In the flood of news surrounding Edward’s Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance operations of the National Security Agency, another equally consequential development in the crisis of the security state has gone largely unnoticed. This is the news that retired general James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is under investigation by the Justice Department in relation to the leaking of secret information about the 2010 Stuxnet virus attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
To understand the significance of this, it’s important to observe that, as with the revelations of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, this alleged “leak” did not reveal anything that was not known to the enemies of the United States. In all these cases, the leaks only confirmed what any member of the general public who had bothered to follow the story could reasonably infer.
A New York Times article from June 2012, which allegedly relied on leaks from Cartwright, revealed that Stuxnet was part of a U.S. program initiated by the Bush administration and carried on under Obama. However, a look at the May 2012 Wikipedia article on Stuxnet reveals that all this was already generally known, and unofficially acknowledged, although then, as now, neither the United States nor Israel has officially admitted involvement. The existence of the Stuxnet worm was discovered in 2010, when, as a result of defective code, it escaped from the targeted systems in Iran and spread rapidly around the world.
It was soon apparent that it represented a cyber attack requiring the resources of a national government, and that the United States and Israel were the only plausible suspects. Although this was not officially conceded, neither was there any real attempt at denial, or even a refusal of comment.
To quote Wikipedia (May 2012):
In May 2011, the PBS program Need To Know cited a statement by Gary Samore, White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, in which he said, "we're glad they [the Iranians] are having trouble with their centrifuge machine and that we – the US and its allies – are doing everything we can to make sure that we complicate matters for them", offering "winking acknowledgement" of US involvement in Stuxnet. According to Daily Telegraph, a showreel that was played at a retirement party for the head of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Gabi Ashkenazi, included references to Stuxnet as one of his operational successes as the IDF chief of staff.
The only effect of the New York Times report was to extend awareness of Stuxnet to a much broader cross section of the American public and to provide sufficient detail to make any attempt at denial futile. Exactly the same was true of the leaks of Manning and Snowden.
The only difference between the Cartwright leak and those of Manning and Snowden is that Cartwright was not a whistleblower seeking to expose government wrongdoing. Rather, as is the case with the great majority of leaks, Cartwright was an insider, presumably providing information to a friendly journalist that would allow his role in the case to be presented in a favorable light.
It’s precisely for this reason that the investigation, and likely criminal prosecution, of this alleged leak is so significant. The investigation would not be happening without significant support from within the political class. In this case, the main instigators appear to be Republicans, angry that the original report was broadly sympathetic to the Obama administration, and supporters of Israel, concerned that revelations about Stuxnet might undermine their position of reflexive support for Israel’s foreign policy.
This is something quite new. While politicians have been happy to go after their opponents for financial and sexual improprieties, there has been a clear taboo on criminalizing policy actions, such as the use of torture under the Bush administration. This has been a bipartisan position, allowing the commission of the gravest crimes in pursuit of U.S. policy goals.
The only comparable case, the conviction of former vice president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, on perjury charges relating to the leaking of the identity of a U.S. agent, ended with the commutation of his sentence and no prison time served. But while Libby’s leak served the usual purpose of achieving favorable coverage for his policy goals, the naming of a secret agent was a genuine breach of security. Even so, there was no serious attempt to pursue the case once the perjury sentence was commuted.
The remorseless pursuit of whistleblowers under the Obama administration has raised the stakes considerably. For revealing information to the general public, Edward Snowden has been charged with multiple felonies under the 1917 Espionage Act, which carries a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment for each crime. For the same offence, Bradley Manning, a member of the military, has been charged with “aiding the enemy,” a crime which carries the death penalty (though it is not being sought in his case). There is no logical reason why similar charges could not be brought against Cartwright. Other whistleblowers are already serving lengthy prison sentences.
It is hard to know how this will play out. Perhaps we will see the end of the apparent immunity of the political class from prosecution in matters of this kind. In the absence of statutes of limitations, that will make for an uncomfortable retirement for many public officials past, present and future.
On the other hand, the possibility that politicians and senior officials might be subject to the same machinery that has been unleashed against the whistleblowers might lead them to draw back from the precipice. Perhaps we will see a rethinking of the view that telling the truth to the American public, when government officials would prefer to keep it secret, is a crime rather than a public service.
John Quiggin is a professor of economics at the University of Queensland, Australia and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is author of Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us.