Legal sources tell NBC News that the former second ranking officer in the U.S. military is now the target of a Justice Department investigation into a politically sensitive leak of classified information about a covert U.S. cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
Last year, The New York Times reported that Cartwright, a four-star general who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 2007 to 2011, conceived and ran the cyber operation, called Olympic Games, under Presidents Bush and Obama. According to the front-page story by chief Washington correspondent David Sanger, President Obama ordered the cyber attacks sped up, and in 2010 an attack using the Stuxnet worm temporarily disabled 1,000 centrifuges that the Iranians were using to enrich uranium.
The Times story included details of the Olympic Games operation, including the cooperation of Israeli intelligence and the way the virus was introduced to an Iranian nuclear facility. It described meetings in the White House Situation Room and was based on interviews with “current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program.”
As soon as the Times report appeared, congressional leaders demanded a criminal probe, and President Obama said he had “zero tolerance” for “these kinds of leaks.” Republicans charged that senior administration officials had leaked the details to bolster the president’s national security credentials during the 2012 campaign.
But, said legal sources, while the probe that Attorney General Eric Holder ordered initially focused on whether the information came from inside the White House, by late last year FBI agents were zeroing in on Cartwright, who had served as one of the president’s “inner circle” of national security advisers. Two sources said prosecutors were able to identify Cartwright as a suspected leaker without resorting to a secret subpoena of the phone records of New York Times reporters.
One source familiar with the probe said the Justice Department has not made a final decision on whether to charge Cartwright.
Cartwright, who retired from the military in August 2011, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His attorney, former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, said Thursday, “I have no comment.”
But at Craig’s urging, others called NBC News to defend Cartwright’s reputation, while acknowledging they had no direct knowledge of the investigation. “He’s a great American,” said former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D.-Calif., who served as undersecretary of state for arms control in the Obama administration. “All I know is he’s always been one who acted in a way to defend the country and do so in a way that is beyond reproach.”
The White House declined to comment, as did Justice Department officials.
A member of the administration’s Defense Policy Board, however, described the Stuxnet leak as “very damaging.”
“Clearly what was going on here was a method and it should have been protected,” said former California congresswoman Jane Harman. “I think it’s had devastating consequences.”
This story was originally published on NBCNews.com