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Ex-CIA coder behind WikiLeaks ‘Vault 7’ cache found guilty of espionage

Joshua Schulte was convicted on all counts in connection with the biggest disclosure of confidential CIA files in the agency’s history.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A New York jury found former CIA programmer Joshua Schulte guilty Wednesday on nine counts for stealing classified documents from the spy agency and feeding national cyberintelligence to WikiLeaks.

For the espionage convictions alone — the 33-year-old still faces a separate trial on unrelated child pornography charges — Schulte faces up to 80 years in prison.

Schulte was just 28 when he was arrested in 2018, nearly six months after WikiLeaks published the largest ever trove of confidential files on the CIA in the agency's history. With more than 7,000 pages, millions of lines of embedded computer code and several hundred attachments, the document dump that WikiLeaks dubbed Vault 7 detailed how the agency uses malware to hack the iPhones, Android devices and Samsung smart televisions of private consumers.

Throughout the trove of agency materials, a variety of covert techniques, malware and programs used to collect audio and video streams live from their user's devices are given names worthy of a tawdry suspense novel. One such covert program exposed in the Vault 7 leak is Weeping Angel, which offers hackers a window into the private citizen's world by way of their Samsung smart televisions.

The espionage tools revealed how professionally groomed CIA hackers and other officials, including those of foreign governments, engaged in a training system and frequently exchanged information on how to bypass password protections, antivirus software and other forms of encryption methods with relative ease.

Schulte, wearing a black suit with blue-gray tie, remained composed alongside his standby counsel while U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman read the jury’s verdict Wednesday afternoon.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams commended the conviction for what he called "one of the most brazen and damaging acts of espionage in American history."

"Schulte was aware that the collateral damage of his retribution could pose an extraordinary threat to this nation if made public, rendering them essentially useless, having a devastating effect on our intelligence community by providing critical intelligence to those who wish to do us harm," Williams said in a statement after the verdict.

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

Schulte represented himself for his retrial, and jurors deliberated at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse for nearly four full days before arriving at the guilty-on-all-counts verdict Wednesday.

Because Schulte faces open criminal counts of child pornography that were previously severed from the Vault 7-related charges, Judge Furman held off on setting a date for sentencing.

Schulte will return to the Manhattan federal courthouse in two weeks for status conference regarding the open child-pornography charges, which carry a 20-year maximum sentence.

As a coder at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Schulte himself had helped create the hacking tools exposed in the WikiLeaks publication, according to the government's case. Prosecutors said Schulte used a backdoor password to access the CIA’s “most protected technical secrets” on offline servers in 2016, then attempted to cover his tracks by manipulating and deleting digital logs of activity on the sensitive CIA servers.

Schulte’s internet search history showed that for months after he transmitted the files to WikiLeaks, he repeatedly checked the Julian Assange-founded website — so obsessed was he, prosecutors said, to find out if his leaked cache of documents had been published.

They portrayed him as a maladjusted and discontented employee, rather than as a politically motivated whistleblower.

“There was no misguided idealism here; he did it because he was angry and disgruntled,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton told jurors at opening arguments last month. “He felt the CIA had slighted him and disrespected him, so he tried to burn to the ground the very cyberintelligence work that he had was once been part of.”

Prosecutors deemed Schulte a traitor and accused him of continuing to carry out crimes after his arrest by trying to leak additional classified materials from prison as part of what they told jurors was a purported “information war” against the government.

But Schulte contested the portrayal, telling jurors he was inspired to serve his country after terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that he vowed then and there, as a 12-year-old boy in the seventh grade, to do whatever he could to prevent another day like that.

Hired by the CIA in 2010, Schulte claims he worked on the team that helped verify the location of Osama bin Laden before the al-Qaida leader was killed in a U.S. overnight raid in Pakistan.

“No one has ever questioned my loyalty or patriotism,” he said. “That is until now.”

On Aug. 24, 2017 — about four months after WikiLeaks began publishing the Vault 7 files, but prior to his arrest on the espionage counts — Schulte was arrested on charges that he received, possessed and transported child “approximately ten thousand images and videos of child pornography” on an encrypted computer server.

Schulte will be tried separately in Southern District of New York for the child pornography charges.

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