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Leak inquiry launched over ‘NYT’ story on American-Israeli cyberwar targeting Iran

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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General James Cartwright is in the crosshairs of the Obama administration’s latest leak investigation. (Photo: D. Myles Cullen/U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

The Obama administration’s war on leaks has now ensnared General James Cartwright, a four-star general and a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a high-level body of military leaders. Cartwright is the target of an investigation over “a politically sensitive leak of classified information about a covert U.S. cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program,” as NBC News‘ Michael Isikoff reported last night. The cyber attack was developed in coordination with Israel.

National security blogger Marcy Wheeler raises an intriguing, albeit speculative, question in Salon today: is Cartwright being investigated for what he revealed about U.S. officials’ anger at Israel over a cyberwar program gone awry?

Wheeler is perhaps the smartest writer on national security and civil liberties issues out there, so her theory is worth listening to–even if it’s just a theory at this point. So here it is:

The New York Times ran an important front-page article last year by David Sanger on the Israeli-U.S. cyberwar on the Iranian nuclear program. Sanger reported that “President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons.”

But Sanger (and two other Times reporters) had already reported in 2011 that the U.S. and Israel had developed the Stuxnet virus–the name of the cyber weapon– to cripple Iran’s program. So why is the Obama administration investigating the 2012 story and Cartwright’s role in it, and not the 2011 story (as far as we know)?

Wheeler thinks it’s because of an explosive passage in the 2012 article pertaining to a 2010 meeting with the president after it was discovered that the Stuxnet “worm, which was never supposed to leave the Natanz machines, had broken free, like a zoo animal that found the keys to the cage.” Key players involved in the creation of Stuxnet and its use–including Cartwright–had to break this news to Obama. Here’s the passage:

“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” one of the briefers told the president, “and we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”

Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” he said. “They went too far.”

Cartwright was in that meeting. Here’s Wheeler’s speculation on why he’s now the target of the leak investigation:

Was it the diplomatically dangerous accusation from Biden —“It’s got to be the Israelis”— that DOJ now suspects Cartwright of sharing with Sanger, in addition to technical details that likely come from Sanger’s broad range of sources? (Sanger notes, as have others, that it remains unconfirmed who bears responsibility for the code that led StuxNet to escape.)

Whether or not this accusation against Israel is the big secret that might get Cartwright in trouble, it’s worth noting that just weeks before this StuxNet leak investigation started, the House tried to legally mandate investigations into leaks that “degrad[e] Israel’s ability to defend itself.”

“I recently traveled to the Middle East, where we met with senior Israeli officials,” said Congressman Tom Price (R-GA), who introduced the measure. “Their number one concern was that for the first time in our long relationship, United States was releasing classified operational information and capabilities, willfully putting at risk the lives of Israeli people.”

Have we gotten to the point where America’s most fiercely guarded secrets — the kind that could put a retired General in legal jeopardy — concern not America, but Israel?

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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19 Responses

  1. justicewillprevail
    June 29, 2013, 10:48 am

    “Have we gotten to the point where America’s most fiercely guarded secrets — the kind that could put a retired General in legal jeopardy — concern not America, but Israel?”

    Yes. Israel towers over everything when it comes to US policy. The policymakers never learn that the more they appease Israel, because of their fear of the lobby, the more they are beholden to it, as we see here. Furthermore, the leak isn’t simply about Israeli recklessness and stupidity, a constant theme, but about US compliance with the demands of a tiny, aggressive state. That, I would wager, is what concerns them most – the lifting of the curtain to reveal the US puppets who might grumble in private, but do Israel’s bidding in public. How feeble and unprincipled they are, unable to consider America’s best interests, instead of meek obeisance to voodoo cult.

    • pabelmont
      July 1, 2013, 6:00 pm

      US Compliance with Israeli uber-belligerency? Well, yes, but motivated in the way that a prisoner “complies” with his jailer.

      Surely there must be a path (for media, politicians, generals, vice-presidents, etc.) to tell these stories in a two-step fashion [1] a really really dangerous and stupid thing happened, fume, fume, and [2] and by the way the Israelis did it without USA’s knowledge and thus without our consent. With the clear [3] and so we should stop cooperating with these dangerous folk who — in order to save their own bacon [so to speak] are willing to burn all of ours.

  2. American
    June 29, 2013, 11:59 am

    ‘Have we gotten to the point where America’s most fiercely guarded secrets — the kind that could put a retired General in legal jeopardy — concern not America, but Israel?’

    Yea, what upset Israel was not that it was known they were in on it, they like to take credit for that type of thing, but that their secret ‘ motification’ caused it to escape and spread on the net and become a threat to other entites.
    But I doubt that in this case the I-Firsters are the only ones with knifes out for Cartwright…. there’s a whole cyberwar cult within the government that doesnt want to be restrained by having any f-ups exposed.

  3. W.Jones
    June 29, 2013, 2:21 pm

    Good article. The general is admirable.

  4. Les
    June 29, 2013, 2:32 pm

    Just because Israel’s foreign policy is independent of the US’, don’t assume that US foreign policy is independent of Israel’s.

  5. Denis
    June 29, 2013, 3:25 pm

    Obviously, this is going to take some time to sort through all the primary links – thanks for those Alex – but so far I ain’t catchin’ on.

    I mean, I’m trying to get both of my two remaining neurons around that scene in the Oral Oval Office, and at least one of ‘em ain’t cooperating.

    First, I’m shocked that we’ve got a USMC guy in the middle of this IT mess. I mean, as ex-USMC myself I know “USMC” and “intelligent” are almost never found in the same sentence. They are mutually antithetical. If you asked me to characterize the type of government person who would be in charge – or even involved in – a high-tech cyber attack on Iran, the last one on my list would be “USMC general,” well below, “USMC private,” or even “Biden.”

    Nevertheless Obama brings in the Marines, so to speak, and puts this jar-head in charge of the cyber attack. It gets screwed up and he has to schlep back to Obama to tell him the bad news.

    Now before that 2010 meeting Cartwright personally and precisely knew what role GoI played or did not play in this SNAFU. He surely didn’t need Biden to tell him that. And yet, the leak that comes out of the meeting is a typical Biden-blurt: “It’s got to be the Israelis.” If it was the Israelis and the jar-head knew it was the Israelis, why didn’t he just leak: “It was the Israelis.” ?

    I mean, was the leak that it was the Israelis, or was the leak that Biden said it was the Israelis?

    Sounds to me that what Obama wanted the world to know was that it was not the USG, but GoI, that let Stuxnet free and that USG is pissed off at what the Israelis did, and so Obama orchestrated the Biden-said-it leak. Believe me, no 4-star USMC general is going to leak a syllable more than what he is ordered to leak – he could get sent to Gitmo, or even worse, back to boot camp.

    Fast forward 3 years from the attack. You’ve got Stuxnet crawling around the Internet. You’ve got baby-Stuxnets like Flame and Duqu popping up like welfare babies in a recession. This disaster is just in the making and already billions of damage done, and somebody’s gonna’ own it.

    You’ve also got Snowden with a lit blow torch in his hand sitting on a 55 gal barrel full of explosive information. You’ve got Assange sitting on untold terrabytes of thermonuclear info the world still hasn’t had time to sort through. You’ve got Hastings’ hacked Mercedes running into a tree hours after he Emailed that he was onto a big story.

    The whole Stuxnet thing is going to blow up in Obama’s face and he needs 1) to preempt what’s coming, 2) divert the story to a national security one; i.e. the “leaks”, and 3) trot out a scapegoat for the press.

    I woulda’ picked Broadwell myself. But I’m partial to abs.

  6. DICKERSON3870
    June 29, 2013, 3:31 pm

    RE: “The Obama administration’s war on leaks has now ensnared General James Cartwright, a four-star general and a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a high-level body of military leaders.” ~ Alex Kane

    ALSO SEE: “Top Ten Ways the Beltway Press will treat Gen. Cartwright differently from Snowden”, by Juan Cole, Informed Consent, 6/28/13
    LINK –

  7. ckg
    June 29, 2013, 6:42 pm

    Great journalism, Alex, as always. You’re an asset to this site.

  8. ckg
    June 29, 2013, 6:55 pm

    I’m wondering if the old, pre-Geneva Snowden thinks Cartwright is the person whom should be “shot in the balls” for giving up classified information compromising a certain country in the Middle East “surrounded by enemies”. [Ars Technica]

  9. richardbraverman
    June 29, 2013, 11:16 pm

    So it is now confirmed that..

    1) the US and Israel developed the Stuxnet virus
    2) the virus was designed to damage and derail Iran’s nuclear program.
    3) the Stuxnet targeted Siemens’ industrial control systems through Windows’ backdoors
    4) the Stuxnet virus escaped the confines of the Iranian network
    5) throughout the world numerous SCADA systems utilize Seimens’ controllers
    6) the threat was real enough for Seimens to implement several security changes and update hardware ( )

    If all of the above have moved from conspiracy and hearsay to fact, then let us consider the other items, from 2009 to the present, that deserve additional scrutiny.

    1) the Fukushima nuclear plant utilized vast arrays of Seimens industrial controllers and PLCs
    2) Tokyo electric confirmed that their network had experienced a significant virus attack
    3) Industrial controllers at Fukushima had responsibility over back up generators and cooling systems
    4) the hardware was compromised prior to the Tsunami
    5) the virus infection led to the meltdown

    and therefore.

    6) the UNITED STATES and ISRAEL are responsible for the Fukushima disaster, the irradiation of half of japan, and the polluting of the pacific ocean
    7) the leadership of the US and Israel are insane.

    • annie
      June 30, 2013, 1:19 am

      this is an assessment a lot of smart people have realized.

    • piotr
      June 30, 2013, 7:24 am

      I am not sure if the conclusion about Fukushima are correct, but even if we take it out, point 7) should be rephrased

      7) the leadership of the US and Israel are criminally insane

      Hence they should be isolated to protect them and the public, until an impartial panel finds that they no longer pose a risk. Of course, an isolated incident may be insufficient, but it is not an isolated incident.

  10. ToivoS
    June 30, 2013, 3:26 am

    This is a strange story. This looks like a political hatchet job. Maybe this Israel angle is a relevant factor. We should also consider that he opposed the use of drones and argued against their use when he was in the government. After being bypassed for promotion he retired and made his opposition known as was reported in the Nation

    If he is now being targeted for these reasons it is evidence that Obama is one very vindictive man. This is not just unfair but, from Obama’s perspective, quite stupid. First they get Petraeus through wiretaps now this. Someone in the military might be seeking some revenge about now.

  11. Citizen
    June 30, 2013, 5:48 am

    Why would Israel think a leak-proof virus limited to harming the Iranian network was a threat to Israel? Because it was created to be jointly controlled by US & Israel, or by only the US?

  12. Les
    June 30, 2013, 1:14 pm

    We have yet to learn how much of the NSA wiretapping has been outsourced to Israel. I suspect our media will not look there.

  13. ToivoS
    June 30, 2013, 2:49 pm

    Some more background on Cartwright that might explain why he is being targeted.

  14. ToivoS
    June 30, 2013, 3:04 pm

    Some more background on Cartwright that might explain why he is being targeted.

    Basically Cartwright was making enemies inside the military because he opposed a number of big ticket weapons programs, advised Obama against doing the Afghan surge and, as mentioned above, opposes the drone war.

  15. American
    July 1, 2013, 12:30 am

    Another nail in the US coffin…becoming a pariah just like Israel.


    Assange: ‘No stopping’ publication of NSA documents
    Kelly Kennedy, USA TODAY 4:40 p.m. EDT June 30,

    German magazine Der Spiegel reports the NSA bugged EU offices in the U.S. and Europe
    WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said documents taken by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden will still be published.

    “There is no stopping the publishing process at this stage,” Assange told ABC’s This Week Sunday.

    Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper reported that its reporters have seen documents leaked by Snowden showing that the NSA conducted online surveillance of European citizens and appears to have targeted European Union buildings.

    The documents appear to show that the U.S. government bugged embassy buildings in Washington, D.C., and also infiltrated the European Union’s computer network, the paper reported. One document from September 2010 “explicitly names the Europeans as a ‘location target,'” the paper reported.

    The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, told the Associated Press that he was “deeply worried and shocked” about the allegations of U.S. authorities spying on EU offices.

    “It would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-U.S. relations,” he said.

    The documents show the United States may also have targeted phone calls made at the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels, where the EU Council of Ministers and European Council are located, The Guardian reported.

    Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, accused the United States of using “Cold War” methods against its allies, AP reported.

    “If the media reports are accurate, then this recalls the methods used by enemies during the Cold War,” Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said in a statement to AP.

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