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  • Mary Thomas

2017 NSA Wiki-Leaks Update: Schulte

Officially published as “Vault 7” and “Vault 8”, thousands of classified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents were leaked by Wikileaks in 2017. The papers, which have been dubbed “Snowden 2.0”, have re-initiated a national conversation about the balance between power and privacy. Ex-CIA employee Joshua Schulte has recently been put on trial for 11 different charges related to the leaks, including theft of government property and the illegal transmission of unlawfully possessed national security defense information. Schulte has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Born in 1988 and a graduate of the University of Texas, Joshua Schulte spent three years working as a systems analyst for the National Security Agency (NSA) before moving to the CIA in 2010. Schulte left his position working on classified cyber tools for the CIA in 2016, and was arrested in New York in August of 2017.

According to the prosecution, Schulte was inspired to acquire and leak the information due to a feud with his coworkers. Beginning in the summer of 2015, Schulte began reporting issues with a coworker that was causing significant detriment to their productivity. The coworker allegedly complained to management about Schulte, who then accused coworker of making death threats against him. The two were eventually reassigned to different teams, which should have resulted in Schulte losing access to the majority of classified documents and technology plans.

The management team at the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence was responsible for ensuring that Schulte’s accessibility to these files was revoked, however, an oversight caused them to miss one server. Schulte then allegedly used that server to download and steal highly sensitive documents in April of 2016. Prosecutors in the case claim Schulte released the documents as a revenge against his former employer for not taking his workplace complaints seriously enough.

The papers released to Wikileaks have been reported to be internal, highly technical plans for creating and implementing cyber-spying tools. The documents reveal cutting edge ways to hack into technology devices, programs to turn Smart TVs into bugs, and even designs for customized USB drives that could extract information from computers. The pages are mostly internal development plans describing prototypes and testing plans for such devices, with no commentary on the purpose of the device or if they were ever actually created. The CIA has declined to comment on the authenticity of the documents, but government officials have called their publication “catastrophic”.

Due to his public feud, Schulte became the primary and only suspect in the Wikileaks case only a few days after the documents were released. However, he was not arrested for charges related to the leaks until 10 months later. Instead, Schulte was arrested in August of 2017 on charges of child pornography. In the search for evidence on the leaks, investigators secured a warrant to search and raid Schulte’s New York apartment. During the raid, they found more than 10,000 images and videos of child pornography that had been hidden under 3 levels of encryption.

At the time of this arrest, Schulte had been working as a senior software engineer for Bloomberg L.P. After Schulte’s arrest, he was released to await trial with the stipulations that he was to remain at home and not access the internet without permission from the judge. Schulte violated these terms by accessing the internet multiple times without authorization, and was thrown back in jail. While in custody, Schulte used a smuggled cellphone to create a Twitter account under the pseudonym “James Bond”, which he used to accuse the government of planting the child pornography on his computer to frame him for the leaks. He also used the contraband cell phone to call reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post. After these incidents, judges insisted that Schulte be moved to a solitary confinement unit reserved for the most dangerous, highest risk inmates.

Schulte’s trial, which began on February 3rd, will not include the charges of child pornography,. He will be tried on 11 counts related to the Wikileaks incident, which includes 2 charges based on his misconduct during his imprisonment. Schulte’s lawyers attempted to reduce the charges brought against him by claiming that some of the charges stem from the Espionage Act, which is controversially broad and vague. His lawyers also argued that such laws were put in place to incriminate those who collaborated against the United States with foreign governments, and therefore should not apply to a domestic Wikileaks situation. These pleas were denied by the judge, and the trial began.

The trial proceedings were complicated before they even began, as both former and current CIA officials are set to testify. Due to personal safety concerns, media presence will be restricted during certain parts of testimony to protect the identity of several current CIA operatives. Only two pool reporters will be allowed to be in the room during the questioning of these individuals, and said reporters have sworn not to document any physical characteristics of the witnesses. All other reporters will be given access to a seperate room, where the trial proceedings will be streamed through a special platform that will obscure the figures of the individuals.

In a move that further complicated the initial proceedings, Schulte’s lawyers filed for a mistrial on Tuesday, February 18th. The defense claimed in a classified twelve page document that the prosecution had withheld crucial evidence that could exonerate Schulte. Under the 1963 court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, courts are required to disclose “materially exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession to the defense.” In this case, prosecutors failed to turn evidence about a second potential suspect, who was a CIA staffer before he was placed on administrative leave due to suspicions that he was involved in the leaks. The evening before that staffer was set to testify, the prosecution informed the defense for the first time that said staffer had been placed on leave, had failed two polygraph tests about the leaks, and showed a general lack of concern about the breach. As this knowledge could have significantly boosted the defense’s strategy for the trial, Schulte’s lawyers insisted that a mistrial was necessary. Instead, judges ruled that testimony from the specific staffer would be postponed indefinitely and reprimanded the prosecution for withholding the evidence.

Schulte’s trial will continue, but the questions about the trial and the leaking of the documents revealed will continue regardless of who is deemed responsible for their release. From the perspective of the CIA, the robbery of the documents has raised concerns about the true security of classified information. In her opening statement, Schutle’s lawyer revealed the staggering number of employees and independent contractors that had access to the same server Schulte accessed the documents on. On the other hand, the public’s acquisition of the documents brought up vital questions about how much power the CIA should be allowed to have and if lines should remain uncrossed.

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