The Cable

‘Obama’s General’ Pleads Guilty to Leaking Stuxnet Operation

Gen. James Cartwright was a favorite of the commander in chief but that couldn’t save him from the White House’s war on leakers.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17:  Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, leaves US District Court, October 17, 2016 in Washington, DC. Cartwright pleaded guilty to making false statements during a federal investigation.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, leaves US District Court, October 17, 2016 in Washington, DC. Cartwright pleaded guilty to making false statements during a federal investigation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It was Washington’s worst-kept secret that retired Gen. James Cartwright served as a key source for New York Times reporter David Sanger’s revelations about the Stuxnet computer virus used to attack Iran’s nuclear program beginning in 2009. The only question was whether he would ever face charges for doing so.

On Monday, a federal prosecutor announced that the former vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff was charged with lying to investigators about the information he provided to Sanger and another journalist, Daniel Klaidman. Cartwright pleaded guilty during a Monday afternoon court appearance before a Washington D.C. federal court.

Per the terms of an agreement reached between the prosecution and Cartwright’s defense, the two sides will recommend a prison sentence from zero to six months.

“It was wrong for me to mislead the FBI,” Cartwright said in a statement. “I accept full responsibility.”

“I knew I was not the source of the story and I didn’t want to be blamed for the leak. My only goal in talking to the reporters was to protect American interests and lives,” he said. “I love my country and continue to this day to do everything I can to defend it.”

Cartwright’s guilty plea marks the end of an extraordinary investigation for a military man once described as “Obama’s general.” The mastermind of the Stuxnet program, which helped hamstring Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, Cartwright started the project during the George W. Bush administration before escalating the digital attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges after President Obama took office.

Stuxnet’s existence was first revealed not by official leak, but rather when the virus broke out of the computers controlling Iran’s centrifuges, which are needed to produce highly-enriched uranium for a bomb. The bug quickly spread into the wild and infected millions of computers around the world. Computer security security researchers discovered the virus and quickly determined that it was likely an American or Israeli cyber weapon.

Sanger, of the Times, exposed the existence of the operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, dubbed “Olympic Games”, and confirmed American and Israeli authorship of the virus. Sanger cited as his sources “participants in the program,” and immediately set off a Washington parlor game as to who had leaked the existence of one of the most-highly classified operations in memory. Cartwright emerged as the leading suspect, and the FBI has been investigating the general since 2012.

Cartwright was beloved in the White House for a host of unpopular opinions that cut against the grain of military orthodoxy. He opposed the troop surge to Afghanistan and suggested killing the production of the F-22 fighter jet, to the dismay of defense contractors. Such contrarian opinions won him a favored position in the White House, but rubbed many in the Pentagon the wrong way.

After four years of FBI scrutiny, Cartwright now joins a large group of former Obama administration officials to be charged for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Though he entered offices pledging a new era of government transparency, Obama has cracked down on leaks and aggressively prosecuted officials leaking material to the press, among them former NSA contractor Ed Snowden and former State Department official Stephen Jin-Woo Kim.

But when it comes to the prosecution of generals cozying up to the press, the administration has taken a different tack. Gen. David Petraeus, a rock-star general and later director of the CIA, escaped with little more than a slap on the wrist after he provided his lover and biographer, Paula Broadwell, with notebooks containing highly classified information. Petraeus pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and paid a handsome fine — one, however, he had no problem paying in his well-compensated, post-retirement role as an adviser to investment giant KKR.

Cartwright isn’t charged with leaking classified information — but for lying to investigators about it. According to a charging document for the retired general, when investigators showed him “a list of quotes and statements from David Sanger’s book, a number of which contained classified information, Cartwright falsely told investigators he was not the source of any of the quotes and statements.”

Petraeus’s escape from any serious punishment infuriated the FBI, which considered his actions a serious breach of national security and warned that it would make it more difficult to prosecute other leakers.

Cartwright’s sentencing — set for Jan. 17 — presents a major test for the government’s ability to prosecute and meaningfully punish high-level general for disclosing classified information. The recommendation of a zero to six month sentence means the retired Marine general might see jail time but appears to leave some discretion to the judge in the case, District Judge Richard J. Leon.

Cartwright’s sentencing may also provide a venue to consider a host of questions about the Obama administration’s handling of classified information. While Obama has clamped down on unauthorized disclosures the press, it also regularly leaks ostensibly classified information to the media. Former White House counterterrorism adviser and current CIA Director John Brennan may have revealed in 2012 the existence of an American mole inside al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen when he described how the United States had foiled a bomb plot.

Cartwright was reportedly authorized to speak to the press about Stuxnet but apparently went too far in his conversations with Sanger and Klaidman.

For that reason, Cartwright’s guilty plea represents a remarkable fall from grace. 

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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