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Ex-CIA engineer convicted of biggest theft of secret information in agency’s history

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Published July 14, 2022 8:49am EDT

A former CIA programmer was convicted Wednesday of federal charges in connection to the massive Vault 7 theft of secret information provided to WikiLeaks in what the Justice Department describes as “one of the most brazen and damaging acts of espionage in American history.” 

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Joshua Adam Schulte was once a CIA programmer “with access to some of the country’s most valuable intelligence-gathering cyber tools used to battle terrorist organizations and other malign influences around the globe,” according to a statement released by U.S. Attorney Damian Williams. 

However, when Schulte “began to harbor resentment toward the CIA, he covertly collected those tools and provided them to WikiLeaks, making some of our most critical intelligence tools known to the public – and therefore, our adversaries,” Williams, of the Southern District of New York, said. “Moreover, 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.” 

Schulte, who chose to defend himself at a New York City retrial, told jurors in closing arguments that the CIA and FBI made him a scapegoat for an embarrassing public release of a trove of CIA secrets by WikiLeaks in 2017.

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He watched without visibly reacting as U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman announced the guilty verdict on nine counts, which was reached in mid-afternoon by a jury that had deliberated since Friday, The Associated Press reported. 

In this courtroom sketch, Joshua Schulte, center, is seated at the defense table flanked by his attorneys during jury deliberations, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in New York. Schulte, the former CIA software engineer accused of causing the biggest theft of classified information in CIA history, has been convicted at a New York City retrial. A jury reached the guilty verdict against Joshua Schulte on Wednesday, July 13, 2022 in federal court in Manhattan. 

In this courtroom sketch, Joshua Schulte, center, is seated at the defense table flanked by his attorneys during jury deliberations, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in New York. Schulte, the former CIA software engineer accused of causing the biggest theft of classified information in CIA history, has been convicted at a New York City retrial. A jury reached the guilty verdict against Joshua Schulte on Wednesday, July 13, 2022 in federal court in Manhattan.  ((Elizabeth Williams via AP))

The so-called Vault 7 leak revealed how the CIA hacked Apple and Android smartphones in overseas spying operations, and efforts to turn internet-connected televisions into listening devices. Prior to his arrest, Schulte had helped create the hacking tools as a coder at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

A sentencing date was not immediately set because Schulte is still awaiting trial on charges of possessing and transporting child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty.

Attorney Sabrina Shroff, who advised Schulte during the trial, told Schulte’s mother after the verdict that the outcome was a “kick to the gut, the brain and heart.” It was unclear if Shroff was expressing her own sentiments or Schulte’s.

In his closing, Schulte claimed he was singled out even though “hundreds of people had access to (the information). … Hundreds of people could have stolen it.”

“The government’s case is riddled with reasonable doubt,” he added. “There’s simply no motive here.”

The logo of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is shown in the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia  March 3, 2005. 

The logo of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is shown in the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia  March 3, 2005.  (REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo)

Prosecutors alleged the 33-year-old Schulte was motivated to orchestrate the leak because he believed the CIA had disrespected him by ignoring his complaints about the work environment. Therefore, he tried “to burn to the ground” the very work he had helped the agency to create, they said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton encouraged jurors to consider evidence of an attempted cover-up, including a list of chores Schulte drew up that had an entry reading, “Delete suspicious emails.”

While behind bars awaiting trial, prosecutors said he continued his crimes by trying to leak additional classified materials as he carried on an “information war” against the government.

Once the jury left the courtroom for deliberations, the judge complimented Schulte on his closing argument.

In this Friday, Feb. 5, 2016 file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stands on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy to address waiting supporters and media in London. 

In this Friday, Feb. 5, 2016 file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stands on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy to address waiting supporters and media in London.  ((AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File))

“Mr. Schulte, that was impressively done,” Furman said. “Depending on what happens here, you may have a future as a defense lawyer.”

A mistrial was declared at Schulte’s original 2020 trial after jurors were deadlocked on the most serious counts, including illegal gathering and transmission of national defense information. Schulte told the judge last year that he wanted to serve as his own attorney for the retrial.

He has not announced whether he wants to represent himself at his next trial, which involves allegations that after leaving the CIA, Schulte moved to New York from Virginia with a computer that contained images and videos of child pornography he had downloaded from the internet from 2009 to March 2017.

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Schulte has been held behind bars without bail since 2018. Last year, he complained in court papers that he was a victim of cruel and unusual punishment, awaiting two trials in solitary confinement inside a vermin-infested cell of a jail unit where inmates are treated like “caged animals.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 


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