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Ex-C.I.A. Analyst Faces Trial in Biggest Leak of Agency’s History


Three years ago, WikiLeaks published thousands of pages of secret documents about how the Central Intelligence Agency hacks into overseas targets, revealing its ability to compromise smartphones and turn certain televisions into listening devices.

The breach, known as the Vault 7 leak, was the largest illegal disclosure of C.I.A. information in the spy agency’s history and caused “catastrophic” damage to national security, the government said.

This week, Joshua Schulte, a 31-year-old computer engineer who worked at the C.I.A., goes on trial in federal court in Manhattan to defend against charges that he was the leaker. Opening statements were expected on Tuesday.

When the documents went public in March 2017, WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization, said in a statement that the source of the information wanted to raise “policy questions that need to be debated in public, including whether the C.I.A.’s hacking capabilities exceeded its mandated powers.”

Prosecutors, however, say Mr. Schulte was a disgruntled C.I.A. employee who stole the documents as retaliation because he felt management did not take his workplace complaints seriously. He quit the job in 2016, four months before the WikiLeaks disclosures.

The trial will delve into the C.I.A.’s shadowy cyberoperations, as prosecutors seek to retrace the steps that they say Mr. Schulte took to extract the documents. Mr. Schulte worked in the C.I.A.’s Engineering Development Group and designed hacking tools, including malware that targeted the computers of suspected terrorists.

The trial will expose the inner workings of an agency that relies on secrecy. Witnesses will include covert C.I.A. employees who will testify under pseudonyms.

“This prosecution is significant,” said David I. Miller, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan and a former C.I.A. lawyer. “It’s not an everyday occurrence that there’s a federal criminal trial involving the testimony of multiple current and former CIA employees.”

During the testimony of C.I.A. witnesses, reporters will not be allowed to describe their physical appearance. Their identities are so sensitive that prosecutors told Mr. Schulte’s lawyers they could not search for the witnesses on the internet in a way that would link their real names with the C.I.A.

Mr. Schulte faces 11 criminal counts at trial, including stealing classified information from the C.I.A. and lying to the F.B.I.

He has pleaded not guilty. In court papers, Mr. Schulte’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, has said that her client did not leak classified information, and that other C.I.A. employees had access to the same computer systems as Mr. Schulte.

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Mr. Schulte’s family members previously told The New York Times that he had reported security vulnerabilities to C.I.A. officials and was being made a scapegoat for the agency’s inability to protect its data.

Mr. Schulte became the primary suspect within days of the WikiLeaks disclosure. Investigators obtained a search warrant to enter his New York City apartment, where they found dozens of electronic devices and more than 10,000 images and videos of child pornography, buried under three levels of encryption.

The authorities arrested him in August 2017 on child-pornography charges. At the time, he was working as a senior software engineer for Bloomberg L.P.

Prosecutors did not charge Mr. Schulte with stealing C.I.A. documents until 10 months later, a sign that they most likely struggled early on to build a case against him. He will be tried separately on the child-pornography charges. (His former lawyer had argued that he ran a business hosting a computer server for others and did not know what users were putting on the server.)

After Mr. Schulte’s arrest, he was released into home confinement, but got thrown in jail a few months later after he violated a federal judge’s order not to use the internet without the court’s permission.

The case then took a bizarre turn. While in jail, he and another inmate smuggled in contraband cellphones, prosecutors said, allowing Mr. Schulte to create a Twitter account under the name Jason Bourne, a fictional movie character who worked as a C.I.A. operative.

He posted on social media to accuse the government of planting child pornography on his computer, according to court filings.

He also called reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post to share sensitive information about the investigation, prosecutors alleged, and later disclosed classified information to his parents and others.

The Justice Department asked that Mr. Schulte be placed in solitary confinement within the jail unit reserved for the most high-risk, dangerous detainees. Two of the criminal charges against him relate to allegations involving his conduct during incarceration.

At trial, the government intends to show jurors Mr. Schulte’s writings from notebooks he kept in jail. In one of them, he wrote that if the government did not pay him $50 billion in restitution, he would “visit every country in the world” and try to break up “diplomatic relationships, close embassies, and U.S. occupation across the world.”

The notebooks could help prosecutors establish a necessary element to convict Mr. Schulte of stealing the C.I.A. documents — that he acted with the intent of either harming the United States or helping a foreign country.

Mr. Schulte’s lawyers fought repeatedly to keep them out of the trial, saying his hundreds of pages of private musings were taken out of context and never disseminated.

A native of Texas, Mr. Schulte graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in computer engineering, according to a government filing. He worked for six years at the C.I.A., where he had the highest security clearances.

The trial testimony will take jurors inside the office politics of the C.I.A.

Mr. Schulte began feuding with a co-worker in the summer of 2015, a dispute that escalated after the co-worker complained to Mr. Schulte’s supervisor about his workplace behavior, prosecutors said. Mr. Schulte responded by telling C.I.A. security officials that the co-worker had made a death threat against him.

Mr. Schulte accused his bosses of favoritism, complaining that he got put on the “intern desk” while the other employee got a “prestigious desk with a window,” prosecutors said.

Mr. Schulte was also angry that the C.I.A. hired a contractor to develop a tool similar to one that he was trying to develop.

Some of his colleagues complained about Mr. Schulte using racial slurs at work, according to prosecutors. Mr. Schulte’s lawyer responded in a court filing by saying the culture within Mr. Schulte’s C.I.A. group “included the frequent use of language that would be considered racist and inappropriate in any other workplace.”

As his workplace problems snowballed, prosecutors said, Mr. Schulte downloaded the internal documents on an evening in April 2016, attempted to erase his digital fingerprints and later gave the files to WikiLeaks.

The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, was criminally charged last year by federal prosecutors in Virginia in a separate case for his role in obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents in 2010.

In an unusual move, Mr. Schulte has already said in court filings that he plans to testify in his own defense.

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