By Christopher B. Daly
Today’s news brings a very curious twist on the theme of national-security leaks. This time, the suspected leaker is not a low-level functionary like Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden but a high-ranking military official — in fact, the former No. 2 in the entire military command structure. According to a report first broken by NBC News, retired Marine Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright is under investigation in connection with the leak of classified information about American cyberattacks against Iran, intended to disable or slow down Iran’s program to build a nuclear weapon. (The coverage in today’s NYTimes is rather circumspect, which makes sense, considering that the Times was the recipient of the leak. The paper quotes NYT executive editor Jill Abramson saying she doesn’t discuss such things.)
I wonder if Cartwright’s rank will make any difference here. After all, he’s not some some “29-year-old hacker,” — as President Obama pooh-poohed Snowden on Thursday, while adroitly trying to keep the Snowden/NSA leak from screwing up great-power relations with China and Russia. (Funny thing: at other times, Obama is quite willing to characterize Snowden as a threat to our very existence. Also, an update: Snowden turned 30 last week.)
Back to Cartwright. Far from being a hacker, Cartwright, who was named vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs by President Bush and who served under Obama as well, was at the epicenter of the military/national security power structure. I wonder how the top brass and the national-security establishment feel about leaks now, when one apparently came from one of their own. Where’s the outrage? Will we be seeing Sens. McCain and Graham or former veep Cheney going on Sunday TV talk shows demanding his head?
We might also ask: Why would Hoss Cartwright do such a thing? He’s not commenting, but we can just imagine. Maybe he wanted to see the U.S. get credit for “doing something” about the Iranian threat. Maybe he wanted to let Americans know that we had the technical means to mess up their weapons program without having to attack or invade Iran by conventional means. Maybe he was ordered to make the leak by someone who out-ranked him (perhaps the Chair of the Joint Chiefs, or the National Security Adviser, or the Secretary of Defense, or the President himself?)
The Washington Post, after pointing out that the cyberattack on Iran included a computer virus named Stuxnet and was part of a broader program code-named “Olympic Games,” adds this tantalizing hint:
Cartwright, who helped launch that campaign under President Bush and pushed for its escalation under Obama. . .
Maybe Cartwright thought his favored program was threatened in some way by someone else in the national security apparatus.
As I have long maintained, the reaction to leaking is very much in the eye of the beholder. If the leaker is powerful enough, the act of leaking is not a crime but just politics by another means.
For the record: As far as we know, Cartwright would be the eighth target of an Espionage Act investigation undertaken in the Obama administration’s record-breaking campaign to punish leakers.
Speaking of cyberattacks, U.S. officials seems to be scrambling to find a path through this policy thicket. On the one hand, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey is hurrying to write new rules for warfare in cyberspace, according to another article in today’s NYTimes. (Don’t hold your breath waiting to participate in this process yourself: any such rules are classified. So there!) Here’s the takeaway:
[Dempsey] said that, globally, new regulations were needed to govern actions by the world community in cyberspace. He said that the Chinese did not believe that hacking American systems violated any rules, since no rules existed.
And, finally, for an example of what’s at stake in terms of commerce, today’s Boston Globe has an eye-popping story about how the Chinese allegedly steal commercial secrets. If you thought they just stole plans for making plastic tschotschkes, think again. This one involved the design for wind turbines, which the Chinese had the nerve to sell back to us!
p.s. For a fun and puzzling exercise in mind-games, go to the NYT homepage and enter the term “stuxnet” in the search box. If you can figure out the results, please explain in a comment below.