MANHATTAN (CN) — A federal judge declared a mistrial Monday on the most serious charges against the ex-CIA coder accused of giving WikiLeaks the agency’s confidential cyber-espionage tools in the Vault 7 leak.
While the jury did find Joshua Schulte, 31, guilty on two counts of contempt of court and lying to the FBI, they were deadlocked on eight counts pertaining to the theft and transmission of secret CIA documents. Jury deliberations stretched for six days in the monthlong trial, which began in Manhattan on Feb. 4.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange declared the Vault 7 document dump of March 2017 the largest leak of its kind ever at the time. 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.
Schulte joined the CIA after a few months’ stint at the National Security Agency, then moved to New York in November 2016 to work as a senior software engineer for Bloomberg.
Federal prosecutors told jurors that, rather than any activist drive to be a political whistleblower, Schulte was motivated to steal agency documents in 2016 and feed them to WikiLeaks by internal workplace spite and resentment.
On Aug. 24, 2017 — about four months after WikiLeaks began publishing the Vault 7 files — 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.
Presiding U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty authorized a $250,000 bail for Schulte on Sept. 14, shortly after his federal indictment, only to revoke the package on Dec. 14 after Schulte was arrested on new charges of sexual assault pursuant to a warrant in Loudoun County, Virginia.
A superseding indictment unsealed against Schulte in 2018 included the original trio of child-pornography counts plus 10 new counts related to the Vault 7 leak. WikiLeaks was not named in the indictment.
The government’s case against Schulte was brought by the Department of Justice’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sidhardha Kamaraju and Matthew Laroche led the prosecution, with assistance from trial attorney Scott McCulloch of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.
The government alleged that Schulte left behind a trail of digital evidence despite trying to cover his cyber-footprints; Schulte had methodically deleted computer activity logs from his CIA work station and restored administrator privileges that were previously stripped by the agency, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Laroche said in the prosecution’s closing arguments Monday.
“[By] April 20, 2016, the defendant was a disgruntled man, he was ready to retaliate, he was abusing his computer privileges on a top-secret security network, and he was lying about it,” Laroche said in his closing arguments.
“The defendant was ready to harm the CIA, and that’s exactly what he did on April 20, 2016,” Laroche said.
Prosecutors said Schulte was “following WikiLeaks’ instructions to a T” when he hacked into the CIA’s DevLAN computer and stole the agency’s files, covered his tracks, and then took those backup files home with him to send to WikiLeaks.
The government alleged that Schulte downloaded Tails, a program to secretly transmit data and also purchased an SATA adapter to help him transmit data between hard drives outside of his computer.
A week later, he downloaded a program called DBAN, “something to nuke his computer,” and then reformatted his computer the following week the government alleged.
“The reason he does that is because he wants to try to make sure that there is nothing that can come back to him, nothing that he did during that time — no evidence — will be left over,” Laroche said in closing arguments.
Schulte’s subsequent search history showed that he repeatedly checked WikiLeaks in the ensuing months and became “obsessed” with finding out if his leaked cache of documents had been published, prosecutors said at trial.
Schulte’s defense attorney Sabrina Shroff insisted that Schulte was wrongly accused by an agency that needed a scapegoat for a leak that exposed the truth about their vulnerable security network.
In her closing arguments last Monday, Shroff said that prior to WikiLeaks’ publication of the Vault 7 documents, “the CIA had no idea that its crown jewels had been stolen” a year earlier.
Shroff said the government’s failed to show beyond reasonable doubt that Schulte was the culprit of the leak and instead highlighted distressing security lapses within the intelligence agency. “The government cannot tell you which of the many people with access to this data” stole the classified archive,” Shroff said. “It wasn’t Mr. Schulte who did this.”
Shroff was appointed counsel in March 2018 when Schulte’s previous attorneys withdrew from the case.
The jury began deliberations last Monday.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Crotty dismissed a juror who was found to have had prior knowledge about Schulte. The judge decided that deliberations would continue with the remaining 11 jurors.
The jury sent a note Friday afternoon telling the court that they were “aligned on two counts” but were “at an impasse on the remaining counts.”
The jury sent more than 20 notes over the course of deliberations.
Schulte will be tried separately in Southern District of New York for the child-pornography charges, which carry a 20-year maximum sentence.
He also still faces the sexual assault charges in Loudoun County, Virginia, premised on several photographs recovered from his cellphone after the August 2017 arrest.
The photos show a woman who used to be Schulte’s roommate in Sterling, Virginia, in an unconscious state being sexually assaulted by the hands of an unknown individual.