Ex-CIA Analyst Faces Trial in Biggest Leak of Agency’s History

FILE-- The Central Intelligence Agency seal on the floor before President Donald Trump’s remarks during a visit to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va., Jan. 21, 2017. WikiLeaks on March 7 released thousands of documents that it said described sophisticated software tools used by the CIA to break into smartphones, computers and even Internet-connected televisions. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Nicole Hong
c.2020 The New York Times Company

Three years ago, WikiLeaks published thousands of pages of secret documents about how the CIA hacks into overseas targets, revealing its ability to compromise smartphones and turn certain televisions into listening devices.

The breach was the largest illegal disclosure of CIA information in the spy agency’s history and caused “catastrophic” damage to national security, the government said.

This week, Joshua Schulte, a 31-year-old computer engineer who worked at the CIA, goes on trial in federal court in Manhattan to defend himself against charges that he was the leaker. Opening statements were expected Tuesday.

When the documents went public in March 2017, WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization, said the source of the information wanted to raise “policy questions that need to be debated in public, including whether the CIA’s hacking capabilities exceeded its mandated powers.”

Prosecutors, however, say Schulte was a disgruntled CIA employee who stole the documents as retaliation because he felt management did not take his workplace complaints seriously. He quit the job in 2016, four months before the WikiLeaks disclosures.

Schulte worked in the CIA’s Engineering Development Group and designed hacking tools, including malware that targeted the computers of suspected terrorists.

Schulte faces 11 criminal counts at trial, including stealing classified information from the CIA and lying to the FBI.

He has pleaded not guilty. In court papers, Schulte’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, has said that her client did not leak classified information and that other CIA employees had access to the same computer systems as Schulte.

After Schulte’s arrest, he was released into home confinement but got thrown in jail a few months later after he violated a federal judge’s order not to use the internet without the court’s permission.

At trial, the government intends to show jurors Schulte’s writings from notebooks he kept in jail. In one of them, he wrote that if the government did not pay him $50 billion in restitution, he would “visit every country in the world” and try to break up “diplomatic relationships, close embassies, and U.S. occupation across the world.”

Schulte’s lawyers fought repeatedly to keep them out of the trial, saying his hundreds of pages of private musings were taken out of context and never disseminated.