Federal agents also discovered Lavarello included "secret " information from the classified notebook in a Jan. 16, 2020, email from her personal Gmail account to her unclassified U.S. government email account.

The charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250, 000.

According to a plea agreement filed in the case, the government will not file charges against Lavarello related to false statements she made to the FBI and NCIS.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mohammad Khatib and trial attorney Stephen Marzen of the Justice Department's National Security Division are prosecuting the case.

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