Joshua Schulte was given a forty year sentence for allegedly passing documents that exposed nefarious CIA practices
Has been kept under brutal solitary confinement conditions in New York Metropolitan Correctional Center that violate human rights
A federal judge in New York in early February sentenced CIA whistleblower Joshua Schulte to a draconian 40 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of nine felony counts of espionage for passing to Wikileaks documents that became known as “Vault 7.” Schulte, who foolishly represented himself, faced up to 80 years. He still faces a state charge for alleged possession of child pornography.
The conviction and sentence raise several important questions. First, what does the length of the sentence mean for any other whistleblower who goes to the media to expose waste, fraud, abuse, or illegality? Second, what do the sentence and conviction portend in the case of Julian Assange, who is widely expected to be extradited to the United States in late February, and whose Wikileaks was the recipient of the Vault 7 information? And third, what does this all say about the revenge factor in espionage cases?
Schulte was accused of taking cyber spy data from the CIA because he was a “disgruntled employee” and because he couldn’t get along with his supervisor and coworkers. He reportedly resigned in a huff after an incident with a coworker caused the two to file protective orders against each other in state court in Virginia.
That was the prosecution’s narrative. But the evidence wasn’t so clear cut. Prosecutors had literally no evidence that Schulte had taken the data from the CIA and transferred it to Wikileaks. But they contended that he was a computer genius who was so brilliant that he was able to cover his tracks. That was enough for the jury.
CIA Deputy Director for Digital Innovation Sean Roche called the Vault 7 leak “a digital Pearl Harbor.” Chief prosecutor Damian Williams said the revelations were “one of the most brazen and damaging acts of espionage in American history.”
And Vice magazine said it was “the worst leak of CIA information ever.”
The CIA leadership apparently thought the leak was so damaging that then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo ordered the Agency to come up with a plan to kidnap or to kill Julian Assange in London. One former Trump Administration national security official said that Pompeo and other senior CIA leaders, “were completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7. They were seeing blood.”
So what was Vault 7? And why does the mainstream media refer to Schulte as a “leaker,” rather than as a “whistleblower?” Remember, there is a legal definition of whistleblowing: It is bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health and public safety.” Motivation is legally irrelevant.
Vault 7 was a series of 24 collections of documents totaling hundreds of thousands of pages that included the most sophisticated computer hacking, surveillance, and cyberwarfare tools that the CIA ever developed. Wikileaks published the first tranche, called “Year Zero,” on March 7, 2017. Just this first installment contained more information than all of that released by Edward Snowden and included vulnerabilities known to the CIA within web browsers, including Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera and the operating systems of most of the world’s cellphones, including Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
The fact that the CIA knew about these vulnerabilities and didn’t inform the companies was a violation of a longstanding policy that the Agency claims to have that it would assist U.S. tech companies with their security if it learned of security weaknesses. Instead, it exploited those problems in its digital operations. We have no idea if the Agency used these vulnerabilities to spy on Americans.
Ashley Gorski, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney said at the time, “Our government should be working to help the companies patch vulnerabilities when they are discovered, not stockpile them.”
A second Vault 7 revelation came on March 23, 2017 and included accounts of CIA efforts to hack Apple’s iPhones and Mac computers.
Additional tranches were released every week or two until September 2017. Their revelations included proof that the CIA was able to hack into cars’ computer systems and could take over control of the vehicle. Was the purpose of this to force the vehicle off the road? Off a cliff? Into a tree? The CIA never commented.
Still other documents showed how CIA officers could take over an unsuspecting person’s smart TV and turn its speaker into a microphone to surreptitiously bug a room, even while the television appeared to be turned off. Yet other documents showed that the CIA was running digital operations against the National Security Agency (NSA). It is unclear whether this was done as an exercise between the two agencies or if it was something more sinister.
Other revelations were that the CIA had created a program to track documents transferred by would-be whistleblowers to media outlets (the program is called “Scribblers”), malware that could take over and control computers using the Microsoft Windows 10 operating system (called “Athena”), and malware that could be transferred from one “clean” computer to another through internal systems that are otherwise protected by anti-virus software (called “Pandemic”).
Schulte’s revelations were not limited to software. He also revealed a program called “HammerDrill,” that injects a trojan horse onto CDs and DVDs and then documents information on the discs for later transmission to the CIA. An operation called “Dark Matter” revealed security vulnerabilities unique to Apple operating systems. And Schulte revealed that the CIA had compromised vulnerabilities in a huge range of Cisco Systems router models. Apple and Cisco have since spent untold millions of dollars to redesign their products and correct the security flaws.
Despite the fact that this was supposedly the worst data breach in the history of the CIA, Schulte and his revelations did not get much press play. There are several likely reasons for this. First, Schulte claimed innocence. He insisted that he was not a whistleblower and he has maintained throughout his ordeal that he did not provide Wikileaks with anything. Second, the state of New York, simultaneously with the federal charges, charged Schulte with multiple counts of child pornography, which has given many of Schulte’s natural supporters pause. All but one of those counts have been dropped.
Prosecutors maintained that they only discovered the pornography when they seized the computer hard drives in Schulte’s apartment while looking for Vault 7 information. Schulte’s defense to the child pornography charges will be that he considers himself to be a libertarian anarchist and that he set up a server to allow people unfettered “free speech,” something akin to the 4chan and 8chan servers. He maintains that he has not “received” or “disseminated” any child pornography personally. However, when child pornographers saw that Schulte’s server supported “unfettered free speech,” they used it to trade illegal images and videos. Schulte is adamant that none of the pornography was his. His protestations likely won’t matter.
In the meantime, Schulte has languished in a notorious federal prison, the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York, since October 2018. He will eventually be transferred to a maximum-security penitentiary for at least the first 17 years of his sentence.
Schulte is not treated like other prisoners in the MCC. When he goes to court, for example, he is required to wear shackles around his ankles and chains around his waist to which his handcuffed hands are attached, and his hands are then enclosed in a steel box that is itself locked separately.
In the Justice Department’s classified conference room, where he is required to meet his attorneys, he is chained to an eye bolt in the floor, just like the CIA does to al-Qaeda prisoners during their interrogations. He is not permitted to use the restroom during these visits. His guards give him a plastic bag at the start of the meetings, and if he has to go to the bathroom, he must urinate and defecate in the bag.
Schulte’s day-to-day existence is far more difficult. First, he has been subject to “Special Administrative Measures” (SAM) since his arrest. He is in solitary confinement in a cage in a small concrete box the size of a standard parking space 24 hours a day. He is allowed two showers a week and is not permitted to use the phone or email. He is not permitted to watch television or to listen to the radio. He is not permitted to have visitors other than his attorneys. He is not permitted to make purchases from the commissary.
There is a mechanism within the federal Bureau of Prisons by which to complain about these conditions. A prisoner must first fill out a form BP-8 ½, which goes to the person you are accusing of violating your rights, saying, “Hey, you violated my rights.” The response, of course, will be “No I didn’t.” You then have 14 days to file a Form BP-9, which goes to the warden. The warden, not surprisingly, almost always supports his staff member. You then have 60 days to file a Form BP-10, which goes to the Bureau of Prisons regional office. Once the prisoner loses there, which is almost guaranteed, he can file a Form BP-11, which goes to the Bureau of Prisons headquarters in Washington. No prisoner ever wins at BOP headquarters.
There are also ways in which the prisoner is routinely stymied in his attempt to file a complaint. The filing of every form is time sensitive, so the warden and others will withhold their responses, backdate them, and then send the responses to the prisoner so that he only has a day or two to respond. He can’t possibly get it done in time, so it’s dismissed as “not responsive in a timely fashion.” He has no recourse because the federal courts have ruled that a prisoner must exhaust the “administrative complaint process” before going to the courts. But if the complaint is dismissed by the BOP as “not responsive” because of time, he’s out of luck.
Schulte isn’t complaining just about the heavy-handed circumstances of his incarceration. He’s complaining about what his previous attorneys argued amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, perhaps torture.
They noted in a recent lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons that Schulte is “locked in a cage in a concrete box the size of a parking space with purposefully obstructed views of outside, the cages are filthy and infested with rodents, rodent droppings, cockroaches and mold; there is no heating or air conditioning in the cages, there is no functioning plumbing, the lights burn brightly 24 hours per day, and the inmates are denied normal visitation, access to books and legal material, medical care, and dental care. All attorney-client privilege is also void as the prison confiscates, opens, and reads all legal mail. The process imposed is arbitrary and not tailored to any legitimate government interest.”
The attorneys add that, “No matter what crime an individual is alleged to have committed, the United States Constitution grands all a presumption of innocence. Indeed, no American wants to be treated like a caged animal if accused of a crime—dependent, deserted, dehumanized, demoralized, and detained.”
That is exactly what Joshua Schulte is. He’s dependent, deserted, dehumanized, demoralized, and detained. He hasn’t seen an open window in four years. He hasn’t seen a doctor for his congenital heart defect in that period, either. He hasn’t seen a dentist. Denying him bail because of a fear that he might reveal classified information is one thing. Torture is another. How does it protect the national security to not allow him to see the sky for years at a time? How does it protect the national security to not allow him to see a doctor or dentist? How does forbidding him to read protect the national security? It doesn’t. It just proves that the United States has no respect for human rights or for the rule of law. As the meme goes, “Prove me wrong.”
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About the Author
John Kiriakou was a CIA analyst and case officer from 1990 to 2004.
In December 2007, John was the first U.S. government official to confirm that waterboarding was used to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners, a practice he described as torture.
Kiriakou was a former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former counter-terrorism consultant. While employed with the CIA, he was involved in critical counter-terrorism missions following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but refused to be trained in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” nor did he ever authorize or engage in such crimes.
After leaving the CIA, Kiriakou appeared on ABC News in an interview with Brian Ross, during which he became the first former CIA officer to confirm the existence of the CIA’s torture program. Kiriakou’s interview revealed that this practice was not just the result of a few rogue agents, but was official U.S. policy approved at the highest levels of the government.
Kiriakou is the sole CIA agent to go to jail in connection with the U.S. torture program, despite the fact that he never tortured anyone. Rather, he blew the whistle on this horrific wrongdoing.