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James Cartwright as vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in 2011. (Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Will US General Find Immunity from Obama's Selective Wrath for Leakers?

Retired vice chairman of Joint Chiefs credited as director of Stuxnet attack against Iran is now focus of DOJ investigation

Jon Queally

Could the latest target of President Obama's aggressive war against leakers of government secrets be a recent, and very high-level, member of the country's military power structure?

Reporting by NBC News indicates that (Ret.) US Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who served as vice chairman on Obama's Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been named as the focus of Justice Department investigation ordered by the White House to determine which officials may have been the source for revealing details about a US cyber-attack against Iran in 2010.

According to NBC,

[Cartwright has] received a target letter informing him that he’s under investigation for allegedly leaking information about a massive attack using a computer virus named Stuxnet on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Gen. Cartwright, 63, becomes the latest individual targeted over alleged leaks by the Obama administration, which has already prosecuted or charged eight individuals under the Espionage Act.

Cartwright has refused to comment and DOJ officials have yet to indicate whether or not the retired four-star general could possibly be charged.

Detailing the controversy surrounding the Stuxnet program, the Guardian reports:

The New York Times published a detailed account of the Stuxnet program in June last year, in which it said President Barack Obama had decided to accelerate US cyber attacks, which began under George W Bush.

The story was based on 18 months of interviews with "current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts", the Times said in its story.

Cartwright, a four-star general who is now retired, was vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff from 2007 to 2011. The Times reported that he was a crucial player in the cyber operation called Olympic Games, started under Bush.

Bush reportedly advised Obama to preserve Olympic Games. According to the Times, Obama ordered the cyberattacks to be accelerated, and in 2010 an attack using a computer virus called Stuxnet temporarily disabled 1,000 centrifuges that the Iranians were using to enrich uranium.

But now—at least according to the National Journal's Brian Fung—going after Cartwright for possibly leaking details about the program may be a strategic error by Obama that has his habit of attacking leakers coming back to "bite" him. Fung writes:

The retired general has on his side the White House's former top legal adviser, Greg Craig. Craig served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations before being forced out in 2009, in part over his unsuccessful attempt to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

It'll likely mean huge headaches for Obama if he chooses to battle Craig, who represented Clinton during his impeachment trial and John Hinckley Jr., who allegedly carried out the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt. Both cases led to acquittals. 

As daunting a challenge as it might be to try Cartwright, it could be even worse for Obama if he ultimately decides not to. Anything short of an indictment would open the president up to accusations that he only pursues leaks when it involves ordinary federal employees and not distinguished public servants.

The appearance of a double standard for espionage charges would likely only increase the pressure on Obama, who's been criticized for invoking the Espionage Act more often than any other president.

News about the Justice Department's investigation against Cartwright comes as the Obama faces heightened criticism for both how the nation's security agencies conduct themselves relative to cyber-surveillance domesticall and abroad.

As many have pointed out, the Obama administration has proven itself very adept at taking advantage of anonymous leaks of classified information that reflect positively on the White House, but have been by far the most aggressive prosecutors when it comes to going after those who leak information unfavorable to government policies.

And, as historian and foreign policy expert Juan Cole writes on Friday, the news should also highlight some of the damning ways in which government spy programs intersect with alleged assaults on civil liberties. Revelations in recent months have drawn outrage and concern over how the US government not only goes after whistleblowers, but also about how it has used its surveillance capabilities to target journalists and other American civilians:

The Cartwright story (and remember that he is only a suspect) intersects with Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Administration spying in many ways. It seems likely that suspicion is now falling on Cartwright because the NSA knows David Sanger’s phone number and has been looking at everyone he talked to on the phone in the months leading up to his article. We know that the NSA has been repeatedly requesting massive amounts of US phone information and storing it for easy search. Since Sanger’s article is proof that an illegal act was committed, as Obama said at the time, getting a FISA warrant to go through Sanger’s already-stored records would have been child’s play. When the PATRIOT Act was proposed, the FBI promised it would be used only for counter-terrorism. But that promise has for many years rung hollow.

While Osama Ben Laden knew not to use the phone during the last seven years of his life, American reporters and generals thought they were safe. PRISM did not catch Bin Laden because he went off the communications grid, and now anyone who wants to do anything the Federal government considers illicit had better do the same. This simple observation demonstrates that the Obama/ NSA cover story, that they are collecting all these phone records to fight terrorism, makes no sense. The data is most likely to be used against American non-terrorists.


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