Federal investigators believe a former CIA software engineer who is being held on child pornography charges is the leaker responsible for the largest loss of classified documents in the agency’s history, according to reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times. The leaked documents, which included details on the CIA’s hacking tools, were published by Wikileaks in March 2017 by Wikileaks under the codename “Vault 7.”
Joshua Schulte, 29, has not been charged in the leak case, but prosecutors say he remains a target of that investigation. Federal authorities searched his home last year and he was indicted in September on charges of possessing, receiving and transporting child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty and is in federal custody. Schulte has also denied any involvement in the leak.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Authorities Say They Believe Schulte Leaked Documents That Showed the CIA Could Take Over iPhones & Turn Smart TVs Into Surveillance Devices
Intelligence officials told The Washington Post the “Vault 7” leak was, “one of the most significant and potentially damaging leaks in the CIA’s history, exposing secret cyberweapons and spying techniques that might be used against the United States.”
The leaks showed that the CIA had developed software exploits that could be used to take over iPhones and turn smart phones into surveillance devices. Wikileaks pushed out the documents on Twitter in March 2017 using the “Vault 7” code name and embarrassing the agency and angering advocates for civil liberties.
Josh Schulte, who worked for six years in the CIA’s Engineering Development Group, which produced the tools that were made public, has denied he was involved in the leak. Prosecutors said in court documents they plan to file a new indictment in the next 45 days.
“This case has been dragging since August 2017,” Schulte’s attorney, Sabrina Shroff, of the federal public defender’s office, told The New York Times. “The government should be required to indict so Mr. Schulte has the opportunity to defend himself. Otherwise he is just languishing.”
The CIA searched Schulte’s Manhattan apartment just a week after the first leaks were published by Julian Assange’s organization. According to The Times, the search warrant application said Schulte was suspected of “distribution of national defense information,” and agents said they retrieved NSA and CIA paperwork, a computer, a tablet and other electronics. In January, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Laroche said in court, “the government immediately had enough evidence,” but Schulte has still not been charged.
According to Schulte, the government barred him from taking a trip to Mexico shortly after the Wikileaks postings. He believes investigators thought he was planning to flee the country, but he said the trip was a previously planned vacation with his brother.
“Due to these unfortunate coincidences the FBI ultimately made the snap judgment that I was guilty of the leaks and targeted me,” Schulte said in a statement posted to Facebook.
Schulte’s family told The Times they believe Schulte is being made to be a “scapegoat” for the CIA’s inability to keep its sensitive files secure. His father told the newspaper Schulte complained about security vulnerabilities at the CIA, first to his bosses and then to the agency’s inspector general and a House intelligence committee member. The Times was given evidence of those communications by Schulte’s family.
Schulte said in documents posted online that he reported “incompetent management and bureaucracy” at the CIA and then left the agency in 2016 after he was painted as a disgruntled employee. He said after the leaks, suspicion fell on him because he was “the only one to have recently departed [the CIA engineering group] on poor terms,” according to Schulte’s statement.
“I am just scared to death,” Roger Schulte told The Times. “I think he’s innocent of all these crimes, as far as everything I’ve seen.”
According to The Washington Post, prosecutors said in court in January that the investigation into Schulte is “ongoing” and he “remains a target of that investigation.” The prosecutor also disagreed with Schulte’s attorney’s “characterization” that the “search warrants haven’t yielded anything that is consistent with [Schulte’s] involvement in that disclosure.”
Laroche, the federal prosecutor, told the judge investigators are analyzing whether Tor, software that hides the user’s location and allows for anonymous communication, “was used in transmitting classified information,” according to court documents. Prosecutors said they have evidence Schulte used Tor in his Manhattan apartment, but not that he used it to share classified documents. Schulte’s attorneys say Tor is used for all kinds of communications and denied that he used it to leak the CIA data.
You can read the transcript from the January 2018 hearing below:
Nicholas Weaver, an International Computer Science Institute researcher, told The New York Times that Wikileaks and exaggerated the danger to civil liberties, saying they were designed to go after a small number of high-profile targets. Weaver called the tools, “creative but not really special” and designed for “very targeted espionage,” according to The Times. But he said the leak was significant because it came after security was tightened following the Edward Snowden disclosures.
“Somebody managed to walk out with a huge amount of secret data from a C.I.A. facility,” he told The Times, adding that if the leaker has been identified, “that is very reassuring.”
The CIA and the Justice Department have not commented about Schulte and the ongoing leak case. When the “Vault 7” leaks were made public, the CIA said in a statement, “The American public should be deeply troubled by any WikiLeaks disclosure designed to damage the Intelligence Community’s ability to protect America against terrorists and other adversaries.”
2. He Is Accused of Housing 10,000 Files of Child Porn on a Server He Created & Maintained, but He Says 50 to 100 People Had Access to It
Federal authorities say they found more than 10,000 child pornography files on a server he created in 2009 when he was in college. The server was started as a business by Schulte in order to share movies and other digital files, according to The Washington Post. Schulte said although he created the server and maintained it, 50 to 100 people had access to the server. Investigators provided messages in court documents suggesting Schulte was aware there were encrypted images of children being molested by adults, but in one message he told a user, “Just don’t put anything too illegal on there.”
Schulte’s father, Roger, told The New York Times, his son created the serve when he was 20 and “had so many people accessing it he didn’t care what people put on it.”
Schulte was indicted in the Southern District of New York on three charges – receipt of child pornography, possession of child pornography and transportation of child pornography. Each of the charges carry a potential sentence of between 5 to 20 years in federal prison. You can read the criminal complaint below (Warning – Contains explicit and graphic details about the child pornography investigators say they found):
According to the complaint, the FBI found an encrypted 54 gigabyte folder in a server located on Schulte’s desktop computer. Agents were able to get around the encryption by using passwords found on Schulte’s cell phone. He had consented to a search of the phone. It contained more than 10,000 files that the FBI said “appear consistent with child pornography,” including images and videos. The files were organized into folders with titles like, “kids” and “young” and subfolders like “13yo in bath” and “11yr old.”
FBI Special Agent Jeff Donaldson wrote in the complaint, “Within the Encrypted Container, the (Crimes Against Children Squad) Agents also identified documents that contained links to numerous illicit websites (the “Websites”). Based on the CACS Agents’ training, experience, and familiarity with the Websites, they believe that some of the Websites have been used to access, view, and download child pornography, as well as other types of pornography. Based on a forensic review of the Desktop Computer, some of the Websites known to contain child pornography appear to have been accessed by the user of the Desktop Computer.”
According to Donaldson, during an interview with agents, “Schulte was asked what he maintained inside the encrypted portions of the Desktop Computer. He responded that he used the encrypted portions of his Desktop Computer to store pornography. He further claimed that he encrypted it because he did not want his family to find it. When asked if he would be willing to provide investigators with the password to the encrypted portions of the Desktop Computer, he declined.”
3. Schulte Graduated from the University of Texas in 2011, Spent a Year at the NSA & Worked at the CIA Until 2016, When He Took a Software Engineer Job at Bloomberg LP
Joshua Adam Schulte is originally from Lubbock, Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011 with a computer engineering degree, according to his Linkedin profile. While in college, Schulte worked as a software engineer at IBM from March 2008 to November 2009.
He began working in the federal government while still in school. His first job in the intelligence community was at the National Security Agency from January 2010 to May 2010. On Linkedin he said he was “employed within the Technology directorate (T) as a systems engineer. Administered and maintained high-speed passive signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection systems on Linux (Red Hat Enterprise) servers.”
From May 2010 to November 2016 he worked at the Central Intelligence Agency as a software engineer. On Linkedin he said he was “employed within the National Clandestine Service (NCS) as a Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) Intelligence Officer,” and, “developed a multitude of Quick Reactions Capabilities (QRCs) in C/C++ for both Windows and Linux systems to support clandestine operations.”
In a statement posted on Facebook on Schulte’s behalf, he said he joined the intelligence community to fulfill what he saw as a patriotic duty to respond to the 9/11 attacks. After leaving the CIA in November 2016, he began a job as a senior software engineer at Bloomberg LP, afinancial software, data and media company, in New York, a job he held up until his arrest on the federal child pornography charges. Bloomberg has not commented about Schlute.
4. He Wrote About His Libertarian & Anti-Obama Views, Including His Thoughts on Pornography & Privacy, on a Blog While in College
Schulte uses the handle “pedbsktbll” on several social media sites, including a now-deleted Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Blogspot page he created in 2008.
On the blog, which he has not used since 2010, Schulte criticized President Barack Obama and big government, explaining his libertarian political views. He wrote in 2008, “This is my first blog, and I don’t expect it to be anything amazing. I decided to create this blog primarily to record my own thoughts about life. I’ll rant about a number of things from politics, to technical issues, to philosophy and beyond. My content may offend some, and others may agree with it. Frankly, I don’t care either way. These are my thoughts based on my life experiences.”
Also in 2008 he wrote a post titled, “My Libertarian ideology,” where he laid out his views on politics and other issues, including privacy and pornography. He said in his introduction to the post:
I can best be categorized as socially moderate and fiscally conservative. Small government is paramount to ensuring liberty and personal freedom. The basis for my views and beliefs come from the utilitarian school of thought. I consider myself an ethical relativist, since there are no universal moral truths. It is impossible and foolish to claim otherwise, as cultures all over the world have come upon their belief systems in a very similar manor. There are still tribes of people who believe it is moral to sacrifice one’s self, or to murder, etc. Although the Western Civilization has difficulty comprehending such societies- These principles are not ‘wrong’ simply because there is no ‘right.’ Humans are not born with intimate knowledge of society. We grow up in special environments, and adapt to whatever culture we belong to. If you swap infants from completely different cultures, they will assimilate into their new culture without any observable differences.. and they accept this culture as ‘correct.’
He wrote, “Is pornography harmful to society? I believe that pornography is fundamentally protected by the first amendment of the United States constitution, that pornography promotes freedom of speech and liberty, that pornography is not degrading to women, and that it does not incite violence. … If women want to be in sex videos, if women want to have sex outside of marriage, if women want to have sex without love, if women want to contribute to pornography, then they have every right to do so. Porn stars obviously enjoy what they do, and they make quite a bit of money off it. Who are you to tell someone what they can or cannot do with their own body? I believe in the equality of men and women, and women do not need any special protections under the law. Women are competent, and should be free to choose what they do with their own body, and free to make any binding legal contracts. Thus, pornography falls under the jurisdiction of the first amendment, and should not be made illegal.”
Here’s what he wrote about privacy:
Privacy is a major concern for many American citizens. As Richard Posner says, protecting the liberty or rights of one requires restricting others’ liberty. Where does one individual’s rights end and another’s begin? For instance, when does ‘free speech’ become harassment? Posner states that privacy is a means to control information about an individual. He believes businesses should have more privacy protections and individuals should have less, which is far from the case today. I believe people should have some control over their own information (credit score, criminal record, accumulated wealth, etc.), but some of it should be easily accessible by others. For instance, what if businesses were unable to access criminal records and verify who was a convicted felon? Or if sex offenders did not have to register?
In my opinion, privacy and individual security are antithetical. Increasing one ultimately decreases the other. Technology is also a deterrent on privacy. As technology has increased, personal information has become more readily available to the public. Also, law enforcement agencies have used technology to their advantage in criminal investigations (cameras, wire/phone tap, virtual spying, etc.). We must decide which liberties and privacy we wish to retain, and which we wish to forfeit in order to increase security and decrease crime. For example, if we decide to legalize red-light cameras, we will forfeit some of our freedom and privacy, but people who break the law will be easier to catch and prosecute.
He also wrote about the “Failures of American Democracy,” about Obamacare and “The Naive Left.”
In one post he wrote, “Our government is drunk on power, and greedy for whatever you will allow them to take. They no longer require your vote for power; Obama has demonstrated time and time again that he will simply do whatever he wishes. As with his czars, Obama is socializing America… taking freedoms one at a time until you wake up to find that Orwell’s dystopia was only several decades off. I fear for the future. Wake up America… Wake up before it’s too late.”
In another he wrote, “It’s revolting how this administration has absolutely no regard for the constitution whatsoever. I mean, Obama never even released his birth certificate, a prerequisite for becoming President. He has trampled the damn thing since he’s been in office as well. I mean, he has a team of fucking czars. Czars! This term is known most from the emperors who ruled Russia– So, Obama sees himself as someone who transcends Kings? But of course, most of MSM will tell you he is the messiah… So, ‘God’ may not be a title far off. So, what? He decided to appoint a team of ‘Kings’ with unlimited power to do his bidding. Does that sound like America? How about the idea of telling you how much money you are allowed to make? His pay czar is already enforcing such policies with banks and financial institutions. Who the fuck are they to tell you how much money you can make? Whatever happened to the free markets? Innovation? The concept that if you work your ass off, then the sky is the limit? Well, not anymore. Obama sets the limit well before take-off.”
In his last post, he wrote, “Liberals often remind me of myself… when I was 10. They’re often considered intellectuals, and sited as earning more college and professional degrees than conservatives. Liberals enjoy bashing conservatives as dumbass rednecks who can’t possibly think on the same levels as the brilliant liberals… Though, if you take a quick peak into both sides’ fundamentals.. you’ll find that the opposite is true: The liberal mind is a naive mind that lives in a fantasy of theory.”
On a Twitter account he hasn’t used since August 2017, he shared several posts from the rightwing conspiracy site “The Gateway Pundit.” His profile photo features a photo of Obama with his hands on his hips superimposed on a burnt out landscape with the words, “My work here is done.”
Schulte also streamed videos of him playing online games on his Youtube channel under the “pedbsktbll” name.
5. Schulte, Who Has Been Held in Federal Custody Since a Judge Ruled He Violated His Bond in December, Started a Facebook Page Where He Criticizes the Government’s Case Against Him
Schulte was released on $250,000 bond with conditions that he not leave New York City, where he lived with his cousin, and that he stay off of computers, according to court documents. He was taken into custody in December 2018 after prosecutors found evidence he violated those rules and a judge ordered him detained until trial. He has been held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan since then.
While in custody, a GoFundMe campaign and a Facebook page were set up by someone on Schulte’s behalf, according to The Washington Post and New York Times reports. The Facebook page, created on April 20, is called “John Galt’s Legal Defense Fund,” and includes seven documents written by Schulte that are critical of the case against him and of the American judicial system. “The American Judicial System is unjust and needs a major overhaul,” the page states.
On GoFundMe, a fundraiser seeking $50 million, is called “Galt Criminal Justice Reform” and states its goal is, “To radically reform the corrupt criminal justice system in the United States.”