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A General Gets Knifed

The Obama administration's infighting suddenly goes public.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Usually, the Obama administration and the Pentagon do their bureaucratic knife fighting in private. Not so in the latest investigation of a national security leak.

This time the target is one of the highest-profile — and perhaps most controversial — senior military officers in the United States, Gen. James Cartwright. The former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is now allegedly a top target in the FBI’s investigation of who leaked details about the Stuxnet cyberweapon that hit Iran’s nuclear program.

NBC News broke the story last night. (Who leaked word to them is unknown; the possibilities are vast.) Cartwright, however, saw this coming. In recent months, he believed that his communications were being monitored and that he was being watched. He knew he was a target of the investigation. And with good reason. Aside from the fact that he was identified in David Sanger’s book Confront and Conceal as a mastermind of the Stuxnet project, Cartwright is also one of the most politically contentious military officers in Washington.

Cartwright has taken contrarian and politically risky positions on major policy decisions, most notably when he broke with many of his fellow generals and opposed a troop surge in Afghanistan. This brought him closer to the commander in chief (Cartwright had been called Obama’s favorite general), but it alienated him from his own cohort, including David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Cartwright also loved to talk about cyberconflict. He took the lead in establishing what would become the Pentagon’s Cyber Command. He pushed to make the United States’ own cyberattack capabilities "credible," which some took to mean public. Being the guy who likes to talk about things like Stuxnet makes him a logical suspect for leaking about Stuxnet.

A close reading of Sanger’s book shows he had sources on Stuxnet that went far beyond Cartwright, and far beyond the White House. Sanger also had the project approved at the highest levels. "We certainly didn’t lock him out," jokes one former administration official.

Cartwright is also vulnerable because — conveniently — he’s no longer in government. The list of plausible leakers of Stuxnet includes senior White House officials and intelligence agency leaders. (Already, the mere possibility that national security advisor Tom Donilon might have been the Stuxnet leaker helped spoil any hope he had of becoming secretary of state.) No doubt the FBI investigators are professionals, not political creatures. But even professionals take into account Washington’s architecture of power. Targeting a sitting official has to be done with care, since it would be politically devastating to an administration that already is on the defensive about other officials who might have disclosed sensitive information.

Take the current CIA director, John Brennan, for instance. He may have tipped TV pundits to the existence of a CIA mole in Yemen. Yet it’s the Associated Press’s reporting team that’s coming under scrutiny for reporting on a CIA operation that foiled a bombing attempt — even though the story in question was held at the agency’s request.

This isn’t the first time the knives have been out for Cartwright. He was the subject of a smear campaign around allegations of sexual indiscretion, which were later found not credible. He tweaked fellow officers by pushing a plan to refurbish ballistic missiles rather than build new bombers. He joined in the effort to stop the F-22 Raptor program and other sacred cows of Pentagon procurement. The break over Afghanistan didn’t exactly help him win backers in his bid to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs. As much as Obama liked Cartwright, he knew that he had made too many enemies among the Pentagon brass to be an effective leader.

But Cartwright did have fans in the press corps, which usually found him an affable and, most importantly, accessible source. He was cerebral for a former Marine Corps pilot, and tech-focused long before that was considered to be an attribute for a general officer. Cartwright was not exactly a media showboater, but he didn’t shy from the limelight.

In an administration that loves leak investigations, this is arguably the most significant one to date. The foreign-policy implications of identifying the Stuxnet virus as the handiwork of U.S. spies were enormous. The Obama administration’s protests against Chinese cyber-espionage are undermined by the fact that America fired the first shot in a global cyberwar. And it arguably led to an escalation. U.S. intelligence believes that the cyberattack on the facilities of Saudi Aramco last year was carried out by the government of Iran.

Yet there were members of the intelligence community who believe that the Stuxnet leak had its benefits. "People in IC love the fact that Iranians think we can fuck with them at any time," the former administration official tells Foreign Policy. Besides, it’s not like the Iranians suddenly learned of America’s role in Stuxnet from a book. The U.S. and Israeli authorship of the virus was widely assumed for more than a year.

Which makes the targeting of Cartwright alone seem, if not exactly unfair, all too convenient. And in Washington today, utterly predictable.

 Twitter: @shaneharris
 Twitter: @NoahShachtman

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