A retired four-star general pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to lying to investigators who were examining leaks about a secret U.S. government hacking program directed at Iran’s nuclear program.
After pleading guilty before Judge Richard Leon in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., retired Gen. James Cartwright faces probation or up to six months in jail at his sentencing next year, though the judge could impose a stiffer sentence if he chooses.
Mr. Cartwright issued a written statement after his plea, saying he accepted “full responsibility” for making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about whether he’d communicated with journalists writing about the U.S. hacking program.
“It was wrong for me to mislead the FBI,” Mr. 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.”
The criminal charge marks the latest instance of the Obama administration pursuing criminal charges against current or former government officials for allegedly talking to reporters about sensitive subjects.
Last year, retired Gen. David Petraeus pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information after he shared national security secrets with his biographer, with whom he had an extramarital affair.
In 2013, the administration came under criticism from First Amendment advocates for seizing reporters’ phone records as part of leak investigations. As a result, the Justice Department required greater oversight from senior officials involving such cases.
In the new case, Mr. Cartwright is accused of lying to investigators about conversations with two journalists, David Sanger of the New York Times and Daniel Klaidman, then working at Newsweek and now deputy editor of Yahoo News.
Mr. Sanger wrote articles and a book about a mysterious computer virus known as Stuxnet that disabled centrifuges in one of Iran’s nuclear facilities, hampering that country’s ability to advance toward a nuclear weapon. Researchers and reporters eventually traced Stuxnet to the U.S. government.
The Central Intelligence Agency, working in conjunction with the Idaho National Laboratory, the Israeli government, and other U.S. agencies, ran the classified U.S. cyberattack program aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to people familiar with the effort.
According to a court document, Mr. Cartwright in November 2012 “falsely told investigators that he was not the source of any of the quotes and statements’’ in Mr. Sanger’s book. “Cartwright also falsely told investigators that he didn’t provide or confirm classified information to David Sanger,’’ the document adds.
A spokeswoman for the New York Times said Mr. Sanger’s reporting was based on sources in multiple countries.
“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,” the spokeswoman said.
Mr. Cartwright is also accused of lying to investigators about his conversations with Mr. Klaidman. According to officials, the general “had confirmed certain classified information’’ in an email to Mr. Klaidman.
The court documents don’t indicate which alleged discussions between Mr. Cartwright and Mr. Klaidman were part of the investigation, but in 2012 Mr. Klaidman wrote an article about U.S. efforts regarding the Iranian nuclear program.
Mr. Cartwright, 67 years old, served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 until 2011. In that role, he was seen as a close adviser to President Barack Obama.