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Former CIA engineer gets 40 years for giving agency's hacking secrets to WikiLeaks

NEW YORK — A former CIA software engineer was sentenced to 40 years in prison on Thursday after his convictions for what the government described as the biggest theft of classified information in CIA history and for possession of child sexual abuse images and videos.

The bulk of the sentence imposed on Joshua Schulte, 35, in Manhattan federal court came for an embarrassing public release of a trove of CIA secrets by WikiLeaks in 2017. He has been jailed since 2018.

"We will likely never know the full extent of the damage, but I have no doubt it was massive," Judge Jesse M. Furman said as he announced the sentence.

The so-called Vault 7 leak revealed how the CIA hacked Apple and Android smartphones in overseas spying operations, and efforts to turn internet-connected televisions into listening devices. Prior to his arrest, Schulte had helped create the hacking tools as a coder at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

In requesting a life sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney David William Denton Jr. said Schulte was responsible for "the most damaging disclosures of classified information in American history."

Given a chance to speak, Schulte complained mostly about harsh conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, calling his cell, "My torture cage."

But he also claimed that prosecutors had once offered him a plea deal that would have called for a 10-year prison sentence and that it was unfair of them to now seek a life term. He said he objected to the deal because he would have been required to relinquish his right to appeal.

"This is not justice the government seeks, but vengeance," Schulte said.

Immediately afterward, the judge criticized some of Schulte's half-hour of remarks, saying he was "blown away" by Schulte's "complete lack or remorse and acceptance of responsibility."

The judge said Schulte was "not driven by any sense of altruism," but instead was "motivated by anger, spite and perceived grievance" against others at the agency who he believed had ignored his complaints about the work environment.

Furman said Schulte continued his crimes from behind bars by trying to leak more classified materials and by creating a hidden file on his computer that contained 2,400 images of child sexual abuse that he continued to view from jail.

During a two-hour proceeding, Furman noted a one-page letter the government had forwarded from CIA Deputy Director David S. Cohen, who described Schulte's crimes as causing "exceptionally grave harm to U.S. national security and the CIA."

He added: "His actions cost the Agency hundreds of millions of dollars; degraded its ability to collect foreign intelligence against America's adversaries; placed directly at risk CIA personnel, programs, and assets; and jeopardized U.S. national security by degrading the CIA's ability to conduct its mission. In short, Mr. Schulte's actions inflicted heavy costs on the United States."

A mistrial was declared at Schulte's original 2020 trial after jurors deadlocked on the most serious counts, including illegal gathering and transmission of national defense information. He was convicted at a July 2022 trial of charges in connection with the classified leak.

Last fall, he was convicted in the case over the child sexual abuse images, which originated when a computer that Schulte possessed after he left the CIA and moved to New York from Virginia was found to contain the images and videos that he had downloaded from the internet from 2009 to March 2017.

The judge described that trial as "a bloodbath" in which "Mr. Schulte had no defense."

Yet, Furman noted, Schulte was unable to express remorse for those crimes either.

Of the 40 year sentence, Furman said the bulk of it was for the CIA theft while six years and eight months of it were for the convictions over the child sexual abuse materials.

In a statement afterward, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Schulte "betrayed his country by committing some of the most brazen, heinous crimes of espionage in American history."

"When the FBI caught him," Williams continued," Schulte doubled down and tried to cause even more harm to this nation by waging what he describe as an 'information' war' of publishing top secret information from behind bars."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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