In weekly online posts last year, WikiLeaks released a stolen archive of secret documents about the Central Intelligence Agency’s hacking operations, including software exploits designed to take over iPhones and turn smart television sets into surveillance devices.
It was the largest loss of classified documents in the agency’s history and a huge embarrassment for C.I.A. officials.
Now, the prime suspect in the breach has been identified: a 29-year-old former C.I.A. software engineer who had designed malware used to break into the computers of terrorism suspects and other targets, The New York Times has learned.
Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched the Manhattan apartment of the suspect, Joshua A. Schulte, one week after WikiLeaks released the first of the C.I.A. documents in March last year, and then stopped him from flying to Mexico on vacation, taking his passport, according to court records and relatives. The search warrant application said Mr. Schulte was suspected of “distribution of national defense information,” and agents told the court they had retrieved “N.S.A. and C.I.A. paperwork” in addition to a computer, tablet, phone and other electronics.
But instead of charging Mr. Schulte in the breach, referred to as the Vault 7 leak, prosecutors charged him last August with possessing child pornography, saying agents had found 10,000 illicit images on a server he created as a business in 2009 while studying at the University of Texas at Austin.
Court papers quote messages from Mr. Schulte that suggest he was aware of the encrypted images of children being molested by adults on his computer, though he advised one user, “Just don’t put anything too illegal on there.”
In September, Mr. Schulte was released on the condition that he not leave New York City, where he lived with a cousin, and keep off computers. He was jailed in December after prosecutors found evidence that he had violated those rules, and he has been held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan since then. He has posted on Facebook under a pseudonym a series of essays critical of the criminal justice system.
It is unclear why, more than a year after he was arrested, he has not been charged or cleared in connection with Vault 7. Leak investigators have had access to electronic audit trails inside the C.I.A. that may indicate who accessed the files that were stolen, and they have had possession of Mr. Schulte’s personal data for many months.
In court in January, a prosecutor, the assistant United States attorney Matthew J. Laroche, said that “the government immediately had enough evidence” to make Mr. Schulte a target of the investigation. He said that the investigation was continuing, and that it involved in part how Tor, software that allows anonymous communication on the internet, “was used in transmitting classified information.”
Mr. Schulte’s lawyers have repeatedly demanded that prosecutors make a decision on the Vault 7 leak charges. Prosecutors said in court last week that they planned to file a new indictment in the next 45 days, and Mr. Schulte’s lawyer Sabrina P. Shroff, of the federal public defender’s office, asked the court to impose a deadline on any charges that the government sought to bring under the Espionage Act for supplying the secret C.I.A. files to WikiLeaks.
“This case has been dragging since August 2017,” Ms. Shroff said in an interview. “The government should be required to indict so Mr. Schulte has the opportunity to defend himself. Otherwise he is just languishing.”
Spokesmen for the C.I.A. and the Justice Department declined to comment. When WikiLeaks began to post the stolen documents last year, the C.I.A. said in a statement, “The American public should be deeply troubled by any WikiLeaks disclosure designed to damage the Intelligence Community’s ability to protect America against terrorists and other adversaries.”
Family members, who have spent much of their savings on legal fees, say they believe that Mr. Schulte is a scapegoat for the C.I.A.’s inability to secure its most sensitive files. They say the child pornography charges, based on his actions nine years ago when he was 20, are a thin pretext for keeping him incarcerated.
“I am just scared to death,” said Roger Schulte, Mr. Schulte’s father, who lives in Lubbock, Tex. “I think he’s innocent of all these crimes, as far as everything I’ve seen.” The elder Mr. Schulte said that his son was in college when he built the server later found to contain child pornography, and that he “had so many people accessing it he didn’t care what people put on it.”
Far from leaking classified information, his father said, Mr. Schulte had actually complained about security vulnerabilities at the C.I.A., first to his superiors and later to the agency’s inspector general and to a House Intelligence Committee staff member. Family members shared with The Times evidence of those contacts, which predated the Vault 7 release.
According to his family and his LinkedIn page, Mr. Schulte did an internship at the National Security Agency while working on a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. He worked in the C.I.A.’s Engineering Development Group, which designed the hacking tools used by its Center for Cyber Intelligence. He left the agency in November 2016 and moved to New York to work for Bloomberg L.P. as a software engineer.
Most of the government’s cyberespionage is carried out by the N.S.A., but the C.I.A. also employs hackers. The leaked Vault 7 documents came from the agency’s Engineering Development Group and included descriptions and instructions for the use of agency hacking tools, but only a small amount of the actual computer code for the tools.
Despite the scale of the breach, Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, Calif., said WikiLeaks had exaggerated the danger to civil liberties from the C.I.A. hacking tools, which he said were actually designed to target small numbers of high-priority targets.
Mr. Weaver called the Vault 7 tools “creative but not really special” and designed for “very targeted espionage.” He said the real significance of the leak was that it could happen at all, despite tightened security measures imposed after Edward J. Snowden took hundreds of thousands of classified N.S.A. documents and shared them with journalists.
“Somebody managed to walk out with a huge amount of secret data from a C.I.A. facility,” he said. If the leaker has been identified, he said, “that is very reassuring.”
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