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US Life of a C.I.A. Coder: Nerf Guns, Pranks and Fat Jokes

00:25  18 february  2020
00:25  18 february  2020 Source:   nytimes.com

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From their cubicles, the programmers sent prank emails, taunted colleagues about their physical appearance and shot each other with Nerf guns and The programmers shot foam darts at each other with big plastic Nerf guns , Mr. Weber said. They also hid each other’s personal belongings as a prank .

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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 Central Intelligence Agency’s team of elite programmers.

a black sign with white text: The lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va.© Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images The lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va.

They had the weighty mission of creating the hacking tools used by the C.I.A. 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.

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From clean knock-knock jokes and the top corny jokes to hilarious one-liners and clever riddles, we've got the jokes guaranteed to bring on serious laughs. “This is your great-grandma and great grandpa,” I told my grandson as I handed him a photo of my parents. “Do you think I look like them?”

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

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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 C.I.A. computer engineer who is accused of stealing a massive archive of classified documents and giving them to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization. Mr. Schulte, 31, has denied the allegations.

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

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

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

Multiple C.I.A. 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 C.I.A. website says, adding that the work of most intelligence officers resembles “any other nine-to-five job in terms of logistics and lifestyle.”

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The trial testimony has focused on a corner of the C.I.A.’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, where Mr. Schulte worked until his resignation in 2016. Every developer in Mr. 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 C.I.A. officers to carry out sophisticated cyber operations and penetrate the computer networks of foreign targets.

Though Mr. 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 C.I.A. employee, identified only as Michael, testified that he and Mr. 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 Mr. Schulte.

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

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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,” Mr. Weber testified. Mr. Schulte was mocked for being bald.

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

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

Mr. 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, Mr. Weber testified that he tried to intervene, telling Mr. Schulte to be “the bigger man.” Mr. Schulte responded, “We all know who the bigger man is,” a reference to Amol’s weight, according to Mr. Weber.

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

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

Mr. 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, Mr. Weber testified.

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

Mr. Schulte’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, has called him an easy scapegoat for the C.I.A. 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, Ms. Shroff asked Bonnie Stith, the retired head of the C.I.A.’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. Ms. Stith said she had not been.

A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to comment.

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

The government last week asked the judge to stop Mr. 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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