Feb 1, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Ex-CIA hacker who leaked secrets to WikiLeaks gets 40 years in prison

A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seal in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

A former CIA software engineer who was convicted of carrying out the largest data breach in the agency's history was sentenced to 40 years in prison on Thursday, the Department of Justice announced.

The big picture: Joshua Adam Schulte's "transmission of that stolen information to WikiLeaks is one of the largest unauthorized disclosures of classified information in the history of the United States," the DOJ noted in a statement.

  • The 35-year-old New Yorker was sentenced to 480 months in prison for crimes of espionage, computer hacking, contempt of court, making false statements to the FBI and child pornography.

Context: The sentencing follows his convictions at trials that concluded in March 2020, July 2022 and last September.

Driving the news: Prosecutors alleged in court documents that Schulte stole copies of the entire Center for Cyber Intelligence tool development archives, deleting hundreds of files in an attempt to cover his tracks, before sending the stolen files to WikiLeaks.

  • Schulte was then transferred to another division from the CCI in 2016 after being found to have abused his administrator powers.
  • WikiLeaks began publishing classified data from the stolen CIA files in 2017. There were a total of 26 disclosures of classified data from these files, referred to as "Vault 7 and Vault 8."

Zoom in: Schulte repeatedly lied during interviews following the leak by denying any involvement in the breach.

  • He also spun fake narratives about what might have happened in an attempt to deflect suspicion, prosecutors said.

Of note: "Schulte's theft and disclosure immediately and profoundly damaged the CIA's ability to collect foreign intelligence against America's adversaries; placed CIA personnel, programs, and assets directly at risk; and cost the CIA hundreds of millions of dollars," the DOJ said.

  • The "disclosure caused exceptionally grave harm to the national security of the United States," the Justice Department added.
  • A former CIA deputy director of digital innovation described the leak during Schulte's trial as a "digital Pearl Harbor."

Between the lines: The leaks were largely inconsequential, with most being instruction manuals for old hacking tools, but the size of the breach left some officials comparing it to that of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

What they're saying: U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York said in a statement that Schulte "betrayed his country by committing some of the most brazen, heinous crimes of espionage in American history."

  • He "caused untold damage to our national security in his quest for revenge against the CIA for its response to Schulte's security breaches while employed there," Williams said.
  • "When the FBI caught him, Schulte doubled down and tried to cause even more harm to this nation by waging what he described as an 'information war' of publishing top secret information from behind bars," Williams added.
  • "And all the while, Schulte collected thousands upon thousands of videos and images of children being subjected to sickening abuse for his own personal gratification."

Go deeper: Security failures led to biggest information breach in CIA history in 2016

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