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Joshua Schulte Attempts to Hack the Court System

Joshua Schulte attempted to complete a hack of the court system yesterday.

I don’t mean that Schulte used computer code to bring down the court systems. His laptop doesn’t connect to the Internet, and so he does not have those tools available. Rather, over the 3.5 years he has been in jail, he has tested the system, figured out which messages can be used to distract adversaries, and which messages have an effect that will lead the system to perform in unexpected ways. He identified vulnerabilities and opportunities — SDNY arrogance, the pandemic and related court delays, Louis DeJoy’s postal system, and even the SAMs imposed on him — and attempted to exploit them.

As a reminder, a jury hung on the most serious charges against Schulte in March 2020. Afterwards, the government moved to retry Schulte quickly, but his defense attorneys said they needed more time, in part because their expert, Steve Bellovin, was for health reasons unwilling to serve as an expert during COVID. Last November, Judge Paul Crotty scheduled a trial to start June 7, 2021, which would have been a week ago Monday. In March, Schulte’s superb attorney, Sabrina Shroff, moved to delay the trial once more, to October, still citing Bellovin’s withdrawal.

Meanwhile, starting in January, Schulte started submitting pro se filings, some filed through Shroff, and some sent directly. The government responded to a motion for habeas corpus (basically, to point out he needs to file suit against the Warden of MCC, not the prosecution), but did not respond to his motion to suppress evidence seized from the MCC jail. When Schulte filed to request direct access to Lexus Nexis, the government responded, in part, by asking Judge Crotty to force Schulte to decide whether he was representing himself, pro se, or, if not, then to solely allow Shroff and her team to make filings on his behalf.

The defendant’s request appears to be an attempt to further his pattern of engaging in inappropriate, quasi-pro se litigation. The Court should not consider the defendant’s instant letter for that reason. “A defendant has a right either to counsel or to proceed pro se, but has no right to ‘hybrid’ representation, in which he is represented by counsel from time to time, but may slip into pro se mode for selected presentations.” United States v. Rivernider, 828 F.3d 91, 108 (2d Cir. 2016). Although the Court has “discretion to hear from a represented defendant personally,” id. at 108 n.5, “the interests of justice will only rarely be served by a defendant’s supplementation of the legal services provided by his . . . counsel,” United States v. Swinton, 400 F. Supp. 805, 806 (S.D.N.Y. 1975). To the extent the defendant has any colorable claims for relief, his attorneys can present them to the Court, and the Court should reject the defendant’s attempts to “slip into pro se mode,” Rivernider, 828 F.3d at 108, whenever it suits him. See, e.g., United States v. Crumble, No. 18 Cr. 32 (ARR), 2018 WL 3112041, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. June 25, 2018) (“As Markus has not elected to represent himself, he does not have a right to make a motion on his own behalf, nor does he have a right to insist that the district court hear his applications. While I have previously exercised my discretion to entertain Markus’s pro se submissions, I will do so no longer. If Markus wishes to file any further motions, he is directed to ask his trial counsel—or appellate counsel— to adopt this motion. I trust that assigned counsel will file any motions that they do not view as frivolous on Markus’s behalf. Any pro se motions made by Markus, however, will be summarily denied.” (cleaned up)).

In any event, even if the Court considers the defendant’s submission, it is without merit. As his letter acknowledges, he has access to legal databases (a fact confirmed by the volume of his recent pro se filings), but additionally he demands special access to “filings, briefs, modern search, and the ability to print.” The defendant’s claims about the purported deficiencies of the databases to which he does in fact have access do not support such demands or establish a basis for relief. “[A]n inmate cannot establish relevant actual injury simply by establishing that his prison’s law library or legal assistance program is subpar in some theoretical sense.” Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 351 (1996). The defendant identifies no reason he should be afforded special access beyond that which the facility provides in the normal course, and at bottom, he is represented by counsel who have the ability to make well-researched and thoroughly prepared legal claims on his behalf.

Crotty denied Schulte’s request for Lexus Nexis, but didn’t address the pro se request.

Meanwhile, two of the three prosecutors on the team, Matthew LaRoche and Sidhardha Kamaraju, withdrew from the case, both because they’ve left government. LaRoche was involved in a prosecution that collapsed because the government committed a Brady violation, but Kamaraju was not. Kamaraju, however, probably has the most computer expertise of the original three.

Yesterday there was a remarkable status hearing. Crotty started by asking the remaining prosecutor, David Denton, when replacement prosecutors will file an appearance. Imminently, Denton said, though it sounded like he didn’t believe that.

Crotty asked whether Shroff has found an expert. Curiously, she explained that Bellovin still can’t do it, even with the waning risk of COVID, because of his schedule at Columbia University. Crotty noted that it is her responsibility to find an expert (she had said in a November status conference that it would amount to ineffective assistance not to have one).

But the real stunner came at the end, when Shroff said that Schulte wanted her to tell the court that he had told the government back in November that he was proceeding pro se. Denton responded that this was the first he had heard of such a thing, and Shroff responded that he was incorrect; Schulte had informed the government in November.

The hearing ended with a commitment to brief whether Schulte can proceed pro se.

It is almost without exception an insanely bad idea for a defendant to represent themselves, and this is probably not that exception. Still, there are advantages that Schulte would get by representing himself. He’s brilliant, and clearly has been studying the law in the 3.5 years he has been in prison (though he has made multiple errors of process and judgment in his own filings). He has repeatedly raised the Sixth Amendment problems with Special Administrative Measures, notably describing how delays in receiving his mail make it impossible for him to respond to legal developments in timely fashion. So I imagine he’d prepare a Sixth Amendment challenge to everything going forward. He’d be able to demand access to the image of the server he is alleged to have hacked himself. By proceeding pro se, Schulte could continue to post inflammatory claims to the docket for sympathetic readers to magnify, as happened with a filing he submitted earlier this year. And after the government has made clear it will reverse its disastrous strategy from the first trial of making the trial all about Schulte’s conflicts with the CIA, by questioning witnesses himself, Schulte would be able to make personality conflicts central again, even against the government’s wishes. Plus, by not replacing Bellovin, Schulte would serve as expert himself. In that role, Schulte would present the false counter story he has been telling since he was jailed, but in a way that the government couldn’t cross-examine him. So it would probably be insanely detrimental, but less so than for most defendants that try it. It certainly would provide a way to mount the defense that Schulte clearly wants to pursue.

But I think that’s just Schulte’s fall-back plan.

I think his current plan is to argue that, because anything his attorneys did in his name after he purportedly informed prosecutors he was proceeding pro se would be a legal nullity, then two things have happened since that allegedly occurred that will permit him to demand immediate release. First, if his attorneys’ agreements to exclude time from the Speedy Trial clock were not valid, then it would mean the government has run out of time to prosecute Schulte. Additionally, if a request that Shroff made in March to reschedule the trial was not valid, then the trial would have still been scheduled for last week. I suspect Schulte will try to argue that the government forgot to hold their trial and so must be released.

Mind you, there’s no evidence in the docket that Schulte informed prosecutors, much less the court, that he was proceeding pro se. There’s a filing he made in April 2020 that claimed he had no lawyers and made requests as if he was proceeding pro se, one that everyone ignored. But according to Shroff, that’s not the notice; the notice took place in November. Still, given how Schulte has carefully tested how the mail system works with SAMs and COVID, I don’t rule out him sending a letter directly to prosecutors.

The other problem with his claim to be proceeding pro se is that in a May filing, Schulte referred to the October trial (meaning, he recognizes the validity of both that request and Shroff’s exclusion of time under the Speedy Trial Act) and complained that his attorney-client mail was being opened. If he were proceeding pro se without Crotty formally appointing Shroff as standby counsel, their communications would have no privilege. So he has said two things in a pro se filing that are inconsistent with really proceeding pro se.

Certainly, Shroff has said things — in multiple venues — that indicate she believed she remained Schulte’s lawyer.

Given that Schulte claims everything his legal team has done since November was done without his sanction, though, the government would seem to have cause to ask Crotty to assign entirely different lawyers to serve as Schulte’s stand-by counsel, if indeed he does proceed pro se going forward. Which would make his plan for the actual trial, if it ever happens, untenable.

To be sure, I’m not saying this is going to work. But the government — what’s left of the prosecution team, anyway — had better understand that Schulte has been treating the court system with the same adversarial approach as he allegedly did the CIA’s servers. Schulte is claiming to have entered a command into his prosecution back in November that hacked the system, effectively changed the effect of everything that has happened since. Just trusting that such a possibility cannot happen under the legal system is probably a bad idea given where the CIA’s trust that Schulte wouldn’t hack the system turned out.

Update: Via InnerCity Press, there’s the transcript of the hearing.


April 12, 2020: Schulte claims he has no attorneys, claims only a few months remain on Speedy Trial

May 31, 2020: Shroff asks for a week extension to respond to government scheduling motion

June 8, 2020: Schroff requests a status conference for August or September 2020, acting as if Schulte’s request did not exist

June 15, 2020: Shroff initiates White Plains grand jury challenge

June 19, 2020: SDNY extends Speedy Trial to July 1, 2020

July 16, 2020: Shroff informs Judge Crotty Schulte will not reply to Rule 29 motion

July 27, 2020: Shroff asks for extension on grand jury challenge

July 28, 2020: Shroff asks for ESXi server (basically a repeat of Schulte’s April request)

July 30, 2020: Shroff asks for two week delay on status hearing citing (in part) Steve Bellovin’s withdrawal

August 14, 2020: Shroff asks for two week extension on reply to request for ESXi server

September 15, 2020: Shroff reply on ESXi laptop

September 16, 2020: SDNY proposes schedule, with January 2021 trial date

September 21, 2020: SDNY responds to Bellovin submission of ex parte declaration

October 14, 2020: SDNY asks for 30 day exclusion

October 30, 2020: Shroff requests Schulte appear remotely

November 4, 2020: Status conference, trial set for June 7, 2021, with time excluded; Shroff maintains it would be ineffective counsel to go to trial without expert

THE COURT: Are you entitled to an expert?

MS. SHROFF: In a case like this, yes. I’m quite certain I’m entitled to an expert. I think it would be clear error and ineffective assistance of counsel to try this case without an expert, without a doubt.

November 16, 2020: Shroff-submitted motion to dismiss on White Plains grand jury

November 19, 2020: Shroff submits request for VTC meeting with Schulte’s family

January 1, 2021: Schulte motion to suppress MCC evidence (docketed February 24)

January 7, 2021: Shroff requests 2 week extension on White Plains grand jury reply

January 19, 2021: Shroff files Schulte pro se motion for writ of habeas corpus regarding SAMs, dated December 25, 2020

January 22, 2021: Shroff requests two week extension on January 21 deadline for reply on White Plains grand jury reply

January 22, 2021: Shroff requests funds for new laptop for Schulte

January 27, 2021: Civil Division AUSA asks Crotty to dismiss motion for writ so it can be refiled naming Warden as defendant

February 22, 2021: Shroff submits reply on White Plains grand jury challenge

February 24, 2021: Schulte files motion to reconsider decision on habeas (docketed March 4)

March 19, 2021: Schulte calls on Crotty to decide his motion to suppress on the merits, given government non-response (docketed April 5)

March 22, 2021: Shroff moves, with consent of Schulte, to reschedule trial to last quarter of 2021

March 24, 2021: Crotty denies motion to dismiss; Crotty reschedules trial for October 25, excludes time

April 12, 2021: Schulte asks for Lexus Nexis (docketed April 29)

May 5, 2021: Schulte complains about mail delays (docketed May 19); among other things it reflects an October trial date and references attorney-client mail

May 7, 2021: Matthew LaRoche withdraws

May 11, 2021: SDNY submits opposition to Lexus Nexis request, including request for order that Schulte not submit pro se

June 3, 2021: Sidhardha Kamaraju withdraws

June 7, 2021: Date of trial scheduled in November 2020

June 15, 2021: Status hearing at which Schulte claims to have been representing himself pro se since November

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.

CIA Put Joshua Schulte’s Buddy on Administrative Leave Last August

Update, 2/21/20: This post has been updated reflecting the DOJ response to Schulte’s bid for a mistrial based on this dispute. The response makes quite clear that the administrative leave pertains only to concerns about Michael’s candor regarding Schulte’s behavior.

Neither the Government nor the CIA believes anyone else was involved, and the defendant’s claims otherwise are based on a distorted reading of the CIA memorandum placing Michael on administrative leave (the “CIA Memorandum”). The CIA Memorandum explicitly states that Michael was placed on leave because of concerns he was not providing information about the defendant (not that he is a suspect in the theft); the Government has confirmed with the author of that memorandum that the memorandum was not intended to suggest that it was Michael rather than the defendant who stole the Vault 7 Information; and, in any event, the defendant has had all of the relevant information underlying the CIA Memorandum for months in advance of trial.

There was some drama at the end of last week’s testimony in the trial of accused Vault 7 leaker, Joshua Schulte. Schulte’s lawyers forced the government to admit that Schulte’s buddy, testifying under the name, “Michael,” is on paid leave from the CIA for lack of candor.

It turns out “Michael” got put on paid leave in August 2019, shortly after his seventh interview as part of the investigation (his interview dates, based DOJ’s response off Shroff’s cross-examination, were March 16, 2017, June 1, 2017, June 2, 2017, June 6, 2017, August 30, 2017, March 8, 2018, August 16, 2019, and January 13, 2020).

While prosecutors provided Schulte the underlying interview reports (the last one wasn’t even a 302 because prosecutors led the interview, with just one FBI agent present, possibly as part of pre-trial prep), they withheld documents explaining the personnel change until providing part of the documentation the night before Michael’s testimony starting on February 12. Technically, that late notice probably complied with Jencks, but once Judge Paul Crotty realized what documentation had been shared with whom, he granted the defense request for a continuance of Michael’s testimony so they could better understand the implications. Withholding the information was a dickish move on the part of the prosecutors.

The question is, why prosecutors did this, why they withheld information that might be deemed key to a fair trial.

I don’t think defense counsel Sabrina Shroff’s seeming take — that the government tried to hide Michael’s personnel status to hide that they were (purportedly) coercing him to get his story “to morph a little,” to testify in the way he had on threat of false statements charges and certain firing from the CIA — makes sense. That’s because, on the two key issues he testified about, Michael testified in roughly the same way in court as he did in FBI interviews in the wake of the Vault 7 disclosure.

On the stand under direct examination, Michael explained how he told his and Schulte’s colleague, Jeremy Weber, to take away Schulte’s access because he feared Schulte would respond to losing access to his own projects by restoring that access, which would lead to significant trouble.

Q. Did you ever speak with Mr. Weber about the defendant’s anger?

A. Yes.

Q. What did you talk about?

A. We didn’t talk about his anger per se. But, I told Jeremy that he should remove all of Josh’s admin accesses.

Q. Why did you ask Mr. Weber to do that?

A. I felt like Jeremy was kind of, like, setting him up. I knew that Josh was mad at Jeremy, and that he was putting him in a position where Josh had the ability or the access to change permissions on the project in question. And that he would do that because he didn’t respect Jeremy’s authority.

As Shroff elicited on cross-examination, Michael told the FBI something very similar on August 30, 2017.

Q. And it is in this meeting, if you remember, that you told the FBI that, in your opinion, Mr. Weber was setting Mr. Schulte up. Do you remember that?

A. I remember feeling that way.

Q. Okay. By that you mean that you thought Mr. Weber was setting Mr. Schulte up to fail at his job at the CIA, right?

A. I thought he was — baiting him into using his accesses, for a lack of a better word.

[snip]

A. Yeah, I thought he was setting — he was creating circumstances where he knew that Josh had access to change permissions on the server, Josh was an admin. He was telling Josh you cannot do this. But Josh technically could do that, right, he had the technical capability to do that. So, Josh was going to do that.

Q. Okay. You told Mr. Weber your concern?

A. Yes.

Q. And Mr. Weber said butt out, correct?

A. Yes, in summary. Mr. Weber said butt out.

Likewise, last week the government got Michael to explain how, on April 20, 2016 (the day the government alleges Schulte stole the Vault 7 files) Schulte first invited Michael to work out at the gym as they normally would, but then didn’t respond for an hour, at which point Michael witnessed — and took a screen cap of — Schulte deleting log files, which means Schulte’s buddy documented in real time as his buddy stole the files.

Q. It is a little difficult, so let’s blow up the left side of the screen. Do you recognize what we’re looking at?

A. Yes.

Q. How do you recognize it?

A. It is a screenshot I took.

Q. What is it a screenshot of?

A. It a screenshot of, in the bottom you can see a VM being reverted and then a snapshot removed.

Q. It is a screenshot of a computer screen?

A. Yes, of my computer screen.

Q. What date and time did you take this screenshot?

A. The date was April 20, and time was 6:56 p.m.

Q. What year was that?

A. 2016.

Michael explained his past testimony to the FBI to Shroff using much the same story (though she used a different screen cap that may be of import).

Q. Uh-huh.

A. I believe I was trying to dig into what the screenshot meant. I was unsure. You know, I took the screenshot because I was concerned, and then I tried to validate those concerns by determining did a person do these reverts, or was this a system action? This is me trying to dig into that. I have debug view open to see if there was any debug messages about reverting the VMs or something. That could have been there already. I don’t know. But specifically this command prompt here that you see, this black-and-white text, the command prompt, I was looking at IP addresses.

Q. And did you do that on the same day, or you did this later?

[snip]

Q. And you don’t see anything before the start time of 6:55?

A. Yeah. I don’t see anything before 6:55 — or I see 6:51.

Q. Right, but you’re saying that even though your vSphere was running, you didn’t see any April 16 snapshot?

A. Yeah. I don’t see an April 16 snapshot.

On redirect prosecutors will have Michael make it clear that the reason he didn’t see an April 16 snapshot is because it had been deleted, making this a damning admission, not a helpful one.

So knowing that the CIA has concerns that Michael isn’t telling the truth about all this doesn’t help Shroff rebut the most damning details of Michael’s testimony: that one of Schulte’s closest friends at CIA tried to intervene to prevent Schulte from doing something stupid before it happened, and the same friend happened to get online and capture proof of it happening in real time.

Nor does it help her rebut another damning detail from Michael’s testimony, a description of how a rubber band fight between him and Schulte led to Michael hitting Schulte physically.

Q. Could you just describe generally what happened.

A. Sure. On that day, Josh hit me with a rubber band, I hit him back with a rubber band. This went back and forth until late at night. I hit him with a rubber band and then ran away before he could hit me back. He trashed my desk. I trashed his desk. And then I was backed up against Jeremy’s desk and Josh was looking at me, kind of coming towards me. And something came over me and I just hit him.

This might seem, if you’re the NYT trying to cull the trial record for glimpses of the banality of CIA cubicle life, like an innocuous detail. But it’s not. Schulte’s defense, such as he has offered one so far, is that he had a real gripe with a colleague, Amol, which escalated into both being moved, him losing his SysAdmin access, which led to his retaliation against the CIA. But what Amol did was take Schulte’s Nerf darts away when they landed on his desk and make verbal — but never physical — attacks against Schulte. Yet Schulte obtained a restraining order against Amol, not against Michael, the guy who really had physically hit him. This rubber band fight with Michael, as juvenile as it seems, actually undermines Schulte’s claim that his complaint against Amol made sense.

Meanwhile, Shroff herself seems to have brought out the detail that led to CIA’s personnel action (and which Judge Crotty argued prosecutors had withheld by not sharing the full CIA notice). On direct, Michael told prosecutor Sidhardha Kamaraju that he stopped digging to find out what had happened because he remembered that he was using a regular user account that — he couldn’t remember — might not have the right permissions to view logs.

Q. Did that seem strange to you that there were no log files there?

A. Yes. At first this was strange to me.

Q. Why did you think it was strange at first?

A. Just because, a system managing this many VMs should have lots of logs.

Q. Did you try to find out why there weren’t any log files there?

A. I did some more digging, yes.

Q. What did you think as a result of your digging?

A. I remembered that this account that I was using was a regular user account, and I couldn’t remember if the regular user accounts had administrative permissions to view logs.

But as Shroff had him explain on cross, Michael told the FBI that Schulte had given him “pseudo creds” to one of his virtual machines. He told them that almost three months before the FBI first asked him about the screen cap showing Schulte delete logs.

Q. No, it’s not correct? What is it then?

A. This is a VM that he would have run on his DevLAN machine.

Q. So it is a virtual machine that he ran on his own DevLAN, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. Okay. So it says “Josh.” Correct?

A. Yes.

Q. Then it says “Michael,” correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And then it says “other,” correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And they asked you about this document, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And you told them, did you not, that Josh had given you what you turned as a phrase “pseudo creds,” correct?

A. I don’t remember specific wording but, yes. I believe he gave me pseudo accesses to this VM.

[snip]

Q. And then you told them that you probably had root access to the machine to do with it what you wanted, correct?

A. Yes. If I had pseudo creds, then that’s true.

Q. They asked you if you were surprised to find out that you shared a VM with Josh, and you said no, correct?

This is a reference to “sudo” credentials, which is root access. The government response makes it clear that Michael had administrative access, using the “root” password, to the ESXi server, but did not have admin access to the Atlassian suite, which is what Schulte alleged used to steal the documents.

Michael’s “system administrator” privileges were well-documented in the reports of the FBI interviews. Indeed, Michael’s “system administrator privileges” were discussed in at least three different interviews, one of Michael and the other two of Mr. Weber:

  • In a March 22, 2017 interview, Weber stated that “Michael, [the defendant], [Weber], and [Matt] had administrative access to the ESXi server …. A root password was required to directly log into the ESXi server and this password was shared on OSB’s Confluence page that all of OSB had access to.” CLASSIFIED JAS _ 001318 – 001320 ( emphasis added).
  • In a May 26, 2017 interview, Weber stated that he “believed that [Matt] and [Michael] were possibly added as [ESXi] administrators later.” CLASSIFIED JAS 010153 – 010159.
  • In a March 8, 2018 interview, Michael explained the relevant distinction in administrative privileges: “There is a difference between being considered an Atlassian administrator and having the root password for the ESXi server. The root password for the ESXi server was likely needed to create and control VMs, which are frequently used by developers for testing. [Michael] believed he used the ESXi root password to create VMs. The status of being an Atlassian administrator is reflected in the user’s domain credentials. [Michael] is not aware of how to get access to Atlassian as an administrator.” CLASSIFIED JAS _ O I 0514 ( emphasis added).

These reports make clear that Michael never had Atlassian administrator privileges, and thus did not have the ability to access or copy the Altabackups (from which the Vault 7 Information was stolen).

Still, that part of his testimony hasn’t changed. And CIA would have known about all this by August 2017, two years before they put Michael on administrative leave.

And curiously, having had this information for quite some time, Schulte never tried to suggest that Michael could have conducted the theft while using Schulte’s credentials.

Thus far, it looks like the CIA moved Michael to administrative leave not to change his pre-August 2019 testimony — because that hasn’t changed — but out of concern that Michael learned about Schulte’s actions in real time but didn’t tell anyone, not in 2016 when the CIA could have done something about it, nor immediately after the Vault 7 publication. It wasn’t until the FBI discovered the screen cap and asked Michael about it in August 2017 that he told this story.

Q. Is it fair to say, sir, by the time the FBI showed it to you, you had forgotten about the screenshot?

A. Yes.

Q. You had taken it on April 20, 2016, right?

A. Yes.

Michael similarly did not offer up to the FBI that Schulte contacted him after the first Vault 7 publication (presumably in March) until it came up in June 2017.

Q. It was during this meeting that you told them about Mr. Schulte reaching out to you after the leaks had become public; correct? Do you remember that?

A. I remember telling them about him reaching out to me. I don’t remember if it was this specific meeting.

Q. Okay. Take a look at the highlighted portion on page one, okay?

A. Okay.

Q. You told the FBI, did you not, that Mr. Schulte had sounded upset to you that people thought it was he who had done the leaks, correct?

A. Yes. I believe the word was he seemed concerned.

Q. Right. You would be concerned too if somebody accused you of something you didn’t do, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And you also told them that you essentially blew him off, correct? You didn’t want to engage and talk to him, correct?

A. Yes, I ignored the initial text messages. And then in the phone call, I didn’t want to talk about that subject.

Q. Okay. And at first you didn’t report the fact that Mr. Schulte contacted you, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. And then somehow or the other, the deputy chief of EDG said if somebody’s contacted you, report it. And then you reported it, correct?

A. Correct.

The most likely explanation for CIA’s change in Michael’s personnel status, then (but not the timing), is that Michael did not alert security when he had the opportunity, and then when he discovered that his buddy was the lead suspect for a huge theft of CIA tools, he tried to downplay his knowledge, perhaps hoping to avoid suspicion himself (which, if true, backfired). As Michael said himself in one of his FBI interviews, it sucks when you’re the single guy the prime suspect for a crime has given credentials to his VM, by name.

Q. And then you kind of added that it kind of sucked that your name was on this VM, correct?

A. I don’t remember that.

Q. Take a look at the first paragraph, page two of eight. It sucks. I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s the word it says, “suck,” right?

A. Yes.

Q. That your name was on the virtual machine, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. And that you understood from the FBI that that put you under the microscope, correct?

A. Correct.

So, again, the most likely implication of all this is just that the CIA believes Michael had information about a data breach in real time that he offered unconvincing (and, possibly, technically false) explanations for why he didn’t alert anyone.

But, particularly given the delay in putting him on administrative leave, I wonder whether there’s not something more.

DOJ and CIA clearly suspect Michael is being less than forthcoming about what he witnessed in real time. That doesn’t undermine his value as a witness to having taken the screen shot, but it does raise questions about his trustworthiness to retain clearance at CIA. It does undermine his claims to the FBI, which Shroff portrayed as largely unique among CIA witnesses, that Schulte wasn’t the culprit (which he hasn’t yet explained in the presence of the jury).

That may, however, raise questions about his candor on other answers asked by the FBI, answers that may speak to how Schulte came to steal CIA’s hacking tools in the first place or even whether Michael knew more about it than he knows.

For example, the FBI asked Michael repeatedly about Schulte’s League of Legends habit.

Q. He played a lot of League of Legends or something?

A. Yes.

Q. Some kind of game?

A. Yes, it’s a video game.

Q. A lot of men, people play it; is that right?

A. It has a large user base.

Q. It is some kind of online game where you pretend to have avatars and kill each other online or something like that? Is that right, basically?

A. Yes.

Q. And you played that game, did you not, with Mr. Schulte? A. Yes.

In recent years the government has come to regard gaming communications systems as a means to communicate covertly (which Schulte would have known because his hacking tools targeted terrorists).

They also asked Michael whether Schulte was a “vigilante hacker” by night, and about his Tor usage (which, according to Michael, Schulte didn’t hide).

Q. You remember the FBI asking you if Mr. Schulte was a vigilante hacker by night? Do you remember that phrase they used?

A. I think I do actually, yes.

Q. You told them, no, you didn’t know him to be a vigilante hacker at night?

A. Correct.

Q. You in fact did not know him to be a vigilante hacker at night.

A. Correct. I did not know him to be a vigilante hacker.

This question is particularly relevant given Schulte’s claim, in communicating with a journalist from jail, that he had been involved with Anonymous.

The FBI asked Michael how he came to buy two hard drives for Schulte from Amazon, the same place Schulte bought a SATA adapter they think he used in the theft.

A. I only ever bought him hard drives this one time. But the reason, like, I wouldn’t normally just buy him hard drives, I would have told him to buy it himself. But the reason was there was some deal going on, and so he’s like, if I buy it and then you buy it, we all get the deal and I’ll just pay you back.

Q. Right. It’s normal, right?

A. Yeah.

Q. Yeah. Amazon had a cap on the sale, like everyone could only get two, and he wanted four or something like that?

A. Yes, it was something along those lines.

Of the hard drives the FBI seized from Schulte’s home in March 2017 (PDF 116), the ones he owned the most copies of — the 1TB Western Digital drives — are the ones they suspect were used in the theft because they were overwritten.

The FBI asked about a time when Michael worked over a weekend, when Schulte also happened to be working. Michael first explained he had been working on his performance review, but when he subsequently checked his records, discovered that couldn’t be right. Even though he recognized how unusual it was for him to be working the same weekend as Schulte without knowing Schulte was there, he concluded (like he had about the deleted log files) that it was normal.

Q. They asked you about that weekend because Mr. Schulte also happened to be working that weekend?

A. They mentioned that, yes.

Q. Did you think it was odd that Mr. Schulte was working that weekend or did the FBI think it was odd that Mr. Schulte was working that weekend or both?

A. At first I thought it was odd.

Q. Okay.

A. Just because —

Q. Go ahead.

A. Just because, you know, although it was normal to come in on the weekend, it was less common — rare, I would say, to come in on the weekend. One of us probably would have told each other, you know, we were going to come in on the weekend. But then I looked at my situation, I was like, well, I didn’t tell him I was coming in, so I guess this is normal.

The government may still be trying to figure out precisely when Schulte removed the files on hard drives from CIA — they also asked Michael about that repeatedly — which is why these questions are so important. Among the reasons CIA put him on leave, per the government response, is that he and Schulte left together that night; if Schulte had carried out hard drives that night Michael may have seen them.

The FBI asked about Michael’s role — apparently unplanned — in helping Schulte move to New York.

Q. Then they talked to you about your involvement in helping him move from Virginia to New York, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. They asked you a whole series of questions as to how you came about to help him move, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And they asked you why you helped him move, correct?

A. I don’t remember specific questions, but I do remember questions about helping him move.

Q. And you explained to them that it was like a coincidence, right? You’d already planned a trip with another friend, he was moving at the same time, he needed help loading up luggage and moving stuff, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. It was not preplanned, right? It just happened, right?

A. Yeah.

Q. You told them that you had already planned to do this with another friend, right?

A. Yes.

Q. And then they asked you about that friend, correct? They asked you what the name of the friend was, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. Then they asked you for your friend’s number, correct?

A. I don’t remember specifically what information they asked for.

The FBI also asked Michael about the stuff he left with him when he moved to New York, which Michael explained was just furniture, though a lot of it.

Q. We’ll come back to that if we need to. Let’s move to the next point. They then asked you if Mr. Schulte had left any stuff with you, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. You told them that he had, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. It was normal, everyday stuff he left with you, correct?

A. I wouldn’t say it’s normal. It was a lot of furniture. So I don’t think that’s normal.

Again, it may well be that, two years after the FBI would have had real questions about Michael’s candor, the CIA concluded they had to reconsider his employment because he could have prevented the theft but did not.

But I wonder whether, by the time DOJ posed these questions anew in August 2019 (which, if I’ve got his interview dates correct, was the only interview he had after the time that Schulte had been formally charged with the theft), their doubts about his other answers had taken on greater significance.

Update: Clarified that the “pseudo” credentials in the transcript are a reference to “sudo” root access.

Update: In a letter opposing any order to share the CIA’s determination to put Michael on paid leave, the government explains the basis for it:

  • Adverse polygraph results
  • His relationship with Schulte
  • His close proximity to the theft of the data and (what appears to be) reason to believe he witnessed more anomalies at the time Schulte was stealing it
  • “Recent inquiries” suggesting Michael may still be hiding information about the theft
  • His “unwillingness to cooperate with a CIA security investigation into his physical altercation with the defendant”

That is, the speculation above seems to be born out. The three questions that leaves are”

  • Why did they put him on leave rather than fire him?
  • Which of the questions above do they think he was not truthful about?
  • Why did they wait until August 2019 to put him on leave?