Retired Gen. James Cartwright has been charged with making false statements during a probe into the disclosure of classified information. | AP Photo
By Josh Gerstein
The Obama administration’s anti-leak drive has netted its most serious conviction of a high-ranking government official: a guilty plea by a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a felony charge of lying to investigators probing leaks about top secret U.S. efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.
Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright appeared in federal court in Washington on Monday afternoon, speaking in a low voice as U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon accepted the former four-star general’s admission that he lied to FBI agents about his contacts with New York Times reporter David Sanger and former Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman.
Prosecutor Leo Wise said that in early 2012 the retired military officer “provided and confirmed classified information, including TOP SECRET/SCI information” to Sanger and “confirmed classified information” to Klaidman. The prosecutor did not mention the still-classified Stuxnet program, but the investigation in question is known to involve release of information about the reported joint U.S.-Israel drive to use computer viruses to set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
During the half-hour-long plea hearing, Cartwright — who also led the U.S. Strategic Command and was known to have a close relationship with President Barack Obama — agreed to the government’s claims about his conduct
However, written statements issued after the session by Cartwright and his attorney asserted that the ex-general wasn’t an original source for the journalists and was trying to mitigate damage already done.
Cartwright spoke to the reporters “to protect American interests and lives in a story they had already written,” said defense attorney Greg Craig, Obama’s first White House counsel. “In his conversations with these two reporters, Gen. Cartwright was engaged in a well-known and understood practice of attempting to save national secrets, not disclosing classified information. His effort to prevent publication of information that might harm American lives or national security does not constitute a violation of any law.”
There were no salutes for the popular, 67-year-old retired Marine commander during the plea hearing Monday. Cartwright, wearing a dark suit and still sporting a close-cropped military haircut, stood as a lectern as the judge led him through a standard recitation used for guilty pleas in far more common cases such as those involving drugs and violence.
“Parole has been abolished in the federal system. If you are sentenced to prison, you will not be released on parole. Do you understand that?” Leon asked.
“I do, sir,” Cartwright replied, clearly but quietly.
Three deputy U.S. Marshals were in the courtroom ready to take Cartwright into custody, but the government did not request that and the judge did not order it. Leon set sentencing in the case for Jan. 17.
“You’re in a little different status now that you were when you entered the room,” Leon warned. “You’re under the court’s supervision. It’s best for you to stay on the straight and narrow.”
Craig emphasized in his statement that Cartwright did not plead guilty to leaking classified information, but solely to lying to the FBI.
“It was wrong for me to mislead the FBI … and I accept full responsibility for this. I knew I was not the source of the story and I didn’t want to be blamed for the leak,” the retired general said in his statement.
Under the plea deal, the government and the defense agreed that sentencing guidelines call for between zero and six months in jail. However, prosecutors have the right to ask for a more serious sentence. The maximum possible sentence is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The false statement charge has benefits for both the defense and the government compared with the possibility of a contested public trial on the more serious charge of intentionally disclosing classified information.
With the plea, the defense limits the potential of two or perhaps more leak-related charges under the Espionage Act, carrying a possible 10-year term on each. In addition, an obstruction-of-justice charge is often added when prosecutors believe witnesses have lied to investigators.
However, at any trial the government would face the possibility of more disclosures about the highly-classified intelligence operation at issue. The probe into the episode began in 2012 and has dragged on for more than four years, reportedly delayed by Israeli concerns that a public prosecution would expose intelligence methods.
Cartwright’s guilty plea comes about a year and a half after one of his former military colleagues, ex-CIA Director and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information for sharing top secret data with his biographer, Army reservist Paula Broadwell. Petraeus got no jail time, with a sentence of two years probation and a $100,000 fine.
It’s not entirely clear why prosecutors held out for a felony in Cartwright’s case, but it could involve a combination of the unusual sensitivity of the Stuxnet program and the fact that the effort was publicly exposed. Both cases involved false statements to investigators.
The prosecutions of Cartwright and Petraeus, taken together, could also help the Justice Department combat perceptions that senior officials are treated with near-impunity in classified information investigations. The Obama administration was sharply criticized by First Amendment and whistleblower groups over a unprecedented wave of prosecutions directed at low- to mid-ranking officials suspected of leaking sensitive details.
A variation of that critique emerged again this summer when the FBI recommended no prosecution over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server that intelligence agencies said contained classified information.
Many military members and retirees noted that the military often treats such offenses seriously and takes leaking even more seriously. After Army Pvt. First Class Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning was convicted at a court martial of leaking tens of thousands of military reports and diplomatic cables. He received a 35 year sentence — by far the most severe punishment for a leak in U.S. history.
Cartwright, known by his nickname “Hoss,” appears to have been done in by one of his own emails. The factual statement prosecutors presented in court, and he agreed to, said he denied to the FBI ever discussing with Klaidman “Country 1” — not further identified in the court filing but believed to be Iran, or possibly Israel. However, investigators obtained an email to Klaidman in which “Cartwright had confirmed certain classified information relating to Country 1,” Wise said.
The court filing said Cartwright offered similarly broad denials about his dealings with Sanger.
“After investigators showed Cartwright a list of quotes and statements from David Sanger’s book, a number of which contained classified information, Cartwright falsely told investigators that he was not the source of any quotes and statements,” the legal filing said. “Cartwright also falsely told investigators that he did not provide or confirm information to David Sanger.”
It added: “Cartwright falsely told investigators that he never discussed Country 1 with Daniel Klaidman when in truth Cartwright had confirmed certain classified information relating to Country 1 in an email he sent to Daniel Klaidman.”
Cartwright, who retired in 2011, was stripped of his security clearance in 2013 as the investigation unfolded.
The investigation of the Stuxnet leak was overseen by the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, Rod Rosenstein, who was at the prosecution table in the courtroom Monday.
Attorney General Eric Holder tapped Rosenstein to head up the probe in 2012, in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest given the senior White House, Pentagon and Justice Department officials who were potential suspects in the leak.
“People who gain access to classified information after promising not to disclose it must be held accountable when they willfully violate that promise,” Rosenstein said in a statement issued after he passed up a chance to speak with reporters at the courthouse.
“We conducted a thorough and independent investigation included collecting tens of thousands of documents through subpoenas, search warrants and document requests, and interviewing scores of current and former government employees. The evidence showed that General Cartwright disclosed classified information without authorization to two reporters and lied to federal investigators. As a result, he stands convicted of a federal felony offense and faces a potential prison sentence,” Rosenstein added.
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.
James Cartwright, Ex-General, Pleads Guilty in Leak Case
WASHINGTON — James E. Cartwright, a retired Marine Corps general who as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff served as a key member of President Obama’s national security team, agreed to plead guilty on Monday to lying to the F.B.I. about his discussions with reporters about Iran’s nuclear program.
General Cartwright entered the guilty plea before Judge Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. As part of the deal, prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that under sentencing guidelines, the punishment could range from a $500 fine to six months in prison. However, the government reserved the right to argue for a higher sentence, and the judge is not bound by the guidelines. Judge Leon set a sentencing hearing for Jan. 17.
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Tags: Obama Administration, New York Times, Iran's nuclear program, Stuxnet, David Sanger, Cartwright, U.S. Strategic Command, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felony charge of lying to investigators, top secret U.S. program, Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, he lied to FBI agents, Country 1