A former Central Intelligence Agency engineer has been convicted of espionage over the leaking of documents that exposed the agency’s mass surveillance to WikiLeaks.
The release was called “Vault 7” by WikiLeaks and was the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.
Joshua Schulte, 33, was convicted of eight espionage charges and one obstruction charge in a federal court in Manhattan on June 13.
Schulte represented himself during the trial, which lasted a month, after his previous March 2020 trial ended with a deadlocked jury.
“Schulte was aware that the collateral damage of his retribution could pose an extraordinary threat to this nation if made public, rendering them essentially useless, having a devastating effect on our intelligence community by providing critical intelligence to those who wish to do us harm,” US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said in a statement following the verdict. “Today, Schulte has been convicted for one of the most brazen and damaging acts of espionage in American history.”
Schulte maintained that he was framed because he had issues with the management during his time at the agency.
Vault 7 led people to question if the CIA’s hacking capabilities exceed its mandated powers and the problem of public oversight of the agency. The publication was so significant that former CIA Director Mike Pompeo and other US government officials allegedly requested “options” for kidnapping and/or killing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, according to a report from Yahoo News.
“As an American citizen, I find it absolutely outrageous that our government would be contemplating kidnapping or assassinating somebody without any judicial process simply because he had published truthful information,” Barry Pollack, Assange’s U.S. lawyer, told Yahoo News in response to their reporting.
CIA officials under Trump discussed assassinating Julian Assange
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 13, 2022
“By the end of 2016, the CIA’s hacking division, which formally falls under the agency’s Center for Cyber Intelligence (CCI), had over 5000 registered users and had produced more than a thousand hacking systems, trojans, viruses, and other ‘weaponized’ malware,” WikiLeaks reported at the time. “Such is the scale of the CIA’s undertaking that by 2016, its hackers had utilized more code than that used to run Facebook. The CIA had created, in effect, its ‘own NSA’ with even less accountability and without publicly answering the question as to whether such a massive budgetary spend on duplicating the capacities of a rival agency could be justified.”
The first part of the release was named “Year Zero” and contained over 8,000 documents revealing the agency’s spying, cyber weapon, and hacking techniques. This included the revelation that the agency could transform smart televisions into covert microphones to spy on their targets even when they appeared to be turned off — and covertly activate cameras and microphones on smart phones.
The documents also detailed how the agency could bypass the encryption of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wiebo, Confide and Cloackman by hacking the phones that they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is even applied.
“There is an extreme proliferation risk in the development of cyber ‘weapons,'” Assange said in a statement at the time of the release. “Comparisons can be drawn between the uncontrolled proliferation of such ‘weapons’, which results from the inability to contain them combined with their high market value, and the global arms trade. But the significance of ‘Year Zero’ goes well beyond the choice between cyberwar and cyberpeace. The disclosure is also exceptional from a political, legal and forensic perspective.”
The documents additionally revealed that as of October 2014 the CIA was also looking at infecting the vehicle control systems used by modern cars and trucks. “The purpose of such control is not specified, but it would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations,” WikiLeaks noted.
Assange has now been approved for extradition to the United States where he is also facing charges under the Espionage Act for his publication of the Iraq and Afghan War Logs. If convicted he could face a maximum sentence of 175 years for the “crime” of publishing the same information for which he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In a statement about the ruling, the Committee to Protect Journalists said “the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder (Julian #Assange) in the United States would set a deeply harmful legal precedent that would allow the prosecution of reporters for news gathering activities and must be stopped.”
Committee to Protect Journalists: “The prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder (Julian #Assange) in the United States would set a deeply harmful legal precedent that would allow the prosecution of reporters for news gathering activities and must be stopped” https://t.co/CkLErXEmkc
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 24, 2022
A date for Schulte’s sentencing hearing has not yet been announced.