Price of Coming Forward: Joshua Schulte’s Past Whistleblowing Comes Back to Haunt Him

NEW YORK – On Tuesday, the New York Times and Washington Post publicly identified the U.S. government’s prime and only suspect in the leaks of CIA documents to the transparency organization WikiLeaks. Joshua Schulte, a former CIA software engineer, has been suspected of being the WikiLeaks source since last year, when authorities raided his Manhattan apartment just one week after the first batch of the documents, known collectively as “Vault 7,” were released last March.

Vault 7 has been a sore spot in the U.S. intelligence community since it broke, largely because it was the “largest ever publication of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents,” one that detailed the CIA’s global and covert hacking program as well as its arsenal of hacking tools and exploits.

As MintPress reported at the time, one of the agency’s capabilities revealed by Vault 7 was the CIA’s ability to leave the “fingerprints” of foreign governments on hacks the CIA itself had conducted. The revelation of this capacity cast immediate doubt on the evidence that the Russian government had hacked the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In addition, the leak represented an unparalleled embarrassment for the agency, particularly after the high-profile leaks of NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden and the measures taken by the government to prevent a repeat occurrence. The sensitive nature of the case is a likely reason as to why Schulte continues to be in government crosshairs despite the lack of evidence against him.

Indeed, Schulte has still not been charged or cleared in connection with the Vault 7 leaks, more than a year after his initial arrest, despite the fact that investigators have had access to electronic audit trails from the CIA that may indicate who stole the files, as well as Schulte’s personal data, for several months. To date, the only evidence linking Schulte to the Vault 7 release is the fact that he had used the encrypted Tor browser at some point and that he had complained about CIA security vulnerabilities through the proper channels years prior to the WikiLeaks release.

Schulte is currently in custody after violating a judge’s rule to refrain from using computers, in connection with an unrelated charge filed against him over his alleged possession of child pornography. That charge claims that 10,000 illicit images were stored on a server Schulte had set up for file-sharing in 2009. However, as many as 100 people besides Schulte had access to that server.

There is also evidence that suggests Schulte was unlikely to have leaked CIA information to WikiLeaks. For instance, the Twitter account that authorities have linked to Schulte called for the murder of WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning back in 2010. “Of course he should be executed,” Schulte has said regarding the transgender soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning. “Kill the prick,” he tweeted of Manning on another occasion.

Schulte also tweeted on a separate occasion a call for WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange to be charged with espionage. Given those comments, it seems unlikely that Schulte would choose to become a source for WikiLeaks.

Another likely reason Schulte may indeed be innocent is mentioned in the release of Vault 7 itself. Upon the first release of Vault 7, WikiLeaks noted that the CIA had “lost control” of its hacking tools and exploits, leading it to have been “circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.” Thus, the unauthorized sharing of the material WikiLeaks obtained could have come from a variety of sources, not necessarily Schulte. However, as noted earlier, Schulte appears to have been singled out because of his earlier attempts to raise his concerns with his superiors about security vulnerabilities present at the agency.


Framed? The tactic of cyber-planting

While the case against Schulte in relation to Vault 7 has yet to emerge, it appears that he may go to prison on unrelated charges of child pornography. However, those charges may actually be related.

The pornographic images allegedly found on that server could have been planted there, especially given the fact that as many as a hundred people had access to the server. The “planting” of child pornography on computers to harm an individual’s reputation or get them arrested has precedent. For instance, there are several cases where malware that planted child pornography on computers led to the arrests of individuals who were later acquitted when the real culprit was found.

Such tactics have allegedly been used by governments to silence dissidents as well. For instance, U.S. media widely reported the allegation that the Russian government was planting child pornography on the computers of dissidents in order to discredit them and subject them to prison time and police investigations. Given that the FBI has both run child pornography websites from government servers as part of past investigations and has framed suspects in the past, the U.S. government may too engage in such practices when politically expedient.

In Schulte’s case, in particular, the probability that the child pornography was planted on his computer by the government is augmented by the fact that the images were only found by the federal government months after government prosecutors had failed to scrounge together enough evidence to charge Schulte with espionage for allegedly leaking the Vault 7 content to WikiLeaks. Indeed, Schulte’s apartment and devices were raided last March, while he was not charged with child pornography until last August, over five months later.

Indeed, the CIA, looking to mend the damage caused by the Vault 7 releases, has been eager to finger the leaker. As Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, told The New York Times on Tuesday, the “real significance” of Vault 7 is that the leak occurred after the tightened security measures were put in place after Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA documents to journalists. Weaver noted that if the leaker has been identified, “that is very reassuring.” This suggests that government, and the CIA in particular, may be more interested in having in custody someone to blame for the leaks, not necessarily the right person.


A very chilling effect

What is most troubling about Schulte’s case, however, is the precedent that it could set for future would-be whistleblowers, particularly those that seek to expose government wrongdoing or waste through the proper channels. The only evidence tying Schulte to Vault 7 – even after the raiding of his apartment and his electronic devices – was the fact that he had previously complained to Congress about the CIA’s security vulnerabilities through all of the proper channels – his superiors, the agency’s inspector general, and finally the House Intelligence Committee.

This sets a dangerous precedent, whereby any government workers or contractors could find themselves accused of leaking or espionage merely because they had previously sought to bring legitimate problems to the attention of their superiors. The message here to government workers or contractors seems to be that they should just keep quiet unless they want to become potential targets of a future investigation.

Top Photo | Photos of Joshua Schulte from his now deleted social media profiles.

Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.



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