The Department of Justice announced Monday that retired Gen. General James E. Cartwright pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI, while trying to obscure his role in passing along top secret information to journalists.
As the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Cartwright occupied an influential seat in the Obama administration until he stepped aside to join the private sector in 2011.
“General Cartwright violated the trust that was placed in him by willfully providing information that could endanger national security to individuals not authorized to receive it and then lying to the FBI about his actions,” Acting Assistant Attorney General McCord said in a press statement on Monday.
“With this plea, he will be held accountable,” McCord added.
Cartwright could face a maximum of five years in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for January next year.
According to the DOJ, “Between January and June 2012, Cartwright disclosed classified information to two reporters without authorization.” During a subsequent interview with FBI agents in November, Cartwright lied about being the journalists’ source.
The New York Times reported that the investigation was focused on leaks to two specific reporters: David Sanger with the Times and Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek. Cartwright is accused of passing top-secret information to the journalists regarding US cyber warfare operations against Iran’s nuclear program.
Cartwright’s attorney has claimed that the general only spoke to Sanger and Klaidman after their stories were published.
Based on the plea deal worked out between the retired general and the government, Cartwright only faces charges for misleading investigators—not for the leak.
The New York Times blasted the basis of the investigation.
“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 paper said in a statement. “These investigations send a chilling message to all government employees that they should not speak to reporters. The inevitable result is that the American public is deprived of information that it needs to know.”
This marks the second time that a retired general and former official in the Obama administration has admitted to misleading investigators in a leak case. Gen. David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA, paid a fine and was sentenced to two years probation in 2015 for lying to FBI agents and mishandling classified information.
Petraeus provided his biographer and extramarital lover Paula Broadwell with unauthorized access to handwritten notebooks containing top secret information.
The leniency afforded to the former generals cuts a sharp contrast with the aggressive approach the Obama White House has taken to leakers outside the administration.
In August 2013, Army Private Chelsea Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison for passing secret Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and US diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. Former CIA agent John Kiriakou was released from prison last year after being sentenced to two-and-a-half years behind bars for disclosing information about the CIA torture program to a reporter. And Edward Snowden still faces espionage charges for leaking documents about NSA surveillance operations to journalists in 2013–an indictment that doesn’t permit any whistleblower defense.