NEW YORK – Federal prosecutors on Tuesday opened their case against a former CIA software engineer they say leaked a massive trove of the agency’s secret hacking tools to take revenge on his former colleagues and bosses.
Joshua Schulte, 31, is charged with disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks after allegedly stealing it from a secretive CIA unit where he worked. In more than 8,000 pages of material published in 2017 — known as the Vault 7 leaks — WikiLeaks showed how the CIA breaks into smartphones and internet-connected devices.
The disclosure “was the single biggest leak of classified national defense information in the history of the CIA,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton told jurors. Denton said that as a result of the disclosure, CIA operations had “come to a halt,” U.S. intelligence officers serving overseas had been exposed and American adversaries were able to turn cyberweapons developed by the CIA against the United States.
Schulte has pleaded not guilty to 11 criminal counts.
His lawyers have described the government’s charges as vague and overreaching. They also complained that prosecutors have been slow to share information about their case with the defense and placed burdensome rules on the handling of classified information.
Sabrina Shroff, Schulte’s lead defense attorney, accused the government of prosecuting Schulte out of embarrassment over losing such a huge volume of sensitive information, and because he was “an easy target.”
Shroff in her opening statement described Schulte as a brilliant computer engineer who had long dreamed of public service, but she acknowledged that he had a documented history of conflict with his colleagues and managers.
“He was also a pain in the [expletive] to everyone at the CIA,” Shroff told jurors, responding to a core piece of the prosecution’s argument: that Schulte was a disgruntled employee who leaked the hacking tools to retaliate against his bosses, after they failed to take his side in a dispute with a co-worker. “Being a difficult employee does not make you a criminal,” she said.
Shroff said that the government had no conclusive evidence that tied the leaks to Schulte, and she said the network from which the hacking tools allegedly were stolen was open to “hundreds” of people.
From 2010 to 2016, Schulte worked in the CIA’s Engineering Development Group, which produced the computer code published by WikiLeaks.
In a statement, Schulte claimed that he reported “incompetent management and bureaucracy” at the CIA to the agency’s inspector general and to a congressional oversight committee. He asserted that when he left the CIA, he became a suspect in the leak as “the only one to have recently departed [the engineering group] on poor terms.”