How Josh Schulte Got Judge Jesse Furman to Open a File in Internet Explorer

Something puzzles me about both Josh Schulte trials (as noted yesterday, the jury found Schulte guilty of al charges against him yesterday).

In both, the government introduced a passage from his prison notebooks advocating the use of the tools he has now been found guilty of sharing with WikiLeaks in an attack similar to NotPetya. [This is the version of this exhibit from his first trial.]

Vault 7 contains numerous zero days and malware that could be [easily] deployed repurposed and released onto the world in a devastating fashion that would make NotPetya look like Child’s play.

Neither time, however, did prosecutors explain the implications of this passage, which proved both knowledge of the non-public files released to WikiLeaks and a desire that they would be used, possibly by Russia, as a weapon.

Here’s how AUSA Sidhardha Kamaraju walked FBI Agent Evan Schlessinger through explaining it on February 26, 2020, in the first trial.

Q. Let’s look at the last paragraph there.

A. “Vault 7 contains numerous zero days and malware that could easily be deployed, repurposed, and released on to the world in a devastating fashion that would make NotPetya look like child’s play.”

Q. Do you know what NotPetya is?

A. Yes, generally.

Q. What is it?

A. It is a version of Russian malware.

Here’s how AUSA David Denton walked Agent Shlessinger through that same exact script this June 30 in the second trial.

Q. And the next paragraph, please.

A. “Vault 7 contains numerous zero days and malware that could easily be deployed,” struck through “repurposed and released onto the world in a devastating fashion that would make NotPetya look like child’s play.”

Q. Sir, do you know what NotPetya is?

A. Yes, generally.

Q. Generally, what is a reference to?

A. Russian malware.

The placid treatment of that passage was all the more striking in this second trial because it came shortly after Schulte had gone on, at length, mocking the claim from jail informant Carlos Betances that Schulte had expressed some desire for Russia’s help to do what he wanted to do, which in context (though Betances wouldn’t know it) would be to launch an information war.

Q. OK. Next, you testified on direct that I told you the Russians would have to help me for the work I was doing, right?

A. Yes, correct.

Q. OK. So the Russians were going to send paratroopers into New York and break me out of MCC?

MR. LOCKARD: Objection.

THE COURT: Sustained.

BY MR. SCHULTE: Q. What is your understanding of how the Russians were going to help?

A. No, I don’t know how they were going to help you. You were the one who knew that.

Q. What work was I doing for Russia?

A. I don’t know what kind of work you were doing for Russia, but I know you were spending long periods of time in your cell with the phones.

Q. OK.

A. With a sheet covering you.

Q. OK. But only Omar ever spoke about Russia, correct?

A. No. You spoke about Russia.

Q. Your testimony is you never learned anything about Omar and Russian oligarchs?

A. No.

Denton could easily have had Schlessinger point out that wanting to get a CIA tool repurposed in Russian malware just like the Russians had integrated stolen NSA tools to use in a malware attack of unprecedented scope would be pretty compelling malicious cooperation with Russia. It would have made Schulte’s mockery with Betances very costly. But Denton did not do that.

In fact, the government entirely left this theory of information war out of Schulte’s trial. In his closing argument for the second trial, for example, Michael Lockard explicitly said that Schulte’s weapon was to leak classified information, not to launch cyberattacks.

Mr. Schulte goes on to make it even more clear. He says essentially it is the same as taking a soldier in the military, handing him a rifle, and then begin beating him senseless to test his loyalty and see if you end up getting shot in the foot or not. It just isn’t smart.

Now, Mr. Schulte is not a soldier in the military, he is a former CIA officer and he doesn’t have a rifle. He has classified information. That is his bullet.

To be sure, that’s dictated by the charges against Schulte. Lockard was trying to prove that Schulte developed malicious plans to leak classified information, not that he developed malicious plans to unleash a global cyberattack that would shut down ports in the United States. But that’s part of my point: The NotPetya reference was superfluous to the charges against Schulte except to prove maliciousness they didn’t use it for.

I may return to this puzzle in a future post. For now, though, I want to use it as background to explain how, that very same day that prosecutors raised Schulte’s alleged plan to get CIA hacking tools used to launch a global malware attack, Schulte got Judge Jesse Furman to open a document in Internet Explorer.

One of the challenges presented when a computer hacker like Schulte represents himself (pro se) is how to equip him to prepare a defense without providing the tools he can use to launch an information war. It’s a real challenge, but also one that Schulte exploited.

In one such instance, in February, Schulte argued the two MDC law library desktops available to him did not allow him to prepare his defense, and so he needed a DVD drive to transfer files including “other binary files,” the kind of thing that might include malware.

Neither of these two computers suffices for writing and printing motions, letters, and other documents. The government proposes no solution — they essentially assert I have no right to access and use a computer to defend myself in this justice system.

I require an electronic transfer system; printing alone will not suffice, because I cannot print video demonstratives I’ve created for use at trial; I cannot print forensics, forensic artifacts, and other binary files that would ultimately be tens of thousands of useless printed pages. I need a way to transfer my notes, documents, motion drafts, demonstrative videos, technical research, analysis, and countless other documents to my standby counsel, forensic expert, and for filing in this court.

The government had told Schulte on January 21 that he could not have a replacement DVD drive that his standby counsel had provided in January because it had write-capabilities; as they noted in March, not having such a drive was not preventing him from filing a blizzard of court filings. Ultimately, in March, the government got Schulte to let them access the laptop to add a printer driver to his discovery laptop. Schulte renewed his request for a write-capable DVD, though, in April.

Schulte continued to complain about his access to the law library for months, sometimes with merit, and other times (such as when he objected to the meal times associated with his choice to fast during Ramadan) not.

The continued issues, though, and Schulte’s claims of retaliation by prison staffers, are why I was so surprised that when, on June 1, Sabrina Shroff reported that a guard had broken Schulte’s discovery laptop by dropping it just weeks before trial, she didn’t ask for any intervention from Judge Furman. Note, she attributes her understanding of what happened to the laptop to Schulte’s parents (who could only have learned that from Schulte) and the prison attorney (who may have learned of it via Schulte as well). In response, as Shroff had tried to do with the write-capable DVD, she was just going to get him a new laptop.

We write to inform the Court that a guard at the MDC accidently dropped Mr. Schulte’s laptop today, breaking it. Because the computer no longer functions, Mr. Schulte is unable to access or print anything from the laptop, including the legal papers due this week. The defense team was first notified of the incident by Mr. Schulte’s parents early this afternoon. It was later confirmed in an email from BOP staff Attorney Irene Chan, who stated in pertinent part: “I just called the housing unit and can confirm that his laptop is broken. It was an unfortunate incident where it was accidentally dropped.”

Given the June 13, 2022 trial date, we have ordered him a new computer, and the BOP, government, and defense team are working to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. We do not seek any relief from the Court at this time.

Only, as I previously noted, that’s not what happened to the laptop, at all. When DOJ’s tech people examined the laptop, it just needed to be charged. As they were assessing it, though,  they discovered he had a 15GB encrypted partition on the laptop and had been trying to use wireless capabilities.

First, with respect to the defendant’s discovery laptop, which he reported to be inoperable as of June 1, 2022 (D.E. 838), the laptop was operational and returned to Mr. Schulte by the end of the day on June 3, 2022. Mr. Schulte brought the laptop to the courthouse on the morning of June 3 and it was provided to the U.S. Attorney’s Office information technology staff in the early afternoon. It appears that the laptop’s charger was not working and, after being charged with one of the Office’s power cords, the laptop could be turned on and booted. IT staff discovered, however, that the user login for the laptop BIOS1 had been changed. IT staff was able to log in to the laptop using an administrator BIOS account and a Windows login password provided by the defendant. IT staff also discovery an encrypted 15-gigabyte partition on the defendant’s hard drive. The laptop was returned to Mr. Schulte, who confirmed that he was able to log in to the laptop and access his files, along with a replacement power cord. Mr. Schulte was admonished about electronic security requirements, that he is not permitted to enable or use any wireless capabilities on the laptop, and that attempting to do so may result in the laptop being confiscated and other consequences. Mr. Schulte returned to the MDC with the laptop.

1 The BIOS is firmware used to provide runtime services for operating systems and programs and to perform hardware initialization during the booting process. The BIOS settings can determine, for example, whether external ports and wireless capabilities are enabled or disabled.

This had all the markings of a hacker — someone who had once envisioned launching a cyberattack as part of his information war from jail — trying to prepare just such an attack.

Weeks later, during the trial, the government intimated that they might punish Schulte for that stunt, but were just trying to get through trial.

We have not taken any action in response to that, because we’re in the middle of trial and we’re loath to do things that would disrupt the trial at this point.

Along the way, though, Schulte’s laptop access continued to grow — for perfectly justifiable reasons tied to the trial, but which appears to have resulted in the discovery laptop (the one with the encrypted partition that he had apparently tried to access WiFi on) being in the same place as a second exhibit laptop, perhaps the very laptop originally intended to replace the one that wasn’t really broken at all. On June 13, Judge Furman ordered the Marshals to let Schulte keep his laptop at breaks. On June 15, Schulte got Furman to order the Marshals to let him use his second laptop, “just like the discovery laptop.”

MR. SCHULTE: OK. So the first thing is I think the marshals just need permission or authorization from you for me to be able to use the second laptop for my exhibits.

THE COURT: Use in the courtroom?

MR. SCHULTE: Yeah, be able to access and use it likeI use the other. I think there was court order for me to be able to use this laptop so they need authorization from you for me to use the second laptop.

THE COURT: And the second laptop is something that standby counsel procured? What is it?


THE COURT: Any objection, Mr. Denton? Any concerns?

MR. DENTON: I think as long as it is something that’s used just here in the courtroom, that’s fine, your Honor. I think to the extent that it was going with the defendant anywhere else other than the courtroom, we would want to make sure that we applied the same security procedures that were applied to his original laptop.

THE COURT: Is it just to be used in this courtroom?

MR. SCHULTE: Yes. That’s correct. It is being locked, I think, in the FBI marshal’s room by the SCIF.

On June 17, Schulte asked Furman to issue a specific order to MDC to ensure he’d be able to “go to the law library and access the laptop.” Again, these are generally understandable accommodations for a defendant going pro se. But they may have placed his discovery laptop (normally used in MDC in Brooklyn) in close proximity to his exhibit laptop used outside of a SCIF in Manhattan.

With that in the background, on June 24, prosecutors described that just days earlier, Schulte had provided them code he wanted to introduce as an exhibit at trial. There were evidentiary problems — this was a defendant representing himself trying to introduce his own writing without taking the stand — but the real issue was his admission he was writing (very rudimentary) code on his laptop. As part of that explanation, the government also claimed that MDC had found Schulte tampering with the law library computer.

The third, however, and most sort of problematic category are the items that were marked as defense exhibits 1210 and 1211, which is code and then a compiled executable program of that code that appear to have been written by the defendant. That raises an evidentiary concern in the sense that those are essentially his own statements, which he’s not entitled to offer but, separately, to us, raises a substantial security concern of how the defendant was able to, first, write but, more significantly, compile code into an executable program on his laptop.

You know, your Honor, we have accepted a continuing expansion of the defendant’s use of a laptop that was originally provided for the purpose of reviewing discovery, but to us, this is really a bridge too far in terms of security concerns, particularly in light of the issues uncovered during the last issue with his laptop and the concerns that the MDC has raised to us about tampering with the law library computer. We have not taken any action in response to that, because we’re in the middle of trial and we’re loath to do things that would disrupt the trial at this point. The fact that defendant is compiling executable code on his laptop raises a substantial concern for us separate from the evidentiary objections we have to its introduction.

THE COURT: OK. Maybe this is better addressed to Mr. Schulte, but I don’t even understand what the third category would be offered for, how it would be offered, what it would be offered for.

MR. DENTON: As best we can tell, it is a program to change the time stamps on a file, which I suppose would be introduced to show that such a thing is possible. I don’t know. We were only provided with it on Tuesday. Again, we think there are obvious issues with its admissibility separate and apart from its relevance, but like I said, for us, it also raises the security concern that we wanted to bring to the Court’s attention.


MR. SCHULTE: But for the code, the government produced lots of source code in discovery, and this specific file is, like, ten, ten lines of source code as well as —

THE COURT: Where does it come from? Did you write it?

MR. SCHULTE: Yes, I wrote it. That’s correct.

Schulte didn’t end up introducing the script he wrote. Instead, he asked forensics expert Patrick Leedom if he knew that Schulte had used the “touch” command in malware to alter file times.

Q. Do you know about the Linux touch command?

A. Yes.

Q. This command can be used to change file times, right?

A. Yes, it can.

Q. That includes access times, right?

A. Yes.

Q. And from reviewing my workstation, you know that I developed Linux malware tools for the CIA, right?

A. I know you worked on a few tools. I don’t know if they were Linux-specific or not, but —

Q. And you knew from that that I wrote malware that specifically used the touch command to change file times, right?

In the end, then, it turned out to be just one of many instances during the trial where Schulte raised the various kinds of malware he had written to hide his tracks, infect laptops, and jump air gaps, instances that appeared amidst testimony — from that same jail informant, Carlos Betonces — that Schulte had planned to launch some kind of key event in his information war from the (MCC) law library.

Q. That we — you testified that we were going to do something really big and needed to go to the law library, right?

A. You were paying $200 to my friend named Flaco to go to the library, yes.

Q. I paid someone money?

A. No. They were paying. And Flaco refused to take it downstairs. And the only option left was that they had to go down and take it themselves.

Q. OK. So Omar offered to pay money for Flaco to take some phone down, right?

A. That’s not how Flaco told me. That’s not the way Flaco described it. He said that both of them were offering him money.

Q. All right. But there were cameras in the law library, correct?

THE INTERPRETER: I’m sorry. Can you repeat the question?

Q. There were cameras in the law library, correct?

A. I don’t know.

Q. OK. But your testimony on direct was that me and Omar needed to send some information from the phone, right?

A. Let me explain it to you again. Not information. It’s that you had to do something in the, in the library. That’s what I testified about.

Q. OK. What did I have to do in the law library, according to you?

A. Well, you’re very smart. You must know the question. There was something down there that you wanted to use that you couldn’t use upstairs.

Q. OK. You also testified something about a USB drive, right?

A. Yes.

Q. You testified, I believe, that me and Omar wanted a USB device, right?

A. Yeah. You asked me all the time when the drive was going to arrive. When was it coming? When was it coming?

Q. OK. But there were already USB hard drives given to prisoners in the prison, right?

A. Not to my understanding.

Q. You don’t — you never received or saw anyone using a USB drive with their discovery on it?

A. No, because I — no, I hardly ever went down to the law library.

Q. All right. And then you said, you testified that you slipped a note under the guard’s door?

A. Yes.

Q. And that was about, you said something was going to happen in the law library, right?

THE INTERPRETER: Could you repeat the question, please?


Q. You said that the note said something was going to happen in the law library, right?

A. Yes.

Which finally brings us to the Internet Explorer reference. During his cross-examination of FBI Agent Schlessinger on June 30, Schulte attempted to introduce the return from the warrant FBI served on WordPress after discovering Schulte was using the platform to blog from jail. The government objected, which led to an evidentiary discussion after the jury left for the weekend. The evidentiary discussion pertained to how to introduce the exhibit — which was basically his narrative attacking the criminal justice system — without also disclosing the child porn charges against Schulte referenced within them.

Schulte won that discussion. On the next trial day, July 6, Furman ruled for Schulte, and Schulte said he’d just put a document that redacted the references to his chid porn and sexual assault charges on a CD to share with the government.

MR. SCHULTE: Yes. I just — if I can get the blank CD from them or something I can just give it to them and they can review it.

But back on June 30, during the evidentiary discussion, Judge Furman suggested that the 80- or 90-page document that the government was looking at was something different than the file he was looking at.

That was surprising to Furman.

So was the fact that his version of the document opened in Internet Explorer.

MR. DENTON: Your Honor, on Exhibit 410 we recognize the Court has reserved judgment on that. I want to put sort of a fourth version in the hopper. At least in the version we are looking at, it is a 94-page 35000-word document. To the extent that the only thing the Court deems admissible is sort of the fact that there were postings that did not contain NDI, we would think it might be more appropriate to stipulate to that fact rather than put, essentially, a giant manifesto in evidence not for the truth. So I want to put that option out there given the scope of the document.


MR. DENTON: Understood, your Honor. I think at that point, even if we get past the hearsay and the not for the truth problems, then there is a sort of looming 403 problem in the sense that it is a massive document that is essentially an manifesto offered for a comparatively small point. I think at that point it is risk of confusing the jury and potentially inflaming them if people decide to sit down and to read his entire screed, it significantly outweighs the fairly limited value it serves. But, we recognize the Court has reserved on this so I don’t need to belabor the point now.

THE COURT: Unless I am looking at something different, what I opened as Defendant’s Exhibit 410 — it opened for me in Internet Explorer, for some reason and I didn’t even think Internet Explorer existed anymore — and it does not appear to be 84 pages. So, I don’t even know if I am looking at what is being offered or not. But, let me add another option, which is if the government identifies any particular content in here that it thinks should be excluded under 403, then you are certainly welcome to make that proposal as well in the event that I do decide that it should come in in more or less its entirety with the child porn redacted. And if you think that there is something else that should be redacted pursuant to 403, I will consider that. All right?

MR. DENTON: We will make sure we are looking at the same thing and take a look at it over the weekend, your Honor.

To be clear: The reason this opened in IE for Furman is almost certainly that the document was old — it would date to October 2018 — and came in a proprietary form that Furman’s computer didn’t recognize. So for some reason, his computer opened it in IE.

That said, it’s not clear that the discrepancy on the page numbers in the file was ever addressed. Schulte just spoke to one of the prosecutors and they agreed on how it would be introduced.

And if a developer who had worked on malware in 2016 wanted an infection vector, IE might be one he’d pick. That’s because Microsoft stopped supporting older versions of IE in 2016, the year Schulte left the CIA. And WordPress itself was a ripe target for hacking in 2018. Schulte himself might relish using a Microsoft vector because the expert in the trial, Leedom, has moved onto Microsoft since working as a consultant to the FBI.

I have no idea how alarmed to be about all this. The opinions from experts I’ve asked have ranged from “dated file” to “he’d have to be lucky” to “unlikely but potentially terrifying” to “no no no no!” And Schulte is the kind of guy who lets grudges fester so badly that avenging the grudge becomes more important than all else.

So I wanted to put this out there so smarter people can access the documents directly — and perhaps so technical staff from the courthouse can try to figure out why that document opened in Internet Explorer.

Note: As it did with the first trial, Calyx Institute made the transcripts available. This time, however, they were funded by Germany’s Wau Holland Foundation. WHF board member Andy Müller-Maguhn has been named in WikiLeaks operations and was in the US during some of the rough period when Schulte is alleged to have leaked these documents. 

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.


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?


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.


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?