Sanger's 2012 story provided new details, including that Obama approved an escalation of the StuxNet attack even after it had escaped beyond its target at Iran's Natanz centrifuge facility lab. Perhaps even more sensitive, Sanger's story relayed claims from officials attending a presidential briefing suggesting that Israel had been responsible for the code escaping Natanz.
An error in the code, they said, had led it to spread to an engineer's computer when it was hooked up to the centrifuges. When the engineer left Natanz and connected the computer to the Internet, the American- and Israeli-made bug failed to recognize that its environment had changed. It began replicating itself all around the world. Suddenly, the code was exposed, though its intent would not be clear, at least to ordinary computer users.
"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."- Advertisement -
Sanger's StuxNet story is, then, just like Risen's account of Merlin, a story of the dangerous unintended consequences caused by covert US efforts to combat Iran's claimed nuclear program. Both are issues the American public deserves to debate. Should the US risk further proliferation in its effort to counter proliferation? Should NSA launch offensive attacks against an adversary we're not at war with? What kind of blowback do such operations invite?
Both stories have been critical to bringing necessary public attention to the bungling behind our Iran policy.
Yet the alleged leakers in the two stories have thus far been treated differently. Sterling has been fighting prosecution for 3.5 years. Cartwright has lost his security clearance but, two years after the Sanger story, DOJ has not charged him or anyone else.
There may be any number of explanations for the apparently different treatment: DOJ may still be crafting a case against Cartwright -- and we may all be defending Sanger's right to protect his sources sometime in the future. Given the sensitivities of StuxNet, DOJ may be unable to prosecute the leak without exposing even more classified information. Cartwright's different treatment may reflect DOJ's efforts --announced last year -- to "explore ways in which the intelligence agencies themselves, in the first instance, can address information leaks internally, though administrative means, such as the withdrawal of security clearances."
Then there's the possibility that if you're "Obama's favorite general," as Cartwright reportedly was, you don't get prosecuted. Unlike Cartwright, Jeffrey Sterling didn't sit in on White House briefings. On the contrary, the government claimed Sterling only leaked this information after losing an Equal Employment Opportunity suit against the CIA, in which he claimed he had not been given certain assignments because he is African-American. In fact, as Risen reported in a 2002 story on Sterling, CIA Director John Brennan -- then the Agency's deputy executive director -- played a role in denying Sterling's claim, after which the CIA subjected Sterling to an early security investigation.
Both Risen's and Sanger's stories provided citizens important information on America's ham-handed efforts to combat Iran. Both leaks served to provide important information about the ill-considered covert actions done in our name. Thus far, the leaks have not been treated the same.
Hopefully, the inaction on Sterling's case and against Cartwright -- if he is, indeed, Sanger's source -- reflects reconsideration on the part of the Obama Administration of its counterproductive criminalization of whistleblowing. Hopefully, what we're seeing is a belated recognition that attacking journalism doesn't serve the country.
But for now, Jeffrey Sterling and James Risen remain under direct threat from DOJ for telling us just how problematic some of CIA's programs against Iran are.* * *