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Trial for accused CIA leaker ends in hung jury

By Lisa Vaas, Sophos

March 11, 2020

A Manhattan federal judge on Monday declared a mistrial in the case against ex-CIA employee Joshua Adam Schulte, who was accused of stealing a huge cache of classified hacking tools – dubbed Vault 7 – from the US Central Intelligence Agency and leaking it to WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks called the initial document dump – published on 28 February 2017 and containing 8,761 documents and files – “Year Zero”. It included documents and files from an isolated, high-security network inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

On 7 March 2017, WikiLeaks launched a new series of leaks, which it claimed would be the largest dump of confidential documents on the CIA in history.

Year Zero painted an intimate picture of the US’s cyber-espionage efforts: Vault 7 included cyberattack tools including malware, viruses, Trojans and weaponized zero-day exploits, including those that target a wide range of big tech companies’ most popular products: iPhones, Wi-Fi routers, Android devices, and IoT gadgets. In fact, the dump made one thing clear: the CIA can use the Internet of Things (IoT) to hack anything, anywhere.

Schulte was working at the CIA’s Engineering Development Group at the time of the code theft. He was charged with 13 counts in connection with the alleged theft of national defense information from the CIA; giving the huge cache to WikiLeaks; criminal copyright infringement; and receiving, possessing and transporting about 10,000 child abuse images and videos.

The FBI claimed to have found an “encrypted container” with child abuse imagery files tucked beneath three layers of password protection on Schulte’s PC. The FBI accused Schulte of maintaining lousy security, saying that each layer was unlocked using passwords Schulte previously used on one of his cellphones. FBI agents also claimed to have identified internet chat logs in which Schulte and others discussed distributing child abuse imagery as well as a series of Google searches for such imagery that Schulte allegedly conducted.

Schulte pleaded not guilty to the charges, claiming that the images were on a server he’d maintained for years in order to share movies and other digital files. He argued that between 50 and 100 people had access to that server, and any one of them could have been responsible for the illegal content.

The jury found Schulte guilty of lying to the FBI and of contempt of court. But when it came to the far more serious charges of turning over the spy tools to WikiLeaks, the jury couldn’t reach consensus. Schulte, 31, still faces up to five years on the lesser counts.

On Monday, after US District Judge Paul Crotty declared a mistrial, he ordered both sides back to court on 26 March 2020, when the government is expected to push for a new trial.

The mistrial is embarrassing: prosecutors spent years pulling the case together, and they devoted four weeks of testimony in an effort to portray Schulte as a vindictive and disgruntled employee who put US security at risk by leaking information on how the CIA spied on foreign adversaries.

Prosecutors portrayed the Vault 7 leak as a well-planned theft orchestrated by Schulte, whom they claim gave hackers access to the CIA’s top-secret hacking tools.

According to The Register, the CIA has had a rough time proving that it was Schulte who stole the tools from a secure server in the heart of CIA headquarters. The agency has come up with a convoluted explanation for how he might have pulled off the heist by saving a backup to a thumb drive and then reverting the system to a previous state to cover his tracks, but in the end, all it has is circumstantial evidence. The government hasn’t been able to show any direct proof that Schulte sent the files to WikiLeaks.

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