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Espionage retrial of accused ‘Vault 7’ leaker moves to jury deliberations

Former CIA software programmer Joshua Schulte asked jurors to reject the prosecution’s case against him in connection with a WikiLeaks release that revealed the agency’s ability to hack Apple and Android cellphones.

MANHATTAN (CN) —  Jurors in the retrial of the disgruntled former CIA coder accused of the largest leak in the spy agency’s history heard closing arguments on Thursday, over two years after his first prosecution largely collapsed in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Joshua Schulte was just 28 when he was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act nearly six months after WikiLeaks published the CIA’s classified cyberespionage tools in a March 7, 2017, document dump it dubbed “Vault 7.”

With more than 7,000 pages, millions of lines of embedded computer code, and several hundred attachments, the trove of CIA documents detailed how the agency uses malware to hack the iPhones, Android devices and Samsung smart televisions of private consumers.

Federal prosecutors have accused Schulte of using a backdoor password to access and leak material from offline servers that contained the CIA’s “most protected technical secrets” and then attempting to cover his tracks by manipulating and deleting digital logs of activity on the sensitive CIA servers.

Now 33 and representing himself in the Southern District of New York, Schulte told jurors during his closing summation on Thursday the government’s case is “riddled with reasonable doubt”.

Throughout his two-hour closing argument, Schulte insisted that the prosecution had not presented any hard “forensic artifacts” during the three-week trial proving he was the culprit of the breach to WikiLeaks.

Schulte said that forensic logs from his CIA work station showed that no external device - necessary to copy data from the offline server - had been connected. “No thumb drive, no removable drive, no nothing,” he told jurors.

“The backups would have to copied onto some device to make it outside of the CIA,” Schulte opined. “So what is the government’s theory to what device are the backups copied?"

“They never tell you, they never tell me,” he added. “They still do not have a theory.”

Schulte reprised his argument from the trial’s opening that he was singled out for investigation as a scapegoat for the agency’s embarrassment of the publicized breach of its DevLAN server.

“The bottom line is this  - because the system was insecure, because the system was poorly monitored, the government cannot know and certainly cannot prove to you which of the many people with access to this information committed this crime, when they committed it, or how they did it,” he said Thursday, urging jurors to consider bias that he said skewed the investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockhard anticipated Schulte’s argument before the defense’s closing summation, deploying a bank robbery metaphor to debunk Schulte’s attack on the government’s lack of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It’s a little bit like having security camera footage of the burglar getting into the bank, making himself a key to the vault, and then deleting the security footage from inside of the vault,” Lockhard told jurors. “The fact that there is no footage of what happened inside the vault is not evidence that he didn’t go in there. It is the opposite. The fact that he deleted that footage is overwhelming evidence that he did go in the vault, and that’s what you have here.”

Schulte faces two counts in connection with allegedly disseminating national defense information to a Washington Post reporter during his pretrial detention, which he called the “equivalent of a sacrificial bunt in baseball” and “a way for the government to kick a man while he’s down”.

Schulte questioned whether the information he sent from prison was even classified or national defense information.

The government initially tried Schulte for the leak in 2020, but the monthlong proceedings and additional week of verdict deliberations ended anticlimactically with the jury deadlocked on the eight most serious counts pertaining to the theft and transmission of secret CIA documents. U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty declared a mistrial on March 9, 2020, though the jury did find Schulte guilty of two minor counts, contempt of court and lying to the FBI.

The jury in Schulte’s retrial is on track to begin deliberations Friday morning after U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman gives jurors instructions on the charges.

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