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40 years in prison for ex-CIA coder who leaked hacking tools to WikiLeaks

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seal is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia (SAUL LOEB)
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seal is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia (SAUL LOEB)

A former CIA programmer was sentenced to 40 years in prison on Thursday for leaking the US spy agency's most valuable hacking tools to WikiLeaks.

Joshua Schulte, 35, was found guilty in 2022 of espionage and other charges in what the CIA called a "digital Pearl Harbor" -- the largest data breach in the history of the intelligence agency.

"Schulte betrayed his country by committing some of the most brazen, heinous crimes of espionage in American history," US 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."

US District Judge Jesse Furman sentenced Schulte to 40 years in prison for espionage, computer hacking, contempt of court, making false statements to the FBI and child pornography.

Schulte worked for the CIA'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, he 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 leaked data included a collection 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, they said.

Schulte was an early suspect after WikiLeaks began publishing the secrets, but was quietly charged in September 2017 only with having a large cache of child pornography on his computer.

Charges related to the theft and transmission of national defense information, under the Espionage Act, were added later.

In 2020, a jury convicted him on two lesser charges of lying and contempt of court, but it was hung on the other charges.

In 2022, a new jury convicted Schulte on eight counts under the Espionage Act and one count of obstruction. He was convicted of child pornography charges last year.

The leak spurred the US government to consider tough action against WikiLeaks, which then-CIA director Mike Pompeo called a "hostile intelligence service."

The US government then moved to indict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on espionage charges. Assange is currently in Britain fighting extradition to the United States.

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