Obama’s ‘favorite general’ wins pardon in leak probe

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·Chief Investigative Correspondent
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Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright arrives at US District Court in Washington on Oct. 17, 2016. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Obama gave a full pardon Tuesday to retired Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, who was convicted of lying to the FBI during an investigation into a leak about American efforts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. The pardon followed an intense lobbying campaign on behalf of Cartwright that included expressions of support, relayed by Cartwright’s lawyer, from former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, according to sources familiar with the effort.

The pardon was announced by the White House along with clemency for Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who gave tens of thousands of State Department cables to WikiLeaks and had been sentenced to 35 years in a military prison. Manning’s sentence was effectively commuted to time served, and she will be released May 17. That was not unexpected, given what many legal analysts had deemed an excessively harsh sentence. Neither was Obama’s refusal to pardon former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in light of what White House press secretary Josh Earnest called his “serious crimes” and fugitive status in Russia during a briefing Tuesday.

But the decision to pardon Cartwright — the former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was once described as Obama’s “favorite general” — stunned many national security lawyers who noted that it came barely a week after Justice Department prosecutors asked a federal judge to sentence him to two years in prison for lying to the FBI.

But Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge in October, had powerful supporters, many of whom were recruited by his chief lawyer, Gregory Craig, Obama’s former White House counsel. Among them were three former national security advisers, Steve Hadley and Condoleezza Rice (who both served under Bush) and James L. Jones (from Obama’s first term) — all of whom had worked with Cartwright, the sources said. Craig also relayed to the White House the views of Bush and Cheney that Cartwright should be pardoned, the sources said. Cheney did not directly lobby the White House but let it be known that he was supportive of a pardon, said Terrence O’Donnell, a lawyer who has represented Cheney. “He worked with him and thinks highly of him,” said O’Donnell.

A senior administration official told reporters today that Obama’s decision was influenced by Cartwright’s nearly 40-year military career, adding that the retired general had “dedicated his life and his career to protecting the country” and that this “weighted heavily in the president’s decision.” The official also noted that one of the journalists who allegedly received classified information from Cartwright said that the general did not share any details he didn’t already have and that the conversations were about “preventing the publication” of secrets that would harm U.S. national security.

Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright looks on at left as President Barack Obama speaks during an event to welcome the Wounded Warrior Project's soldier ride to the White House in Washington in 2011.  (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
In 2011, Gen. James Cartwright looks on as President Obama speaks during an event to welcome the Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride to the White House in Washington. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Cartwright was convicted of lying to the FBI about his talks with two journalists — David Sanger of the New York Times and Daniel Klaidman, then with Newsweek and now Deputy Editor of Yahoo News, both of whom wrote letters to the sentencing judge saying they were urged to talk to Cartwright by officials at the Obama White House and reached out to him to confirm details they already had gotten from other sources. “General Cartwright did not provide any new facts and did not provide any documents,” Klaidman wrote in his letter, according to a court filing by Cartwright’s lawyers last week.

“I am thrilled that President Obama examined the evidence and facts before him and concluded that General Cartwright deserved to be pardoned,” Klaidman said in a statement Tuesday. “This was the right decision and one that serves the public interest.”

Still, the pardon is likely to prove controversial in light of the prison terms — in one case as long as three and a half years — given to other, much lower level government officials prosecuted by the Justice Department in leak-related cases. If nothing else, the move appears to undercut a significant argument made by the office of U.S. attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein in a court filing last week, that “when an individual is found to have made unauthorized disclosures, particularly one serving in a senior position, it is critically important” to hold that person accountable. (Rosenstein, who was originally nominated by President Bush and served for eight years under Obama, is now slated to be deputy attorney general — the second-highest-ranking position in the Justice Department — in the Trump administration.)

The pardon “sends a horrible message,” said Mark Zaid, a veteran national security lawyer who has represented government officials in leak cases. “He’s basically telling anybody below the rank of general, you can go to jail. But if you’re at the rank of general or higher, you go free. This smacks of a double standard — and of elitism.”

The pardon of Cartwright essentially stands as the final chapter in what was an unprecedented wave of leak prosecutions by the Justice Department and the U.S. military under Obama. Since he took office, 10 individuals have been prosecuted in leak-related cases — more than during all previous administrations put together.

Cartwright was by far the highest-ranking official to get caught up in such probes. He appeared on the FBI’s radar screen after the Justice Department opened an investigation into the disclosures about a highly sensitive U.S.-Israeli program — approved by Obama — to mount a cybersabotage operation against Iran, injecting a computer virus known as Stuxnet to disable centrifuges used in that country’s nuclear program.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright take part in a media availability at the Pentagon in 2011. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and then-Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright take part in a briefing at the Pentagon. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

The Stuxnet campaign appears to have been successful, and its disclosure, originally in a front-page New York Times story and a book by Sanger, helped burnish Obama’s national security credentials leading up to his 2012 reelection campaign. But FBI agents, after obtaining his email traffic, soon identified Cartwright — who had by then retired but continued to serve on the Defense Policy Board — as a key suspect. When he was interviewed in November 2012, Cartwright initially denied that he ever discussed classified information with Klaidman and Sanger. Then, FBI agents showed him his email correspondence with Klaidman. At that point, Cartwright “took off his glasses, started rubbing his eyes and told interviewing agents, ‘You got me’,” according to a court filing by prosecutors last week.

The agents then showed Cartwright an email exchange he had with Sanger. After reading through the email, “Cartwright was shaking, losing color in his face and clearing his throat. Cartwright attempted to explain the email; however, his speech became slurred and he subsequently slumped over in his chair and lost consciousness,” according to the court filing.

Cartwright was immediately rushed to the hospital. After his release a few days later, he agreed to another interview with the FBI and confessed that he had indeed discussed classified information with the journalists. He formally pleaded guilty last September and was due to be sentenced next week.

In a statement released by his lawyers Tuesday, Cartwright said: “I want to thank President Obama for his action. With the greatest pride, I have served my country as a member of the military for more than 40 years. This action allows me to continue that work as a private citizen. I love this country and believe it to be the greatest nation on earth.

“I have never lost faith in that belief. God bless the United States of America.”

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