A former vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff on Monday pleaded guilty to making false statements during an investigation into a leak of classified information about a covert cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Retired US Marine General James Cartwright entered the plea at a hearing before US District Judge Richard Leon, convened just a few hours after the US Department of Justice announced the charges.
The plea ends a department investigation that began after the 2012 leak to reporters of information about use of a computer virus, called Stuxnet, that disabled equipment the Iranians were using to enrich uranium.
The offense carries a maximum of five years in prison, but under a plea agreement, the government is recommending a sentence up to six months. Cartwright is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 17 next year and it would be up to Leon to decide the sentence.
Cartwright, 67, falsely told investigators that he did not provide or confirm classified information contained in a news article and in a book by New York Times journalist David Sanger, according to charging documents unsealed by prosecutors.
Neither the book nor the classified subject is identified in court papers.
However, Sanger wrote in his 2012 book, Confront and Conceal, about the classified operation to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The charging documents also say Cartwright misled prosecutors about classified information shared with another journalist, Daniel Klaidman.
Wearing a dark suit, Cartwright stood with his attorney and answered a series of procedural questions from the judge.
“You’re pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty, is that right?” Leon asked.
“Yes, sir,” Cartwright said.
In a written statement released to reporters after the hearing, Cartwright said that he was not the initial source of the leak about Stuxnet, but spoke to reporters about material they already knew.
“It was wrong for me to mislead the FBI on Nov. 2, 2012, and I accept full responsibility for this,” Cartwright said.
He added that his only goal in talking to reporters was “to protect American interests and lives.”
Cartwright’s attorney, Gregory Craig, said in a statement that his client had spent “his whole life putting the national interest first.”
“That’s why he talked to the reporters in the first place — to protect American interests and lives in a story they had already written,” the statement said. “In his conversations with these two reporters, General Cartwright was engaged in a well-known and understood practice of attempting to save national secrets, not disclosing classified information.”
The plea agreement said that between January and June of 2012, Cartwright “provided and confirmed classified information” to Sanger. Cartwright also confirmed classified information in February 2012 to Klaidman that was included in an article for Newsweek magazine, the agreement said.
In a statement on Monday, the Times said it would not discuss the sourcing of any information published in the newspaper.
“We are disappointed that the Justice Department has gone forward with the leak investigation that led to today’s guilty plea by General Cartwright,” the Times said. “These investigations send a chilling message to all government employees that they should not speak to reporters.”
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