Life of a CIA coder: Nerf guns, pranks and fat jokes

Nicole Hong, The New York Times

Posted at Feb 18 2020 08:21 AM

The CIA seal on the floor at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., on Jan. 21, 2017. The work culture described by CIA officers on the witness stand during a federal trial in Manhattan more closely resembles comedies like "The Office" or "Silicon Valley" than spy thrillers like "Jack Ryan." Doug Mills, The New York Times

Inside a secret government building west of Washington, D.C. — past the armed guards, through the turnstiles and coded locks, into a vaulted office with the highest security clearance — sat the CIA’s team of elite programmers.

They had the weighty mission of creating the hacking tools used by the CIA to spy on foreign governments and terrorists. If that job description conjures Hollywood images of serious officers in dark suits huddling over clandestine operations, a different picture emerged during a federal trial in Manhattan this month.

The work culture described by CIA officers on the witness stand more closely resembled comedies like “The Office” or “Silicon Valley” than spy thrillers like “Jack Ryan.”

From their cubicles, the programmers sent prank emails, taunted colleagues about their physical appearance and shot each other with Nerf guns and rubber bands, according to trial testimony.

The man on trial, Joshua Schulte, is a former CIA computer engineer who is accused of stealing a massive archive of classified documents and giving them to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization. Schulte, 31, has denied the allegations.

WikiLeaks published the information in 2017, the biggest leak of classified CIA documents in the spy agency’s history.

For the past two weeks, Schulte’s former colleagues and law enforcement officials have taken the stand to explain a thicket of CIA computer networks, guiding jurors through a digital trail that prosecutors say led to Schulte as the leaker. Testimony will resume Tuesday.

The government charges that Schulte stole the documents to retaliate against his managers, who he believed did not take his workplace complaints seriously.

Multiple CIA witnesses — testifying under pseudonyms or with first names only — have described an office culture at odds with the myth of the agency.

“It may surprise some to discover that we are not the gun-toting, globe-trotting, martini-drinking spies frequently portrayed on the silver screen,” the CIA website says, adding that the work of most intelligence officers resembles “any other nine-to-five job in terms of logistics and lifestyle.”

The trial testimony has focused on a corner of the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, where Schulte worked until his resignation in 2016. Every developer in Schulte’s group, which was predominantly made up of men, had top-secret security clearance, one witness testified.

The group worked on classified projects, writing the code that allowed other CIA officers to carry out sophisticated cyber operations and penetrate the computer networks of foreign targets.

Though Schulte’s former co-workers said the office was focused on the national security mission, it was also a breeding ground for sophomoric pranks and fights.

One CIA employee, identified only as Michael, testified that he and Schulte once flicked each other with rubber bands until late at night in the office. The fight escalated, and they wrecked each other’s desks. Then, backed up against a desk, Michael said he hit Schulte.

Another CIA employee, who used the pseudonym Jeremy Weber, testified that once, when he left his computer open, Schulte used it to send a profane message to everyone in their group under Weber’s name.

In the prank message, “Mr. Weber” described himself as a jerk, using a cruder term.

Insults regularly flew in the office. One co-worker with braces was known as “metal mouth,” Weber testified. Schulte was mocked for being bald.

The programmers shot foam darts at each other with big plastic Nerf guns, Weber said. They also hid each other’s personal belongings as pranks.

In some ways, Schulte’s trial is an office worker’s nightmare. Sentences from long-ago work emails have been dissected in front of jurors, and CIA witnesses have been asked under oath about their honest opinions of their bosses.

Schulte, who was known for being a difficult colleague, had a particularly strained relationship with another developer, identified only as Amol.

During an argument in early 2016 between the two men, Weber testified that he tried to intervene, telling Schulte to be “the bigger man.” Schulte responded, “We all know who the bigger man is,” a reference to Amol’s weight, according to Weber.

Schulte and Amol filed workplace complaints against each other, with Schulte claiming that Amol had threatened to kill him. Their CIA supervisor at the time testified last week that an internal investigation found Schulte’s accusation to be meritless.

Management became especially concerned after Schulte obtained a restraining order against Amol and decided to physically separate the two employees by seating them in different areas.

Schulte was offended at the prospect of moving desks, according to trial testimony. He relocated a few personal items to the new desk, then returned to his old desk to do work. He would repeat this process whenever his boss checked in but never completed the move, Weber testified.

As his grievances accumulated, prosecutors said, Schulte used a back door in the CIA computer network in April 2016 to access sensitive projects that matched the information WikiLeaks published nearly a year later.

Schulte’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, has called him an easy scapegoat for the CIA because he had antagonized so many colleagues there. But, she said in her opening statement, “A difficult employee does not translate to being a traitor.”

During cross-examination, Shroff asked Bonnie Stith, the retired head of the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, whether she had been aware that “grown men” under her supervision were shooting Nerf guns and shoving each other in the office. Stith said she had not been.

A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.

Schulte’s defense team has subpoenaed at least 69 current or former CIA employees to testify at trial, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was CIA director during the WikiLeaks disclosures.

The government last week asked the judge to stop Pompeo from taking the stand, saying his testimony was not relevant to the case. The judge has yet to issue his ruling.

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