A former CIA software engineer charged with causing the biggest theft of classified information in CIA history defended himself at the start of his trial Tuesday, telling jurors he was falsely accused and the victim of a political witch hunt.
Joshua Schulte, 33, said he was singled out for investigation and arrested on espionage charges because of his clashes with CIA management before the 2017 public release of a trove of CIA secrets by WikiLeaks. At a previous trial, a jury deadlocked on espionage charges but convicted him of lesser contempt and false statement charges.
He said the government had built a case that was “literally forensically impossible” after singling him out for prosecution as the guilty party during a “political witch hunt” and then working backward to present jurors with “an alternative reality, an upside-down world, a government twilight zone.”
“The trial evidence will absolutely prove my innocence,” Schulte told jurors in Manhattan federal court. “Because I am in fact innocent.”
Schulte made his opening statement after Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton told the jury that the evidence would prove that Schulte was responsible for an unprecedented leak that brought critical intelligence gathering around the world “to a crashing halt.”
He said years of work and millions of dollars spent to develop tools that enabled the CIA’s digital sleuths to spy on foreign adversaries “went up in smoke” as Schulte gave “precious secrets of America’s national defense” to the world.
The so-called Vault 7 leak revealed how the CIA hacked Apple and Android smartphones in overseas spying operations and efforts to turn internet-connected televisions into listening devices.
Prior to his arrest, Schulte worked as a coder at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Denton portrayed the government’s case against Schulte as airtight, saying there was “devastating proof of this man’s crimes.”
He said Schulte was motivated to leak the materials because he believed the CIA had disrespected him. So he tried “to burn to the ground” the very work he had helped the agency to create, the prosecutor said.
Denton said Schulte, after his arrest, continued his crimes by trying to leak additional classified materials from prison as he carried on an “information war” against the government.
But Schulte contested the portrayal, saying he was inspired to serve his country ever since the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, when as a 12-year-old boy in the 7th grade, he vowed to do whatever he could to prevent another day like that.
Hired by the CIA in 2010, Schulte said he worked on a team that helped verify the location of Osama bin Laden before the al-Qaida leader was killed in a U.S. overnight raid in Pakistan.
“No one has ever questioned my loyalty or patriotism,” he said, adding “That is until now.”
Clad in a coat and tie, he also decried his treatment for the last five years in federal jails, telling jurors: “My very life is in our hands. Put yourself in my shoes.”
After the jury was sent home for the day, Judge Jesse M. Furman told Schulte he had at times crossed the line between testifying and presenting an opening statement and warned him to be more careful going forward.