The Slatest

Obama Pardons His “Favorite General”

Better days: U.S. President Barack Obama and then–Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright at the White House on May 4, 2011.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Retired Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was once described by Bob Woodward as President Obama’s “favorite general” for his advice on Iran and Afghanistan. In his last week in office, Obama may be paying Cartwright back for his counsel, pardoning him for lying to investigators about conversations he had with reporters about efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Cartwright’s leaks were on a much smaller scale than those of Chelsea Manning, who had her sentence commuted Tuesday but were more typical of the record number of leakers prosecuted under the Obama administration.

A section of New York Times reporter David Sanger’s 2012 book Confront and Conceal, also adapted into an article for the paper, reported that under George W. Bush’s presidency, Cartwright had “established a small cyberoperation inside the United States Strategic Command” that began the work of developing a cyberweapon to disable Iran’s nuclear program. An article by Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek that same year reported that shortly after Obama had been sworn in, Cartwright talked the president into keeping the program going, even as he was attempting to reach out to the Iranian government diplomatically. This program eventually led to the Stuxnet worm that caused serious damage to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Cartwright agreed to plead guilty in October to lying to FBI agents investigating the leak about the program. He says he wasn’t the source of Sanger’s and Klaidman’s stories, but merely confirmed what they already knew. Cartwright hadn’t yet been sentenced but could theoretically have faced up to five years in prison or a $250,000 fine. At the time of his plea in October, critics contrasted his fate with the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her handling of classified emails.

Even before Cartwright’s plea, the Obama administration had brought twice as many criminal charges in cases involving leaks to the news media as under all previous presidents combined. The president defended his record in an interview with the Rutgers student newspaper in May, saying, “when you hear stories about us cracking down on whistleblowers or whatnot, we’re talking about a really small sample” and that he is a “strong believer in the First Amendment and the need for journalists to pursue every lead and every angle.”

Tuesday’s pardons notwithstanding, the administration’s reaction to leaks has likely had a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers, particularly with a president with far less sanguine views of freedom of the press coming into office.