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U.S. prosecution of alleged WikiLeaks 'Vault 7' source hits multiple roadblocks

·National Security Correspondent
·9-min read
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The prosecution of the former CIA operative accused of providing WikiLeaks with the biggest theft of agency documents in U.S. history continues to be mired in delays and legal issues, drawing out a painful chapter for the agency.

WikiLeaks’ publication in 2017 of documents that included CIA hacking tools, which it called Vault 7, so enraged some senior officials, including then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, that it sparked discussions within the agency and the Trump White House about kidnapping or even killing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, according to a Yahoo News investigation.

The first trial of Joshua Schulte, the former CIA programmer accused of transmitting the documents to WikiLeaks, ended in a hung jury in March 2020. (Schulte was, however, convicted of related minor charges and remains jailed.) It was a stinging defeat for federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District, who vowed to retry the former agency operative.

The retrial, which has already been repeatedly postponed, was last scheduled for late October. In September, Schulte, who is now representing himself in court, asked for another delay. The parties are now supposed to confer on a new trial date by Nov. 1, as Inner City Press first reported, but it is unclear precisely when the alleged WikiLeaks source will face another jury.

WikiLeaks began publishing Vault 7 documents in March 2017. The leak was “instantly devastating,” said the prosecutor in the case, causing “critical intelligence gathering operations all over the world” to come to “a crashing halt.” Agency investigators later called the leak “the largest data loss in CIA history.”

Before WikiLeaks began publishing the Vault 7 materials, the CIA had no idea they had even been taken. The leak set off a furious search for the culprit. The CIA would soon determine that the files had been stolen in the spring of 2016 by Schulte, a disgruntled agency employee who quit his job within the CIA four months before WikiLeaks began releasing Vault 7 materials.

Joshua Schulte and Wikileaks. (LinkedIn, Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)
Joshua Schulte and WikiLeaks. (LinkedIn, Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)

FBI officials, who code-named Schulte “Kinetic Piranha” or “Kinetic Panda,” confronted him in March 2017 in the New York City office lobby of his new employer, Bloomberg LP. In subsequent interviews with bureau officials, Schulte, who had worked at an elite CIA hacking unit, said that whoever leaked the Vault 7 documents “deserved to be executed” and that “no traitors ever came from Texas” (he is a native of Lubbock, Texas).

Schulte has continued to deny any wrongdoing.

Interviewing him at a restaurant across from Grand Central Terminal, FBI agents presented Schulte with a grand jury subpoena and a separate subpoena to seize his phone. Bureau personnel then also executed a search warrant of his apartment.

Schulte was first arrested in August 2017 after investigators said they had found “approximately ten thousand images and videos of child pornography” while searching his electronic devices. In June 2018, prosecutors charged him with providing the materials to WikiLeaks.

U.S. officials alleged that Schulte had stolen a time-stamped copy of data from a top-secret CIA developer network used to create hacking tools, and that this exact backup was the version obtained by WikiLeaks. But officials could not show any direct contact between Schulte and WikiLeaks, and the jury deadlocked on the most serious charges.

Schulte, who had helped develop cyber-espionage tools at the CIA, had a troubled relationship with some of his agency colleagues, according to court documents, even filing an official complaint to CIA superiors that one of his co-workers had threatened to kill him.

“That office [that Schulte worked in at the CIA] was a shit show,” said another former CIA official. “That’s why the trial was a shit show.”

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange appears at the window before speaking on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London on Feb. 5, 2016. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the window of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2016. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

The U.S.’s evidence against Schulte was circumstantial but substantial, according to Alexa O’Brien, an investigative researcher and expert on the Vault 7 leak.

“The U.S. case against Schulte was compelling on paper and in their early presentation to the jury,” says O’Brien. But “prosecutors may have presumed” — incorrectly — “that public sentiment about CIA was favorable in the jury box.”

A turning point in the trial, according to O’Brien, came when Schulte’s lawyers seized on information that a former CIA colleague of Schulte’s, known as “Michael,” had been placed on administrative leave because he refused to cooperate with investigators looking into the Vault 7 breach. Schulte’s lawyers claimed that prosecutors had withheld potentially exculpatory evidence regarding CIA suspicions that Michael was involved with the leak.

The defense made it look like “a lack of candor” on the part of prosecutors, “when it probably wasn’t,” said O’Brien. But the government’s case “came apart” as a result of these allegations, helping lead to a mistrial.

The prosecution was “like a piece of Swiss cheese,” said a former senior counterintelligence official. And Schulte’s prolonged legal purgatory creates its own potential complications. While in prison awaiting his first trial, he declared an “information war” on the U.S. government and shared legal documents containing classified information with a reporter via a smuggled cellphone, according to prosecutors.

“I will visit every country in the world and bear witness to the treachery that is the USG [U.S. government],” the imprisoned Schulte wrote in a notebook later seized by U.S. officials. “I will look to breakup diplomatic relationships, close embassies, and U.S. occupation across the world & finally reverse U.S. jingoism. If this is the way the U.S. govt treats one of their own, how do you think they treat allies?” 

Some recent delays have revolved around establishing the procedures by which Schulte will be able to access — or if he will be able to access — the materials prosecutors allege he already leaked, as well as the servers used for the highly classified CIA developer network.

Schulte asserts that to mount his own defense, he must have access to copies of these servers in order to conduct a forensic examination, since the government’s case is tied to its claim that he copied documents off them. Prosecutors say Schulte is, in effect, asking for access to a far larger cache of highly classified information than even that which he allegedly leaked.

CIA intelligence brief on
CIA intelligence brief on Vault 7.

Sensitive national security prosecutions are often bedeviled by complications surrounding the discovery process, wherein the nature of the allegations means that, during trials, the government risks spilling far more secrets into the public sphere than those detailed in the charging documents themselves.

The Vault 7 leak was already massive. The CIA concluded that the breach involved “at least 180 gigabytes to as much as 34 terabytes of information,” or the equivalent of between 11.6 million and 2.2. billion pages in Microsoft Word.

After its first Vault 7 release in March 2017, WikiLeaks tweeted that what it had released was “less than 1%” of the materials in its possession.

Over the next several months, WikiLeaks would go on to publish what the CIA investigation said were “comprehensive descriptions of 35 [hacking] tools, including internal CIA documents associated with each tool.” These releases involved “26 separate disclosures of classified information,” according to prosecutors.

The leaked tools revealed the CIA’s ability to hack into Samsung TV monitors, turning them into covert listening devices, and the agency’s efforts to penetrate Windows systems and Android and iPhone devices, among other targets.

In a statement that accompanied the initial Vault 7 disclosures, WikiLeaks said it had “carefully reviewed” the documents and had declined to release details on “‘armed’ cyberweapons until a consensus emerges on the technical and political nature of the CIA's program and how such ‘weapons' should [be] analyzed, disarmed and published.”

The organization said it “also decided to redact and anonymise some identifying information,” including “ten[s] of thousands of CIA targets and attack machines throughout Latin America, Europe and the United States.”

But if WikiLeaks believed it was exercising restraint in how it disclosed Vault 7 materials, officials at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., strenuously disagreed.

At the agency, “people were shocked” by Vault 7, said a former CIA official. “Basically, the agency got Shadow Brokered,” recalled this person, referring to a series of major leaks of National Security Agency hacking tools by a mysterious online group that began in the summer of 2016.

“Did Vault 7 relate to Shadow Brokers, if at all? We were looking into that,” said a former senior counterintelligence official. “It was an absolutely frustrating time because it just kept coming, and it was bad. Both of them were really bad.”

In the spring of 2017, “everyone was focused on Trump and Russia, but we were trying to figure out what happened with Vault 7,” recalled this former official. “It was a horrible time period.”

The leak led the CIA to redefine WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” allowing the spy agency to treat the self-described “transparency organization” as it does Hezbollah or China’s Ministry of State Security.

How to approach WikiLeaks — as a journalistic outlet, an auxiliary to foreign intelligence services or something sui generis — was a complex issue, recalled a former senior counterintelligence official. “It’s not like Assange is an employee of the SVR [Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service] and they tell him what to do and he does it,” said this former official. “There is a confluence of goals, but he is not a directed asset. That uncertainty [around WikiLeaks’ status] was a significant worry and concern.”

But some Trump-era officials thought that “the easiest way to solve America’s problems is to squish them by the heel of your boot,” said another former senior counterintelligence official, who was briefed on the discussions about killing or kidnapping Assange.

For now, Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, and Schulte, the alleged Vault 7 leaker, have a common fate. Both men, imprisoned and in legal limbo, face an uncertain future and the prospect of many years in U.S. federal prison. But that depends — for Assange, on whether U.K. officials will assent to his extradition, and for Schulte, whether prosecutors can convince a second New York jury to convict him.

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