MANHATTAN (CN) — Opening the trial of a software developer accused of exposing secret CIA hacking tools, a federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday that the biggest leak of classified information in the agency’s history was nothing more than the spiteful actions of a disgruntled employee.
Vault 7, as the 2017 WikiLeaks release has come to be known, included thousands of pages of confidential CIA documents that revealed the intelligence agency’s abilities to hack Apple and Android cellphones.
“The leak was instantly devastating,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton said this morning at the trial of indicted programmer Joshua Schulte.
“Digital weapons that weapons we had built, out there for anyone to use against us,” Denton said. “For the CIA, it was a virtual act of betrayal.”
The government portrayed 30-year-old Schulte a grudgeful former employee with top-secret security clearance who leaked the trove of confidential documents to spite the CIA after it sided against him in a dispute with co-worker.
Denton said Schulte used his “super access” as a systems administrator for the CIA to steal backup files that CIA stores daily in case of a catastrophe that requires a system reboot.
“But the real catastrophe was Joshua Schulte,” Denton added.
"Joshua Schulte knew everything about it because he helped build it, so he knew how to steal it," Denton continued.
During the trial, the prosecutor explained, jurors will see excerpts from Schulte’s journals that lay out his “plan for information war.”
Denton gave the jurors a taste of what to expect: “I will look to break up diplomatic relationships,” “Top Secret? Fuck your top secret,” “WikeLeaks – send your secrets here.”
Schulte, who is incarcerated near the Manhattan courthouse at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, appeared in court with a shaved head with a thick full beard. He wore khaki pants and a suit jacket.
In the defense’s opening statement, Sabrina Shroff with the Federal Defenders of New York accused the government of scapegoating her client to distract from existing punctures in the CIA’s cybersecurity system.
“The CIA’s Devlan system is not adequately secured,” Shroff said during opening arguments Tuesday. “It’s wide open, as wide open as the Sargasso Sea. Everybody knew that it wasn’t secured.”
Shroff said that the prosecutors could not even put a date to when the secret intelligence was stolen.
“Was it March? Was it April?” she asked. “They do not know.”
“The CIA itself has no sense of exactly what was taken,” Shroff said. “But for WikiLeaks’ publication of this data, it is unlikely to this day that the CIA would know that this data was taken.”
Shroff conceded Tuesday that Schulte was more than “a difficult employee”: He was a “pain in the ass” who antagonized nearly everyone who worked with the at the CIA.
“A difficult employee does not translate to a traitor,” she said. “A difficult employee does not translate to someone who sell out their country,” Shroff added.
Schulte also faces allegations that he continued to leak information from behind bars, using contraband phones during his pretrial detention.
For Shroff, however, the programmer’s conduct speaks to his quest for exoneration.
"Yes, he gets a cellphone, he keeps a journal, he contacts the media," Shroff said. "Does that mean he stole the information from the CIA? No.”
Schulte joined the CIA after a few months’ stint at the NSA, then moved to New York in November 2016 to work as a senior software engineer for Bloomberg.
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 pornography.
U.S. District Judge 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 includes the original trio of child-pornography counts plus 10 new counts related to the Vault 7 leak.
Shroff was appointed counsel in March 2018 when his previous attorneys withdrew from the case.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange declared the document dump the largest leak of its kind ever, with more than 7,000 pages, millions of lines of embedded computer code, and several hundred attachments.
Exposing what Assange calls the “entire hacking capacity of the CIA,” the documents reveal are how professionally groomed CIA hackers and other intelligence 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.
The documents suggest devices manufactured by Samsung, Android and Apple were readily hacked by agents.
WikiLeaks was not named in the indictment.
Schulte will be tried separately for the child pornography charges.
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