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Retired Marine General Admits To Lying In Leak Investigation


The four-star general who occupied a place in the president's inner circle has pleaded guilty to misleading the FBI. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright says he lied to investigators because he didn't want to be blamed for a media leak. Cartwright used to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Now he's facing a sentencing hearing early next year, just three days before President Obama leaves office. His supporters are hoping for a pardon. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to talk about the case. And Carrie, how did Gen. Cartwright get involved in a criminal leak investigation?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: This general, Robert, was the second-highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. But he also helped design a campaign to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program using a computer worm called Stuxnet. And The New York Times and Newsweek magazine reported on the secret program. There was a lot of pressure in Congress. So the Justice Department launched an investigation into those media leaks.

SIEGEL: Gen. Cartwright is not being prosecuted for leaking that information. He's being prosecuted for making false statements.

JOHNSON: Right. Unlike other prominent accused leakers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, Cartwright was not charged with violating the Espionage Act. Instead, the general's charged with what he did during the investigation into who leaked that cyber program. FBI agents interviewed Gen. Cartwright in 2012. And they say he lied about his contacts with reporters.

The general allegedly denied being a source or confirming any classified information. Now, the general's lawyer argues he was just talking with reporters to steer them away from reporting bad information or compromising sources and methods. But the FBI found an email between Cartwright and the Newsweek reporter where Cartwright was discussing some secrets. And, ultimately, the general decided to plead guilty.

SIEGEL: Could Gen. Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - could he actually wind up in prison?

JOHNSON: Under sentencing guidelines presented in court, he faces between zero and six months in prison. But the judge isn't bound by those guidelines. And he could send Cartwright away for more time. His lawyers say they want to present evidence of the general's clean record - a lot of character witnesses.

And experts are pointing out that Gen. David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information and sharing some of it with his mistress, served no prison time at all for conduct that was arguably much worse than what Gen. Cartwright did here.

SIEGEL: Now, the date for his sentencing hearing is right before the next president will be inaugurated. Any chance President Obama could grant the general clemency on his way out of town?

JOHNSON: Well, we'll see what the judge does on January 17. A pardon is on the mind, though, of some of Cartwright's supporters. After all, he's been considered the president's favorite general. And, Robert, you'll remember there's some precedent for this, too. President George H.W. Bush pardoned six people involved in the Iran-Contra affair, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Those pardons came at Christmas, just a week or so before Weinberger was set to go to trial in that arms-for-hostages scandal.

President Bill Clinton did something similar, too. He pardoned his CIA director, John Deutch. He'd been negotiating a guilty plea for mishandling classified information. That pardon happened just hours before Bill Clinton left the White House. So there's definitely some history here.

SIEGEL: It's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.