Retired Marine Corps general and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James E. Cartwright recently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his discussions with reporters about Iran’s nuclear program.
“It was wrong for me to mislead the FBI on Nov. 2, 2012, and I accept full responsibility for this,” Cartwright said. “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. I love my country and continue to this day to do everything I can to defend it.”
As part of his plea deal, Cartwright could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A judge will make a decision at the sentencing hearing Jan. 17.
The guilty plea to one felony count effectively ends a four-year investigation, launched after Cartwright’s 2012 interview with New York Times writer David Sanger, who published information about an operation that carried the code name “Olympic Games.” That operation was a cyber attack on centrifuges Iran was using to enrich Uranium.
When details of the operation were made public, the FBI launched an investigation into who leaked the info to the media. Prosecutors allege Cartwright was the source of the leak.
Cartwright is one of three senior officials investigated by the Obama administration for mishandling classified information over the past three years.
Some have expressed concern that Cartwright’s punishment far exceeds what Gen. David Petraeus received, even after he lied to the FBI and passed hundreds of highly classified documents to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell. Petraeus pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of removing and retaining classified materials. He was sentenced to two years probation and a $100,000 fine.
“Cartwright’s greatest mistake was not talking to reporters or lying about it; he failed to play the Washington game skillfully enough to avoid becoming a scapegoat for a system in which senior officials skirt the rules and then fall back on their political power to save them,” writes Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin.
The contrast between Cartwright and Petraeus pales next to that of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was not charged even after FBI Director James Comey said she was “extremely careless” in her handling of “very sensitive, highly classified information.”
“He [Cartwright] is being singled out for prosecution and public humiliation,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s an implicit rebuttal to those who argued that other senior officials such as Clinton or Petraeus got off scot-free or got too light of a sentence.”
Aftergood also claims the Justice Department is trying to save face, saying the punishment for Cartwright is a political statement.
“They seem to be trying to make a policy point,” he said. “The Justice Department would say they are not influenced at all by policy or political considerations. In the real world, of course they are influenced.”
For Cartwright, previously known as “Obama’s favorite general” before his retirement in 2011, the plea seems like a steep fall from grace.
“In his best-case scenario, Cartwright could avoid prison time but will be saddled with a felony conviction that will bar him from most money-making opportunities,” Rogin added. “In the worst-case scenario, he could be getting released from prison around the same time Clinton finishes her first term.”
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