James “Hoss” Cartwright was known as President Obama’s favorite general — a savvy Marine Corps veteran who, as vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid regular visits to the White House providing key advice on everything from drone strikes to the new era of cyber warfare.
But Monday, in an extraordinary rebuke, he stood stiffly in civilian clothes before a federal judge and pled guilty to a felony charge that he lied to the FBI about disclosing classified information to two journalists. It was the latest in an unprecedented series of leak-related cases brought by the Obama Justice Department. It prompted the New York Times (the main beneficiary of Cartwright’s leak, which concerned American cyberwar efforts against the Iranian nuclear program) to denounce his prosecution as “chilling.”
“Are you under the influence of any drugs, narcotics” or alcohol that might “cloud your judgment?” said U.S. Judge Richard Leon, using the standard language asked of all criminal defendants, as he briskly grilled the retired four-star general about his decision to enter a guilty plea.
Cartwright, 67, with his lawyer, former White House counsel Gregory Craig, standing beside him, responded with barely audible monosyllables: “No, sir,” he said in response to the question about being on drugs. “Yes, sir,” he told Leon, when asked if he fully understood the charge against him and that it might send him to federal prison.
Cartwright’s plea caps a four-year-long leak investigation over disclosures in a book and article by New York Times reporter David Sanger about how the U.S. and Israel unleashed a computer virus known as “Stuxnet” to disable Iranian nuclear centrifuges. He also pled to lying about disclosures he made to former Newsweek editor Daniel Klaidman about the administration’s covert efforts to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. Klaidman is now deputy editor of Yahoo News.
Cartwright is the 10th person to be criminally charged under President Obama in a case related to classified disclosures — more by far than were brought by any president before him. Critics have charged Obama, who once promised the “most transparent administration in history,” with conducting a “war on whistleblowers” meant to discourage government employees from disclosing government abuse and misconduct.
But the Cartwright case may have been the most sensitive leak investigation of all. It appeared from the start to involve what is known in Washington as a politically authorized leak. It revealed Obama’s direct role in authorizing aggressive covert action against the Iranian regime that, as White House aides spun it, avoided a military confrontation with that country yet still achieved the U.S. government’s goal of thwarting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Moreover, the information Cartwright is said to have disclosed appeared in a news story and book that came out in June 2012 — smack in the middle of an election year when the White House was intent on burnishing the president’s national security credentials in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney.
According to details disclosed in federal court today, Cartwright spoke to New York Times reporter Sanger on multiple occasions between January 2012 and June 2012, and those talks included discussions about what a federal prosecutor described as “top secret classified information.”
In early June, 2012, Sanger’s book about Obama’s foreign policy, “Confront and Conceal,” appeared, along with a front page New York Times story that included bombshell details about the White House’s role in the Stuxnet attack. Under the headline, “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran,” the Times article disclosed the president’s direct participation in the decisions to unleash Stuxnet — complete with details from inside White House situation room meetings, in which Cartwright participated. It reported how the Iranians were “mystified” and “confused” by the cyberattacks. It quoted one American official describing the “brilliant” malicious code injected into Iranian computers. Another “senior administration official” appeared to be gloating about how involved the president was in directing the effort: “From his first days in office, [Obama] was deep into every step in slowing the Iranian program — the diplomacy, the sanctions, every major decision,” the unnamed senior official is quoted as saying. “And it’s safe to say that whatever other activity might have been under way was no exception to that rule.”