In a landmark case, former CIA officer Joshua Schulte has been handed a 40-year prison sentence for leaking a substantial cache of classified hacking tools to the whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks. The 35-year-old intelligence operative was also convicted on charges related to possessing child abuse images.
Schulte’s conviction is linked to the release of the CIA’s “Vault 7” tools in 2017, an arsenal that empowers intelligence officers to compromise smartphones and utilize them as eavesdropping devices. This leak has been described by prosecutors as one of the most audacious breaches of classified information in the history of the United States.
The justice department revealed that Schulte shared a staggering 8,761 documents with WikiLeaks, marking the largest data breach ever experienced by the CIA. Despite vehemently denying the allegations, he was found guilty on multiple counts across three separate federal trials conducted in New York in 2020, 2022, and 2023.
Schulte faced charges including espionage, computer hacking, contempt of court, making false statements to the FBI, and the possession of child abuse images. U.S. Attorney Damian Williams characterized Schulte’s actions as a betrayal of his country, citing the espionage crimes as some of the most egregious in American history.
During the trial, evidence surfaced revealing that Schulte had been employed as a software developer in the Center for Cyber Intelligence, responsible for cyber espionage against terrorist organizations and foreign governments. Prosecutors argued that in 2016, Schulte transmitted the stolen information to WikiLeaks and subsequently lied to FBI agents about his involvement in the leak.
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Motivated by workplace discontent, particularly a dispute over missed deadlines and a project delay that earned him the nickname “Drifting Deadline,” Schulte’s actions were perceived as revenge against those he believed had wronged him. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard emphasized that in seeking retribution, Schulte inflicted significant damage on the nation’s security apparatus.
WikiLeaks commenced the publication of classified data from the leaked files in 2017. Prosecutors contended that the immediate and profound damage to the CIA’s ability to collect foreign intelligence was substantial. The leak not only jeopardized CIA personnel, programs, and assets but also incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in costs.
The FBI interviewed Schulte multiple times following the WikiLeaks publication, where he consistently denied any responsibility. However, a subsequent search of his apartment uncovered tens of thousands of images classified as child sexual abuse materials.
Furthermore, after his arrest, Schulte attempted to transmit more information by smuggling a phone into jail. He sought to send a reporter information about CIA cyber groups and drafted tweets under the name Jason Bourne, a fictional intelligence operative, which included details about CIA cyber tools.
Schulte has been in custody since 2018, and his sentencing represents a significant milestone in the legal repercussions for intelligence officers involved in leaking classified information. The case underscores the delicate balance between transparency, security, and the severe consequences that individuals face when they compromise national secrets.