Former JCS vice chairman pleads guilty to false statements in classified leak investigation
A retired four-star Marine Corps general who served as the nation's second-ranking military officer pleaded guilty Monday to making false statements in a probe of a leak of classified information about a covert U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iran's nuclear program.
James E. "Hoss" Cartwright, who served as deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before he retired in 2011, entered his plea in federal court in Washington before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon of D.C.
The plea came hours after the charge against Cartwright was announced by the office of U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein of Maryland.
U.S. officials in June 2013 disclosed that Cartwright was the target of a Justice Department investigation into a leak to New York Times reporter David E. Sanger of details about a highly classified operation to hobble Iran's uranium-enrichment capability through cyber-sabotage — an effort not acknowledged by Israel or the United States.
Prosecutors in court documents accused Cartwright of falsely telling investigators he did not provide or confirm classified information to Sanger for his 2012 book, "Confront and Conceal," and of falsely denying he did not confirm similar information in an email to Newsweek correspondent Daniel Klaidman.
In a written statement to reporters distributed after his plea, Cartwright said, "It was wrong for me to mislead the FBI [in an voluntary interview] on Nov. 2, 2012, and I accept full responsibility."
Cartwright also said in the statement, "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 added, "I love my country and continue to this day to do everything I can to defend it."
The false statements charge carries a maximum prison term of five years, but under a plea agreement both sides agreed to a recommendation of zero to six months at sentencing set for Jan. 17. Part of the sentencing proceeding, Leon said Monday, might be held in secret to discuss classified information.
FBI investigators focused on Cartwright in the fall of 2012, officials said. They interviewed him at least twice, according to people who are familiar with the case and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
Part of the challenge of preparing the case was determining to what extent authorities who control the declassification of information — in this case the White House and the intelligence community — were willing to divulge information.
The Obama administration was also sensitive to its ally Israel's concerns about revealing any information in a court case about the cyber operation.
Cartwright had White House authorization to speak with reporters, according to people familiar with the matter.
The false statement charge was, practically speaking, the stiffest charge the government was going to be able to bring given the challenges of building a prosecution in a case involving highly classified information, several current and former law enforcement officials said.
In such cases, prosecutors run into resistance from officials and agencies that want to keep the information under wraps. That is what happened here, the officials said. By 2014, it was clear the case was hitting roadblocks. White House officials, for instance, did not want to declassify material that would be important to the case.
But, during his interviews with FBI special agents, Cartwright made false statements, the government alleged. That gave prosecutors the grounds to bring the felony charge.
"Clearly lying to the FBI is not that big a deal if you compare it to espionage," said a former federal law enforcement official, who like several others interviewed asked not to be identified because of the matter's sensitivity. "But sometimes it's the only charge you can bring."
Still, the former official said, "if you talk and lie, it's much worse than not talking."
Cartwright's attorney, Gregory Craig, said in a written statement after the plea that in conversations with Sanger and Klaidman, 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."
Craig added, Cartwright's "offense was in statements he made to FBI agents investigating a leak — and that is the entire basis of his plea."
Legal analysts also noted that Cartwright was being charged with making false statements in connection with the leak investigation -and not with the leak itself. Nonetheless, the prosecution shows the Obama administration is seeking to send a message about unauthorized leaks of classified information, said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.
The charge against Cartwright, Vladeck said, is "probably as much about protecting particular sources and methods as it is about the actual unlawful conduct."
"I think the reality is that this trend will not stop leaking," Vladeck said. "But I have to think it will at least dissuade this."
Klaidman declined comment Monday.
The long-running investigation was reportedly stalled last year by national security and diplomatic concerns, after Israel opposed confirming details of the operation in court. The United States was in the final stages of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Cartwright helped design the cyber-campaign against Iran under President George W. Bush and was involved in its escalation under President Obama.
Details of the joint program, including its code name, Olympic Games, were revealed by Sanger in a book and article in June 2012. The sabotage of Iranian uranium centrifuges by the computer worm dubbed Stuxnet had emerged two years earlier, and security experts speculated that it was the work of the United States and Israel.
Neither the United States nor Israel has ever formally acknowledged their role in the cyberattack — the first known use of computer code to destroy another country's critical system.
Disclosures about the operation set off a political controversy, with congressional Republicans charging that the White House had deliberately leaked information to enhance Obama's national security credentials as he sought reelection.