STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The man once known as President Obama's favorite general pleaded guilty to a felony charge. He's retired four-star Marine General James Cartwright. He admits to making false statements to FBI agents as they probed media leaks. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was at the courthouse in Washington for the guilty plea. She's on the line. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How important is General Cartwright?
JOHNSON: He was critically important to the Obama administration and to the president personally. He served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And that's the second-highest ranking member of the armed forces.
JOHNSON: He retired back in 2012, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, and how did he end up under FBI investigation?
JOHNSON: There were leaks about a secret plan to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program through a computer worm known as Stuxnet.
JOHNSON: That effort was one of the first offensive cyberattacks in history. And the pressure about these leaks grew so much that DOJ launched an investigation. They wound up at the door of General Cartwright and many others. But the FBI says when they knocked on his door, General Cartwright lied.
INSKEEP: Lied about what?
JOHNSON: He misled the FBI about his contacts with two reporters - David Sanger of The New York Times and Daniel Klaidman, then of Newsweek magazine. The FBI says it showed the general some statements from Sanger's articles and books, and it also showed him some statements from Klaidman's articles. And the general denied being a source for the stories. But the FBI later got a hold of an email between the general and Klaidman in which Cartwright had confirmed some classified information. And the prosecutors here argue, Steve, that the general should have known better because he had signed dozens and dozens of nondisclosure agreements over the years.
INSKEEP: Well, I want to be clear on what he did here because misuse of classified information, obviously, comes up in the presidential campaign with relation to Hillary Clinton. And this was a story where I know U.S. military figures were outraged. There had been this hacking attack - this internet attack on Iran. People felt that it should be very, very, very secret, and suddenly there were newspaper stories about it. And that upset many people in the U.S. military. What exactly is the general saying that he told reporters in these communications that he now admits he had?
JOHNSON: The general is not being charged with or admitting to the leak itself. He's admitting to lying to investigators who were looking into the leak. He says it was wrong to mislead the FBI, but he was not the source of those stories. He was trying to prevent reporters from publishing information that could've hurt national security. Now, the government has not identified the true source of those leaks of the Stuxnet worm. And we may never know given how the Justice Department works.
INSKEEP: So he didn't admit to misusing classified information. He just admitted to lying about his contacts with reporters.
JOHNSON: Yeah, and that email between he and the reporter from Newsweek magazine was critical in the government's case.
INSKEEP: So what happens now, Carrie Johnson?
JOHNSON: The judge allowed him to go home before sentencing but warned the general to stay on the straight and narrow. That was kind of jarring to hear. He's scheduled to appear in January 2017 for sentencing. And under those sentencing terms, he's probably likely to get between zero and six months in prison.
INSKEEP: Up to six months in prison, but he could end up with no prison - that's what you're saying?
JOHNSON: He could end up with no prison given his record, which is very clean, his ability to present some character witnesses at sentencing and of course, Steve, General David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor earlier in this administration, served no time at all for conduct a lot of people think was worse than this today.
INSKEEP: OK, well, Carrie, thanks very much, appreciate it.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.