When Reporters Discover Selective Leak Targeting

Shane Harris wants to know — and not for the first time — why James Cartwright will be the only one to take the fall for leaking to David Sanger about StuxNet.

The charges weren’t exactly a surprise. Cartwright has known for more than three years that he was the target of an investigation into who leaked details about the so-called Stuxnet computer virus, which the United States used to destroy centrifuges inside an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility in 2008 and 2009.

But notably, Cartwright who previously served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the only person to have been charged with leaking information about the highly classified program, even though it’s clear from various books and articles that he wasn’t the only source of information about it. Times reporter David Sanger revealed the operation and wrote about it extensively in his book, Confront and Conceal.

That raises questions about why Cartwright is being charged now and if he was somehow singled out for speaking to Sanger and another journalist, Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman. Journalists and U.S. officials in Washington have generally known for years that Cartwright was a major source about Stuxnet, but it was also understood that he had permission from the White House to share certain details about the program.

The intrigue surrounding the investigating dates back more than three years, according to Harris, to the last time he raised questions about Cartwright’s targeting. In that article, he admits,

Cartwright did have fans in the press corps, which usually found him an affable and, most importantly, accessible source.

Harris might more productively look at what was different about the Sanger story that got investigated — namely, that it blamed the Israelis for revealing the program by letting StuxNet escape. That it, it may well be that Cartwright got prosecuted not because he leaked the thing that was permissible — that the US had allegedly stalled Iran’s nuclear power production with computer code — but rather that the Israelis undermined the program that was undermining their excuse to attack Iran.

Still, it’s odd that Harris finds it odd that just one person is getting prosecuted in the first place, as if he’s only discovering that happens all the time.

It’s something Charlie Savage did in his book, Power Wars, too. I showed how erroneous that assumption is in the case of the UndieBomb 2.0 leak, where Donald Sachtleben was scapegoated even though the record shows he only confirmed something the reporters already had. But the same is true of other leaks, as well. For example, the public record already identifies another source for James Risen’s Merlin leak, and the trial record shows FBI believed still another person was the main leaker and never really dismissed him as a target.

So we always should be asking why the one and only one person who gets targeted gets targeted. In this case, a better parallel might be to the Scooter Libby case. There, as here, the target claims to have been authorized to leak. In that case, Fitzgerald was definitely trying to move up the chain to Dick Cheney. In both cases, the big question may be about whether the President (or Vice President, if he’s the one in charge) authorized the specific leak.

Me, I’m more interested in why Cartwright was prosecuted in DC, rather than Maryland, even while Maryland’s US Attorney Rod Rosenstein oversaw the investigation. I suspect that’s because it was deemed a special counsel investigation of sorts, but that raises even more questions about why Ronald Machen investigated UndieBomb 2.0 and Rosenstein investigated this, but both were apparently in DC.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. bevin says:

    The real story is that employing “…the so-called Stuxnet computer virus, which the United States used to destroy centrifuges inside an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility in 2008 and 2009…” was incredibly dangerous.
    As was Israel’s preferred alternative of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities (and incidentally starting a war).
    Anyone alerting the American people and humanity in general to these things is worthy of the greatest respect.
    This is an upside down world in which the criminals who have put our planet at risk are given the power to cover their tracks and punish honest men by the ‘sovereign people.’

  2. rosalind says:

    soon as news broke it felt like Kabuki: i assumed Libby 2.0, and that Cartwright’s sentence will fall in the “0” range of the “0-6 months”. Prosecution will get some nice headlines, Cartwright will get a nice book deal for his pain, and We the People get the bill for another round of “selective justice”.

  3. bmaz says:

    I am with Marcy here in that the story is really how and why is Hoss Cartwright the sole prosecuted, and really only pursued target, in this investigation and resolution? There are real problems, and questions raised, by that. This sentence from Shan Harris makes it even more poignant:

    …but it was also understood that he had permission from the White House to share certain details about the program.

    Yeah. Cartwright was an Obama Whitehouse favorite. Something is amiss here, and it is not spurious suggestion that the extra may have resulted from the Israelis having come out looking bad. But, if so, that is a pretty lame comment on not just the Israelis, but the willingness of the Obama Whitehouse to cave to their whinging.

    The one thing here that, for once, doesn’t bother me so much, is the disposition in DC versus MD. No reason that could not have been by below the radar stipulation between the prosecution and defense once the parameters of the deal were agreed to. If I had cut this deal for Cartwright, I’d rather it be handled in DC, and for other reasons, so would the DOJ. It makes sense here.

     

    • Phil Perspective says:

      But, if so, that is a pretty lame comment on not just the Israelis, but the willingness of the Obama Whitehouse to cave to their whinging.

       

      Netanyahu treats Obama like the house-cleaning staff and yet Obama gives Israel the biggest military aid package ever.  Says a lot about that “special relationship.”  BTW, people do remember Netanyahu’s meddling in 2012, right?

  4. Evangelista says:

    This paragraph, from the DoJ info release:

    ““Today, General Cartwright admitted to making false statements to the FBI concerning multiple unauthorized disclosures of classified information that he made to reporters,” said Assistant Director in Charge Abbate. “This was a careful, rigorous, and thorough multi-year investigation by special agents who, together with federal prosecutors, conducted numerous interviews to include Cartwright. The FBI will continue to take all necessary and appropriate steps to thoroughly investigate individuals, no matter their position, who undermine the integrity of our justice system by lying to federal investigators.””

    interests me.

    Abbate is identified, at the end of the second paragraph of the info release as, “Assistant Director in Charge Paul M. Abbate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – Washington Field Office.”

    Is the FBI changing its polcies in regard to persons “no matter their position, who undermine the integrity of our justice system by lying to federal investigators”?

    Or did someone forget, and put his foot in it?

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