The Surreal Case of a C.I.A. Hacker’s Revenge

Every day of the trial, a small posse of blond women in professional garb arrived and sat together, observing. They kept to themselves and didn’t speak to anyone else, but it was generally understood that they were lawyers or officials from the C.I.A. Their facial expressions uniformly unrevealing, they came and went in lockstep, like Stepford Wives, but they radiated muted power.

The parade of witnesses from the C.I.A. offered a rare glimpse of the office dynamics in a Top Secret unit. It was sobering. The descriptions of Schulte’s workplace called to mind not the steely competence of “The Bourne Identity” but, rather, the tiresome high jinks and petty scheming of “Office Space.” This was the paradox of the proceedings: there was no way for the C.I.A. to exact retribution against Schulte without, in the process, revealing a great deal of unflattering information about itself. Jurors would be told the story of an élite national-security division that had become consumed by juvenile name-calling and recrimination; senior C.I.A. officials would have to submit to cross-examination about the frequency and the severity of Nerf-gun fights, or about the lax security that had made the breach possible. Schulte’s former colleagues portrayed him as thin-skinned and volcanically malicious, and this proved to be the core of the government’s case. “He’s not some kind of whistle-blower,” one of the prosecutors, David Denton, told the jury. “He did it out of spite. He did it because he was angry and disgruntled at work.”

But Shroff’s defense strategy rested on a sly pivot: she readily conceded that Schulte was an asshole. “He antagonized his colleagues,” she said. “He antagonized management. He really was a difficult employee.” Nevertheless, she added, “being a difficult employee does not make you a criminal.”

Shroff further suggested that the story of Vault 7 was a parable not about the rash decision of one traitor but about the systemic ineptitude of the C.I.A. The agency didn’t even realize that it had been robbed, she pointed out, until WikiLeaks began posting the disclosures. “For God’s sakes,” Shroff said in court. “They went a whole year without knowing that their super-secure system had been hacked.” Then the agency embarked on a witch hunt, she continued, and quickly settled on an “easy target”: Schulte. Within this narrative, the string of prosecution witnesses recounting horror stories about Schulte’s workplace behavior almost seemed to play in Shroff’s favor. Her client was a scapegoat, she insisted—the guy nobody liked.

The government had amassed a powerful case indicating that Schulte was the leaker. It was abundantly clear that he had motivations for taking revenge on the C.I.A. The professional biography that emerged at trial was so damning that a decision to leak terabytes of classified data seemed almost like a logical dénouement: the final explosion of a man whose nickname was literally the Nuclear Option. Schulte’s incriminating Google searches further deepened his appearance of guilt. And, on the sixth day of the trial, prosecutors laid out what they regarded as a coup de grâce—the digital equivalent of fingerprints at a crime scene. Even after Schulte was stripped of his administrative privileges, he had secretly retained the ability to access the O.S.B. network through a back door, by using a special key that he had set up. The password was KingJosh3000. The government contended that on April 20, 2016, Schulte had used his key to enter the system. The files were backed up every day, and while he was logged on Schulte accessed one particular backup—not from that day but from six weeks earlier, on March 3rd. The O.S.B. files released by WikiLeaks were identical to the backup from March 3, 2016. As Denton told the jurors, it was the “exact backup, the exact secrets, put out by WikiLeaks.”

But all this was quite a complex fact pattern to present to a jury, involving virtual machines and administrative privileges and backups and logs; much of the expert testimony presented by the prosecutors was bewilderingly technical. Shroff, meanwhile, insisted that Schulte hadn’t stolen the data. Perhaps someone else in the office—or at the agency—had done it. The real outrage was that a crucial C.I.A. computer network, DevLAN, had been unprotected. Hundreds of people had access to DevLAN, including not just C.I.A. employees but contractors. The C.I.A.’s hackers appear to have disregarded even the kinds of elementary information-security protocols that any civilian worker bee can recite from mandatory corporate training. Coders exchanged passwords with one another, and sometimes shared sensitive details on Post-it notes. They used passwords that were laughably weak, including 123ABCdef. (A classified damage assessment conducted by the C.I.A. after the Vault 7 exposure concluded that security procedures had indeed been “woefully lax,” and that the agency’s hackers “prioritized building cyber weapons at the expense of securing their own systems.”)

Nevertheless, the prosecutors presented striking circumstantial evidence indicating that Schulte had probably transmitted the material to WikiLeaks. On April 24th, he downloaded Tails, an operating system that WikiLeaks recommends for submitting data to the organization; on April 30th, he stayed up all night, frequently checking his computer, and at 3:21 a.m. he consulted a Web page that offered guidance on how to make sure that a terabyte of data has been “transferred correctly.” That evening, he also searched for tips on how to wipe a device of its contents. What the government could not prove was any direct communication between Schulte and WikiLeaks.

Hovering over the proceedings was a dark question: how much harm had been caused by the leak? When Shroff cross-examined Sean Roche, the C.I.A. official who described Vault 7 as a “digital Pearl Harbor,” she asked, “How many people died in Pearl Harbor?”

“More than three thousand,” Roche replied.

How many people died as a result of Vault 7? she asked.

“I don’t have an answer to that,” Roche said.

“In fact, none, correct?” Shroff said.

Roche was probably being hyperbolic. But this may have been an instance in which the secrecy surrounding the case put the government at a disadvantage. After China uncovered a network of U.S. intelligence assets operating inside its borders in 2010, authorities in Beijing systematically rounded up a dozen people who had secretly been working for the C.I.A. and murdered them, crippling American espionage efforts in the country for years to come. That deadly purge did not become public knowledge until it was reported in the press, in 2017. Given that the O.S.B. hacks often required human assistance to install, it seems possible that foreign powers penetrated by such exploits could have leveraged the leak to identify American assets and seek retribution in a manner similar to what occurred in China. If any countries did—or if they do so in the future—that is information that the C.I.A. would be unlikely to publicize.

One morning in March, 2020, the jurors in the Schulte case entered the courtroom to discover a giant bottle of Purell on a table. The attorneys had been so consumed by the case that they had hardly noticed the pandemic barrelling toward them. Meanwhile, one of the jurors ended up being removed from the case, because, much like Schulte himself, she couldn’t stay off the Internet. (The normal prohibition on jurors reading press coverage was particularly acute in this instance, because, if the jury knew that Schulte had also been charged with sexual assault and possession of child pornography, it could prejudice the verdict.) The juror seemed only too happy to be cut loose, telling the Post, “Sitting in that chair for five weeks was like punishment for my ass.” After Shroff delivered an emphatic closing argument in the case, she visited the bathroom, where she crossed paths with one of the Stepford Wives. Up to this point, none of these C.I.A. women had uttered a word to her. “Nice job,” the woman said, crisply, and walked out.

As the jurors began deliberations, they sent out a series of notes with questions that seemed to indicate some genuine confusion about the technical aspects of the government’s case. On March 9th, they convicted Schulte of two lesser charges—contempt of court and lying to the F.B.I.—but hung on the eight more serious counts, including those accusing him of transmitting national-security secrets to WikiLeaks. Judge Crotty declared a mistrial.

The prosecution had clearly blundered by getting so mired in technical minutiae, and Shroff had ably defended her client. But it was also tempting to wonder whether in the years since WikiLeaks was established, in 2006, public attitudes toward both the intelligence community and the act of leaking itself might have shifted. Endless revelations concerning warrantless wiretapping, the use of torture, and extrajudicial killing have done little to enhance the prestige or the moral standing of America’s defense and intelligence establishment. And many people consider Snowden and Manning, along with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to be heroes. Of course, in Schulte’s case there did not appear to be any moral imperative driving the leak. If he did it, he wasn’t blowing the whistle but seeking payback. And he continued to deny that he did it. Edward Lee Howard, the disgruntled C.I.A. officer who handed secrets to the Soviets, went to his death denying that he had done so. The person who served time with Schulte in the M.C.C. said, “What Josh told me is that he thinks Amol set him up.”

The mistrial was a devastating turn for the government, but Schulte’s father, who came from Texas with Deanna to attend the proceedings and staunchly believed in his innocence, was disappointed. Roger Schulte, who didn’t know what a hung jury was, asked Shroff, “You mean he wasn’t acquitted?” The child-pornography and sexual-assault cases have still not been resolved. When I asked Roger and Deanna about those charges, they said that, though they believe in Josh’s innocence, they haven’t spoken to him about the particulars of either case, or examined the available evidence themselves, so they were not in a position to offer any preview of his defense. But the U.S. government, rather than push forward with these other cases—which might have resulted in an easier conviction—instead announced that it would put Schulte on trial again for Vault 7.

Schulte currently resides at the Metropolitan Detention Center, in Brooklyn, where he has been preparing for his new trial. Most observers of the case agree that Schulte is fortunate to have a lawyer like Shroff, but he doesn’t necessarily share this view; after the government announced that it would retry him, he dismissed her and opted to represent himself. Shroff has stayed on, however, as standby counsel. “I’ve been with Mr. Schulte for five years,” she said. “We went through a pandemic together, we went through a trial together—most marriages don’t survive this kind of trauma.” Shroff told me that she and Schulte spend hours on end in the scif, where he is formulating his new defense, along with another lawyer, Deborah Colson, and a paralegal. For security reasons, they can’t take garbage out of the room, so trash accumulates among the boxes of highly classified documents. The lawyers used to bring Schulte snacks (gummy bears, Dr Pepper) before the Marshals banned food in the scif. “He’s such a persnickety eater,” Shroff said, with affectionate exasperation. “If I go to Chipotle, it has to be white rice and only black beans.” In prison, Schulte has grown an impressive beard.

To nobody’s surprise, Schulte has tangled with his prison guards, and in repeated filings to the new judge in his case, Jesse M. Furman, he has singled out individual guards and suggested that they should be facing criminal charges. Schulte has filed more than sixty official challenges to the conditions of his confinement. In prolix memos, many of them handwritten, he has condemned the Justice Department, the C.I.A., the F.B.I., and the Bureau of Prisons. He refers to his cell as a “torture cage,” and maintains that his living conditions are “below that of impoverished persons living in third world countries.” One of his complaints is that the guards do not give him adequate bathroom breaks during the hours he spends preparing his case in the prison law library. And so, lately, Schulte has taken to urinating in the law library. He has also converted to Islam. When I mentioned this to Kavi Patel, he burst out laughing. “He’s manipulative,” Patel said. “I don’t know how else to say it.” One might question whether this conversion is simply a ploy to get better food. But many people discover faith behind bars, and Schulte recently observed a month of daytime fasting during Ramadan.

The new trial is scheduled to begin on June 13th. The government seems unlikely to present quite as much evidence of Schulte’s antisocial behavior this time. It may abbreviate the technical evidence, too. The proceedings, however, will remain blanketed in secrecy: Matthew Russell Lee, an independent journalist who covered the first trial, recently filed an objection to the government’s motion to seal the courtroom during testimony from C.I.A. officers, but it appears that that condition will again apply. Schulte, meanwhile, has sought to call no fewer than forty-eight current or former C.I.A. employees as witnesses. One of the people he has tried to summon is Amol. At a recent hearing, Schulte suggested that, if the evidence he requests is too sensitive to transport to the scif, perhaps “they should take me to the C.I.A.” Judge Furman responded flatly, “You are not going to the C.I.A.”

We live in an era that has been profoundly warped by the headstrong impulses of men who are technically sophisticated but emotionally immature. From the whoopie-cushion antics of Elon Musk to the Panglossian implacability of Mark Zuckerberg, a particular personality profile dominates these times: the boy emperor. While reporting this article, I often wondered how the C.I.A. could have missed the obvious combustibility of this profile when it hired Schulte and gave him a security clearance. In order to get an agency job, Schulte had been subjected to a battery of tests—but, when his lawyers tried to obtain the psychological profile that the agency had produced on him, the C.I.A. would not turn it over. Perhaps, as the agency took up digital spying and sought to bolster its hacking capability, it deëmphasized qualities like emotional stability and sang-froid, and turned a blind eye to the sorts of erratic or antisocial tendencies that are widely accepted in Silicon Valley (and even embraced as the price of genius). The agency may have been blinkered about Schulte’s destructive potential because it had concluded that this was simply how coders behave. I sometimes found myself wondering whether Schulte was more idiot or savant.

When you consider the powerful forces arrayed against him—and the balance of probabilities that he is guilty—Schulte’s decision to represent himself seems reckless. But, for the C.I.A. and the Justice Department, he remains a formidable adversary, because he is bent on destroying them, he has little to lose, and his head is full of classified information. “Lawyers are bound,” Shroff told me. “There are certain things we can’t argue, certain arguments we can’t make. But if you’re pro se ”—representing yourself—“you can make all the motions you want. You can really try your case.”

The government does not bring a lawsuit every time it identifies somebody who has inappropriately leaked classified information. On the contrary, a decision is often made to settle the matter quietly, rather than risk further exposure of secrets in a public trial. Schulte might well attempt to force the disclosure of so many secrets that the authorities will feel compelled to drop the charges against him or to offer an attractive plea deal. There may be some threshold of disclosure beyond which the C.I.A. will not venture. Deanna Schulte told me that one reason her son had elected to serve as his own counsel is that he wants to “put it all out there.”

In a June 2nd court filing, Schulte suggested, with a menacing flourish, that if the government goes to trial with the child-pornography charges he plans to make it maximally painful for the C.I.A. His defense, he promised, will incorporate extensive testimony about agency “operations and assets,” and will potentially require courtroom appearances from “9 covert officers, 17 overt officers, and at least 1 asset.”

In a contest between the dictates of official secrecy and the imperatives of justice, odds are that secrecy will win. Schulte knows this, and that may be his greatest advantage. He has said of the Vault 7 case, “I expect a not guilty verdict on all counts, and anything less will be an utter failure.” Shroff told me of her client, “He’s hopeful now.” Roger Schulte said the same thing, assuring me that Josh has learned a lot about the legal process, and that he isn’t giving up. “He seems to be holding pretty strong,” Roger said. “He’s a fighter.” ♦

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