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Former CIA employee given 40-year term for giving secrets to WikiLeaks

Joshua Schulte (C) is seen in this courtroom sketch created in March 2020 seated at the defense table during a hearing in New York City. (File photo by AP)

A former CIA software engineer tried for leaking the US spy agency’s most valuable hacking tools to WikiLeaks has been sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The hefty sentence handed down to Joshua Schulte, 35, included “crimes of espionage, computer hacking, contempt of court, making false statements to the FBI, and child pornography,” federal prosecutors said in a statement on Thursday.

They said the whistleblower was responsible for the CIA’s largest data leak in its history.

In 2022, Schulte was found guilty of espionage and other charges in what the CIA referred to as the “digital Pearl Harbor” – in reference to a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service in 1941.

“Schulte betrayed his country by committing some of the most brazen, heinous crimes of espionage in American history,” Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement. “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.”

The former CIA employee, who had studied at the University of Texas in Austin, worked in the agency's elite hacking unit from 2012 to 2016, when he quietly took cyber tools used to break into computer and technology systems, according to court documents. After quitting his job, Schulte sent them to WikiLeaks, which began publishing the classified data in March 2017.

“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,” prosecutors said.

The data leaked by Schulte was comprised of malware, viruses, trojans, and “zero day” exploits that, once leaked out, were available for use by foreign intelligence groups, hackers and cyber extortionists around the world, prosecutors said.

After WikiLeaks began publishing the leaks, Schulte was quietly charged in September 2017 for the child pornography on his computer. The other charges related to the theft and transmission of national defense information were later added.

In 2020, a jury convicted Schulte on two lesser charges of lying and contempt of court, but it was hung on the other charges, and in 2022, a new jury convicted Schulte on eight counts under the Espionage Act and one count of obstruction. In 2023, Schulte was convicted for the child pornography charges.

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