By Mimi Nguyen Ly
A former software engineer for the CIA was convicted by a jury in New York on Wednesday on all nine federal charges he faced that accused him of causing the largest leak of classified information in the agency’s history.
Joshua Schulte defended himself at a retrial in New York City, where he told jurors that the CIA and FBI made him a scapegoat in the March 2017 leak that involved WikiLeaks publishing what has been dubbed “Vault 7.”
The Vault 7 leak involved files dated 2013–2016 that showed a range of tactics and tools the CIA used to hack people’s computers, Apple or Android smartphones, smart TVs, and messaging applications in its spying operations.
The agency opened an investigation into how the leak happened nearly a year after WikiLeaks’s release of Vault 7 and identified Schulte as the prime suspect.
The jury began its deliberations on July 8, and reached the verdict on Wednesday in the mid-afternoon. Schulte watched without visibly reacting as U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman announced the guilty verdict.
The trial was the second one for Schulte related to the case. In his first trial back in March 2020, a different jury convicted Schulte of contempt of court and of making false statements to the FBI. But that jury was hung on the remaining eight espionage counts, including illegal gathering and transmission of national defense information.
Schulte departed from the CIA in November 2016. Within weeks of the Vault 7 leak in March 2017, Schulte’s apartment was raided multiple times and federal agents confiscated dozens of electronic devices.
Schulte was later indicted in November 2017 for possessing and transporting child pornography, for which he was arrested in December 2017 and was later detained at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges in the pending case.
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 the two trials in solitary confinement inside a vermin-infested cell of a jail unit where inmates are treated like “caged animals.”
He has not been sentenced for the latest convictions on the nine counts, pending the resolution of the child pornography charges.
Government Allegations and Schulte’s Defense
Before he was arrested, Schulte had helped develop the hacking tools as a coder at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The Department of Justice indicted Schulte in June 2018 with “unauthorized disclosure of classified information and other offenses relating to the theft of classified material from the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Prosecutors alleged that Schulte stole backup CIA files and sent them to WikiLeaks, then lied to FBI agents by denying his involvement and providing an alternative version of events about how the leak could have unfolded.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard said on July 7 during closing arguments, according to Inner City Press: “On April 20, 2016, Joshua Schulte stole the CIA’s cyber tools. He turned on the U.S. … Schulte had kept a secret cryptographic pass key and he tunneled through to that backup of all cyber tools. He stole them. And he transferred them to WikiLeaks, knowing they would publish them. He bought computer equipment and did research.”
Lockard further alleged that Schulte threatened to leak additional classified materials while behind bars and awaiting trial. “His leverage is the classified information he has. He says he will set up a WordPress and stage his information war,” Lockard said.
Schulte maintained his innocence throughout the entire trial and said he was being scapegoated for the CIA’s failure to secure the hacking tools.
During opening statements on June 14, Schulte said that when WikiLeaks published the Vault 7 files, the CIA did not realize their servers had been hacked. “It was embarrassing for the CIA. They did not know when it was taken, how much or who. They still don’t know,” Schulte said. He added that the hacked files were stored on servers that were “so insecure it was nicknamed the Wild Wild West.”
“It was impossible to find the leaker. They could not admit it. To save face, they had to blame someone. They selected me as the patsy,” Schulte said.
Later, in closing statements on July 12, Schulte said prosecutors established no reasonable motive, and that 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.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton argued that there was plenty of proof that Schulte stole a sensitive backup computer file. “He’s the one who broke into that system,” Denton said. “He’s the one who took that backup, the backup he sent to WikiLeaks.”
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement after the verdict on Wednesday that Schulte was convicted of “one of the most brazen and damaging acts of espionage in American history.”
He said that Schulte “was 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.”
“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,” he added. “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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.