Former top US general probed over leaks about Stuxnet virus used in Iran cyberattack

Former second-ranked officer in US is targeted by inquiry into disclosures about secret virus used in cyberattack on Iran nuclear programme

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

A retired four-star Marine Corps general who served as the second-ranking military officer in the US is being probed about a leak of information concerning a covert US-Israeli cyberattack on Iran's nuclear programme.

General James "Hoss" Cartwright was deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was part of Barack Obama's inner circle on critical national security issues before he retired in 2011.

A senior administration official said Cartwright is suspected of revealing information about a highly classified bid to use a computer virus - later dubbed Stuxnet - to sabotage equipment in Iranian nuclear enrichment plants.

Stuxnet was part of a broader cybercampaign called "Olympic Games" that was disclosed by The New York Times last year as one of the first major efforts by the US to use computer code as a destructive weapon against a key adversary.

Cartwright, who helped launch that campaign under George W. Bush and pushed for its escalation under Obama, was recently informed he was a "target" of a wide-ranging Justice Department probe into the leak, said the senior official, who wished to remain anonymous.

Neither Cartwright nor his attorney, former White House counsel Greg Craig, responded to requests for comment.

Cartwright was a regular participant in meetings of top national security officials at the White House and was thought to have significant influence with Obama before being passed over as a possible candidate to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The investigation into the Stuxnet leak was launched in June last year by Attorney General Eric Holder.

The leaks surrounding Stuxnet exposed details about what had been one of the most closely held secrets in the US intelligence community.

It was an ambitious effort by the National Security Agency in collaboration with the Israeli government to devise computer code that could cripple Iran's alleged programme to build a nuclear bomb.

The virus was designed to infiltrate Iranian computer networks and cause the nation's centrifuges to spin out of control, causing damage to critical equipment and sowing confusion among Iranian scientists.

The campaign is believed to have destroyed as many as 1,000 of Iran's 6,000 centrifuges.

But the virus was subsequently found on the internet, raising concerns that government-sponsored viruses could cause widespread and unintentional harm.

Cartwright, 63, who previously served as head of US Strategic Command, was a principal architect of the campaign.

He went on to be named to the Pentagon's No2 military post, moving him to the centre of policy issues ranging from Iran to the pursuit of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen. As vice-chairman, Cartwright was scorned by many fellow senior generals for opposing a plan in 2009 to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan.

Although Obama forged a quick rapport with Cartwright - White House officials referred to him as the president's favourite general - the president chose not to promote him to chairman in 2011, in part because of concern he had frayed his relationships with too many senior generals.

Within the Pentagon, he "wasn't seen as a team player", said a senior military official.

After retiring, Cartwright took a position at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and has spoken frequently on national security issues.

He has emerged as a growing critic of the Obama administration's expanded use of drones to counter the al-Qaeda threat.