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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

CIA staffer sentenced to 40 years for leaking US hacking secrets

Joshua Schulte has been accused of the largest theft of classified data in the spy agency’s history

A former CIA software engineer who embarrassed his employer by allegedly giving a massive trove of classified information to WikiLeaks has been sentenced to 40 years in prison by a New York judge.

US District Court Judge Jesse Furman handed down the sentence against Joshua Schulte on Thursday, falling short of the life prison term that federal prosecutors had requested. Schulte, who was accused of carrying out the largest theft of US secrets in the CIA’s history, was convicted on charges of espionage, computer hacking, contempt of court, making false statements to the FBI, and possessing child pornography.

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Schulte, 35, was allegedly the source behind the so-called Vault 7 release by WikiLeaks in 2017, which exposed the methods used by the CIA to hack smartphones and other devices. The bombshell report exposed how the US spied on foreign governments, terrorism suspects and other targets, creating a major embarrassment for Washington’s intelligence agencies. It also reportedly triggered a secret CIA plot to kidnap or assassinate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Prior to his arrest in 2018, Schulte had helped create the hacking tools that he later exposed to WikiLeaks. The CIA tactics included efforts to turn so-called smart TVs – televisions with online connectivity – into listening devices. Prosecutors claimed he was behind “the most damaging disclosures of classified information in American history.”

Schulte argued during his July 2022 trial that the CIA and FBI were making him a scapegoat for a humiliating leak of data that could have been stolen by hundreds of other people. He claimed, too, that he had no motive to carry out such a leak. During Thursday’s sentencing hearing, he complained of horrible conditions in his New York jail cell, which he called a “torture cage,” and he said prosecutors were seeking “vengeance” after previously offering him a plea bargain calling for a 10-year prison sentence.

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Furman found that Schulte was motivated by “anger, spite and perceived grievance” against his CIA bosses after they ignored his complaints about working conditions. After being jailed in 2018, the ex-programmer continued trying to leak classified materials in what prosecutors called an “information war” with the US government, the judge said.

While executing a search warrant in the espionage case, FBI investigators allegedly found an encrypted cache of more than 3,000 images and videos depicting child sexual abuse on Schulte’s home computer, according to prosecutors. More than six years of his 40-year prison sentence stemmed from the pornography charges.

Although Furman didn’t grant the request by the US Department of Justice to imprison Schulte for life, he did agree to apply a “terrorism enhancement,” a legal provision that allows harsher sentences for terrorism-related offenses.

Assange, who has been jailed in London since 2019 while fighting extradition to the US, faces up to 175 years in prison on 17 espionage charges.