King Josh in Jail, Part One: The Informant

The testimony on accused Vault 7 leaker Joshua Schulte’s conduct in MCC raised more questions than answers. So I want to do a series of three or four posts to look more closely at it (I’m using the term “King Josh” because it was one of his passwords at the CIA).

In this post I want to look at the jail house informant who is the publicly acknowledged basis by which prosecutors discovered that Schulte had a phone in jail, Carlos Bentances Luna Mera.

Betances is a 41 year old citizen of the Dominican Republic who twice migrated to the US without documentation, the first time in 1996 (he was deported in 2001), and then again around 2008. At some point, Betances married and had children. During both periods, he began to work as a low level cog in narcotics trafficking.

Betances was arrested on March 15, 2018 in conjunction with the trafficking. The only federal complaint unsealed in the docket is for illegal reentry, and in that magistrates docket, proceedings were continued in both April and May 2018, something that would happen if Betances were forgoing indictment and moving directly to a plea. Given his testimony, there must be a sealed criminal docket showing a guilty plea on nine counts covering multiple narcotics trafficking and conspiracy counts, illegal reentry, identity fraud, mail fraud, and taking a phone into jail.

That suggests that Betances flipped almost immediately, perhaps, at first, to cooperate against his network of suppliers. That’s consistent with an answer Betances gave when Schulte’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, suggested that cooperation on using a phone in jail, “was the most valuable to the government,” more than on all his narcotics charges. Betances responded, “Well, may I remind you that I had been cooperating before I talked to them?”

According to the testimony, Betances didn’t start spying on Schulte until sometime in summer 2018, at least four months after he was jailed, and didn’t first meet with prosecutors until September 2018. So the public story is that Betances got busted and flipped, managed to play a role in smuggling and hiding phones in jail that put him in a key spot to interact with Schulte and his cellmate, Omar Amanat (I’ll look at Amanat and his brother in the next post), and only after that happened witnessed something that led him to start taking pictures and videos of Schulte’s phone use. That went on for maybe a month before — aware that something big was going to go down in the library — Betances sent a note to the guards, who thwarted it. Some days later, Schulte was thrown in the SHU and a big hunt started for the phones and Schulte’s other activities in jail.

That thing that led Betances to prepare to inform on Schulte (again, per the testimony) is that one day sometime in the summer, Schulte said he wanted Russia’s help.

[W]e were in Chino’s cell [Chino was also part of the cell phone smuggling and sharing network] and I heard Josh saying that Russia had to help in in the things that he was doing.

Here’s how Betances described it on cross (through a translator) to a very dubious Sabrina Shroff:

Shroff: So anyway, it’s you who walks in when Mr. Schulte and Omar are talking, correct?

Betances: Yes, correct.

Shroff: And you walk in to give them a heads-up that somebody’s coming, correct?

Betances: Yes, correct.

Shroff: And just as you walk in, you hear him say the word “Russia,” correct?

Betances: That’s correct, yes.

Shroff: And that’s what prompts fear into you to go cooperate with the United States Attorney’s Office?

Betances: It sounded interesting to me.

Shroff: Right.

Hearing Schulte mention Russia led Betances to do a remarkable amount of surveillance on Schulte’s phones, which he stored for him behind his cell locker.

He took two pictures of the apps Schulte loaded onto the phone, and — per his testimony — got Schulte and Amanat to explain the function of WhatsApp, Signal, Proton Mail, Orbot, Turbo VPN, and Secure Delete. Betances also got pictures of the things Schulte was writing on his phone, including the initial emails to Shane Harris that would form part of the basis for the Espionage Act charges on which the jury was hung.

He took several videos of Schulte using his phone.

After having taken these pictures on September 1, Betances waited around three weeks before he alerted the guards that something big was going down in the library, and then was removed from MCC when guards found at least some of these phones in his cell.

Shroff: And before you decided to cooperate, you simply decided to take photos, is that your testimony?

Betances: Just to be clear with the defense attorney’s question in deciding to cooperate, when they were working on sending whatever they were going to send from the library, that’s when I decided to cooperate.

Shroff: My only question was when did you take this photograph?

Betances: In the summer of 2018.

Shroff: Right. Months before you’re now saying that you decided to cooperate, right?

Betances: Could you repeat that question? You confused me.

Shroff: You took the photo before you decided to cooperate, according to you, correct?

Betances: Yes, yes.

Shroff: Right. And you’re saying you just decided to take these photos for no reason at all, right?

Betances: May I remind you that the reason I took it was because I head the conversation that I heard?

According to his testimony on redirect, Betances did all this without government instruction.

Karamarju: Now, all of the photographs that you testified about, did the government tell you to take any of those photographs?

Betances: No.

The remarkable coincidence that a jailhouse informant would end up first smuggling in and then guarding her client’s illegal phones and then taking pictures from them is not the only thing Shroff was skeptical about. She also doubted the circumstances by which Betances exposed his wife to the risk of smuggling phones into jail as well as his ability — with little English — to figure out what Schulte was doing, to the extent he did.

Still, all that is explicable if Betances’ attorney negotiated a plea deal with narcotics prosecutors and the attorney coached Betances through how to dramatically increase the value of his cooperation by catching Joshua Schulte attempting to leak classified information from his jail cell.

Betances’ surveillance was critical to obtaining the jail warrants that would lead to the discovery of Schulte’s very damning prison notebooks, several phones, three of the Proton Mail accounts he was using, and his Signal traffic. And that’s just what prosecutors revealed in this case.

Betances met with prosecutors in Schulte’s case a bunch of times: first in September 2018, then October and December 2018, several times in 2019, and then perhaps five times in 2019.

None of that means Betances made this stuff up. He certainly doesn’t have the English skills to write those emails to Shane Harris. And while the evidence regarding Schulte’s comments about Russia are contradictory, there is corroboration for it.

But it does present a number of remarkable coincidences that just ended up providing Schulte the means to communicate “securely” from his jail cell, only to have that activity thwarted at the moment he attempted to act.

14 replies
  1. Rugger9 says:

    I’m sure the lawyers will have more, but jailhouse informants are notoriously unreliable especially if there is a quid pro quo. In the present case there are pictures but I’d still like to know what Betances got in exchange.

  2. e.a.f. says:

    Totally weird. If this guy is involved in the drug trade, doesn’t speak a lot of English, it maybe concluded its rather weird that he is so interested in the word Russia and starts taking pictures for no reason that I can really understand. Smuggling in phones via his wife, that’s risky and for what? Unless Betances has a lot of interest in politics and international affairs, its just so weird.

    Would really like to know what Betances got in exchange for all of this. If he got to stay in the U.S.A., would have some doubts about it all.

    Even if there are pictures, I’d be wondering are the real or just the fabric of someone’s technical know how.

    • emptywheel says:

      The pictures are all corroborated by writings in Schulte’s journals that the defense did not contest he took with him wherever he went.

      • Savage Librarian says:

        Hopefully the prosecutors can create and enter some compelling exhibits that efffectively and simply illustrate the relationship between the phone pictures and the journal. That is, if or when there is a retrial. Thanks for pointing this out!

    • Savage Librarian says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Betances was extremely vigilant based on his experience in drug dealing. And being in prison probably adds to that. So, it doesn’t surprise me that the word “Russia” caught his attention.

      As for the language barriers, I would say that I could listen to, read and understand French far better than I could ever speak it. Maybe the same is true of Betances and his command of English. Maybe he understands more than he can speak the language. Babies are that way, too. And young children. Yet they still know when to be rightfully anxious or concerned.

    • Savage Librarian says:

      An additional observation:
      Long ago I had the most wonderful little dog. She demonstrated time and again that she understood human language. In an assortment of about 8 toys, she knew everyone by name. And she knew exactly where her new toy for Christmas was kept hidden, waiting in anticipation for the festive day.

      So, when I said, “Baby, go get your hot dog. Or, go get your rope. Or go get your ball. Or go get your pretzel, etc.,” she would dash off and immediately return with the correct toy. Every single time!

      If my adorable little dog could do that, it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to see how the word “Russia” would be significant to Betances.

  3. JonKnowsNothing says:

    What is completely odd is that all that phone traffic, even the secured stuff, is well monitored at many levels, including the packet level. There is no way a cell phone can be used inside a restricted zone where the signal isn’t or cannot be found. At the very least you have to connect to one mast and that exposes all sorts of stuff inside the phone.

    They certainly did not need a jail house snitch to do or locate any of that. Interesting game to pretend otherwise.

    If M. Betances, was running an entire cellphone network distribution system, it would more incompetent of interested parties not to uncover it on day one, than M. Schulte was in showing off his knowledge of the app-store.

    MHayden: Cellphones are warheads on foreheads.

    • Desider says:

      Oh my, prosecution takes on a rebuttal after defense rests, and it seems defense atty Shroff hands the CIA and the prosecution their ass – it was “important” to remove Michael 4 years later for being uncooperative in a voluntary interview, though the CIA security section head couldn’t recall *any* details of this supposedly serious event, and then the government couldn’t even affirm Schulte wasn’t allowed access to certain info (around page 80-85), only that he had used wrong channels, which again sounds like they’re prosecuting rubber bands and poor office manners, and not a national security breach of huge import.

      • bmaz says:

        They most certainly are NOT “prosecuting rubber bands and poor office manners, and not a national security breach of huge import.”

        This is one of the biggest and most damaging betrayals of the CIA and its ability to conduct national security in history. He literally burned critical capabilities down to the ground. This is more on the spectrum of Aldrich Ames than “rubber bands and bad office manners”.

        • Desider says:

          Sorry, I’m talking about how this part of the prosecution’s case reads (as fought by Shroff), *NOT* the actual seriousness of what Schulte’s charged with and what objectively looks like an easy assumption of guilt.
          I think we’re still trying to figure out how exactly the prosecution ended up with a hung jury, and having the guy who decided to put Michael on administrative leave *not* remember any details re: something that was supposed to be hugely important, then withhold the suspension from the defense, etc… – awful performance. And IANAL, but to have this convo as a prosecution-initiated rebuttal *after* the defense has rested & the jury’s preparing to deliberate seems like a total unforced error on the side of the DoJ.

        • bmaz says:

          Oh no, make no mistake, the prosecution did a lame job from what I can see. You don’t fully know if not in the courtroom, and I was obviously not, but from reports I trust, they did not do a great job. We shall see, as I trust they will retry the hung counts.

  4. JonKnowsNothing says:

    @M.Bmaz re:

    This is one of the biggest and most damaging betrayals of the CIA and its ability to conduct national security in history. He literally burned critical capabilities down to the ground. This is more on the spectrum of Aldrich Ames than “rubber bands and bad office manners”.

    This is not on that level at all. Software is and will always be uncovered and discarded because of how why and where it is deployed. This is nothing new, just try to find an old CPM machine, things evolve and stuff gets thrown away.

    I find this repeated line very funny “burned critical capabilities down to the ground”. It’s used in numerous places here. Nothing burned. They maybe smoking some interesting stuff but burned? Burned to the ground? No. AFAIK the CIA headquarters and all their black sites are standing upright. Not even singed.

    If you are wanting to compare damage done to the US Intelligence System, you might start with Gina. She’s quite a character. She doesn’t need any “burned to the ground software” to get what she wants, she’s quite capable of getting what she wants in other ways. There are a great number of people on the planet will tell you all about how Gina’s Groupies behave.

    So far, the wonderful analysis by MW, only details the “burned out” state of the US prosecutors who are quite clearly without a decent case to present and are doing their very best to make something out of a rubber band fight at work.

    If they are going for round two, I certainly hope they find something better in The Ashes… that’s a Cricket tournament.

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