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Retrial of ex-CIA coder commences for ‘Vault 7’ leak

Joshua Schulte has opted to represent himself at what will be his second trial against federal espionage counts in connection with a WikiLeaks release that revealed the CIA's abilities to hack Apple and Android cellphones.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The retrial of the disgruntled former CIA coder accused of the largest leak in the agency's history began Tuesday afternoon, 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 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.

Now 33 and representing himself, Schulte told jurors on Tuesday afternoon that the government’s case against him has been “a political witch hunt since day one.”

“Someone stole their crown jewels, and they failed to realize that for a year," he continued. "That’s not a good look for the CIA."

Schulte came to the CIA in 2010 after a stint at the National Security Agency that lasted only a few months. But after falling out with his colleagues and supervisors at the CIA, Schulte had left that job, too, in November 2016, moving to New York to work as a seniore software engineer for Bloomberg.

He told the jury Tuesday that the government circled back to him in 2017 as a way of saving face after WikiLeaks showed the “wildly insecure” state of the its intelligence servers.

“They did not even realize their data had been stolen,” Schulte told jurors in his 25-minute opening summation on Tuesday. “It was incredibly embarrassing for the CIA. They did not when their data was taken. They did not know how much of their data was taken. They did not know how their data was taken. And they certainly did not know who took their data. Nothing has changed to date, they still don’t know what happened.”

Schulte, who has been in federal custody for going on five years due to unrelated sexual assault charges in Virginia, wore a gray suit with a clean shaved head for Tuesday's opening arguments.

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.

Schulte said the CIA targeted him as a “patsy” because of his previous issues with management and the timing of his resignation. “Before the FBI found a single shred of evidence … the CIA directed the FBI to go after me with everything,” he said.

Just as he did in 2020, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton handled the prosecution’s opening statement Tuesday.

And, as was the case at the first trial, prosecutors again portrayed Schulte as a grudge-holding former employee with top-secret security clearance. The government says Schulte was motivated to leak the trove of confidential documents to spite the CIA after it had sided against him in a dispute with co-worker. Denton said in April 2016 Schulte used his “super access” administrative powers as a systems administrator for the CIA to steal backup files that the agency stores daily in case of a catastrophe that requires a system reboot.

“There was no misguided idealism here; he did it because he was angry and disgruntled,” Denton told jurors. “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.”

Schulte told jurors the Vault 7 hacking tools were exposed by “a leaker with a political agenda,” which he said does not “mesh” with government’s spite theory or his own loyalty and patriotism.

The retrial is expected to last approximately five or six weeks with U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman presiding. Furman recently oversaw the second criminal trial in the district in the saga of disbarred California attorney Michael Avenatti, who similarly opted to self-represent, with the aid of a team of federal defenders standing by.

In preparation for the trial, Schulte and his standby counsel accessed classified government materials in a clandestine room prepared on the ninth floor of the Manhattan federal courthouse — known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF — devised to house classified information.

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.

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.

Judge Crotty had authorized a $250,000 bail for Schulte shortly after his federal indictment, only to revoke the package on Dec. 14 after Schulte was arrested on the Loudoun County charges.

The severed New York counts and the Virginia case have both been postponed but could be pursued at a later date. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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