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Jury in CIA leaks case fails to reach a verdict on most serious charges

NEW YORK - A jury in New York failed to reach a verdict Monday on whether a former CIA employee gave government hacking tools to WikiLeaks, in what officials had called the biggest leak of classified information in the intelligence agency's history.

Jurors, who had begun their deliberations last week, told Judge Paul Crotty that they were "extremely deadlocked" on many of the charges. Joshua Schulte, 31, had been accused of disclosing the hacking tools and also disclosing information to a reporter at The Washington Post while in jail awaiting trial.

The jury did find Schulte guilty on two counts of making false statements to investigators and contempt of court. But the failure to reach a unanimous agreement on the most serious charges of disclosing classified information was a significant blow to the government's case.

Crotty declared a mistrial on the remaining eight counts. The government is expected to try Schulte again on those charges. A conference was set for March 26 to determine next steps.

A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

In a trial that lasted more than a month, prosecutors portrayed Schulte, 31, as a disgruntled employee bent on vengeance after his bosses failed to take his side in a dispute with a CIA co-worker.

The jury signaled last week that they were having trouble reaching a unanimous agreement on all of the charges. The judge dismissed one juror who indicated she may have been reading about the case outside of deliberations, which the judge had prohibited.

The juror later said that the government had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Schulte gave the hacking tools to WikiLeaks.

"Right now, if I had a gun at my head, I'd say no," the juror told the New York Post.

In the courtroom on Monday, another juror could be overheard telling defense lawyers that the trial had been a "horrible experience."

The partial verdict came three years after WikiLeaks posted thousands of files revealing secret hacking tools that the CIA used to penetrate smartphones and televisions, and other household electronics. The hacking library, which the organization dubbed Vault 7, alerted U.S. adversaries to how the CIA spied and could enable them to turn the hacking tools back on the United States, prosecutors argued at trial.

The leak drew comparisons to an earlier disclosure by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. But officials have said that Schulte's actions caused even more damage to secret intelligence operations. Whereas Snowden mostly revealed details about NSA programs and capabilities, Schulte disclosed how the CIA actually conducts cyber espionage, information that was both more revealing and potentially more dangerous to have in the open, current and former intelligence officials have said.

"These leaks were devastating to national security," Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Laroche told jurors during his closing argument last week. "The CIA's cyber tools were gone in an instant. Intelligence gathering operations around the world stopped immediately."

Prosecutors walked jurors through a detailed theory about how Schulte allegedly gained access to the CIA's networks, stole the material and then tried to cover his tracks.

Jurors also heard testimony from CIA officers who worked with Schulte. The judge took extraordinary measures to protect their identities, allowing them to appear using pseudonyms and limiting media coverage of their testimony.

Schulte was a suspect almost from the moment WikiLeaks published the CIA's secrets. Within days, investigators traced the hacking tools back to the CIA unit where Schulte had worked, known as the Engineering Development Group. Schulte left the CIA in 2016 to take a job in New York City.

Investigators concluded that a breach of the group's internal network, where the tools were stored, probably occurred while Schulte was still employed there. On March 13, 2017, less than a week after the publication, FBI agents searched Schulte's apartment and found a computer server and several external drives, as well as notebooks and handwritten notes, court filings show.

Schulte was not arrested but was interviewed by FBI agents and denied that he had leaked the CIA materials.

The case took an unexpected turn in August, when Schulte was arrested after investigators found evidence of child pornography on his computer, including more than 10,000 photos and videos, prosecutors alleged. Schulte will be tried separately on those charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty.

Schulte remained in jail in Manhattan for months while the government continued to investigate the Vault 7 leaks. In June 2018, Schulte was finally charged under the Espionage Act.

Schulte's defense attorneys argued that the government never knew with certainty that Schulte was the individual who gave the hacking tools to WikiLeaks.

They pointed out that other CIA employees had access to the network from which the hacking tools were allegedly stolen. Schulte's team also claimed that the CIA's computer security was weak.

"The bottom line is this . . . because the system was insecure, because the system was poorly monitored, the government cannot know, and it certainly cannot prove to you which of the many people with access to this information committed this crime, when they committed it, or how they did it," Sabrina Shroff, Schulte's lead defense attorney, said in her closing argument to jurors. Shroff raised the possibility that another CIA employee who worked with Schulte, who was identified in court only by the pseudonym "Michael," was also a plausible suspect.

Shroff had argued that the CIA was embarrassed because officials didn't realize the hacking tools had been stolen until they appeared on WikiLeaks. She also said that Schulte was an easy scapegoat because of his turbulent history with the agency

"He was also a pain in the ass to everyone at the CIA," Shroff had told jurors at the first day of the trial. "Being a difficult employee does not make you a criminal."

While Schulte awaited trial, he racked up more charges. Prosecutors accused him of using a contraband cellphone to disseminate classified information to the press and using social media to claim that the FBI was framing him for the Vault 7 leaks.

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