Retired General James “Hoss” Cartwright testifying before the Senate in April (Creative Commons-licensed Photo by CSIS: Center for Strategic & International Studies)

Retired General James “Hoss” Cartwright had been described as “Obama’s favorite general.” He was a four-star Marine Corps general who served as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He had apparently “impressed the White House with his intellect and expertise on the modern technology of national security, including on nuclear weapons, missile defense and cyberwarfare,” according to The New York Times.

“Legal sources” leaked to NBC News’ Michael Isikoff details indicating that Cartwright was suspected of being involved in the leak of information on the Stuxnet worm to Times reporter David Sanger. After that news broke Thursday evening, there was disbelief that he would be the kind of person who would leak classified information that might damage national security. [Note: Stuxnet was the virus used by the US to attack an Iranian nuclear facility.]

CNN’s premiere national security state contributor, Fran Townsend, a former Homeland Security advisor to President George W. Bush, was overwhelmed with shock when she appeared on the morning news program “New Day” on Friday, she said, “His nickname is Hoss — is a marine’s marine. This is a — he made his way through the Marine Corps because he was a very sort of — he’s a very bright guy but a real rules guy, a real leader, a very strong leader. It really is almost unimaginable to me that Hoss would do something like this.”

Host Chris Cuomo tried to console her in her moment of emotional crisis by saying it’s “just an investigation.” There are “no charges.” And, “I’ll just keep repeating it.”

“Yes, it’s really shocking to me. This is not the sort of thing — Hoss was not a shoot from the hip guy. Not a sort of aggrandizing soldier. I mean, he’s a real patriot,” Townsend added. She might as well have added, unlike Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier currently on trial for “aiding the enemy” after releasing United States government information to WikiLeaks, he was no arrogant fame whore looking to make his mark on the world.

Adding to the disbelief that Cartwright actually leaked information was the fact that he was so “high up” and wouldn’t that be “very unheard of”?

Townsend answered:

TOWNSEND: Look, at that level of government whether it’s the White House or the Pentagon, all of those sorts of senior ranking officials have relationships with reporters and the media.

But it’s because of the nature of the technical program — let’s remember Hoss Cartwright was the commander StratCom, which was responsible for the cyber strategy and capability originally. He understood this program and value of it and importance of it and notion that he would leak it really frankly is inconceivable to me because he was in a position to understand the damage that would do.

Notice that Townsend does not seem to think it is “very unheard of” for high-ranking officials to leak. From experience, she probably knows these are the officials in government who leak most often, not low-level individuals.

On the damaging nature of the leak, Townsend stated, “Look, on two levels, one, what you’ve signaled to your enemies the vector of attack telling them how to defend themselves and, two, you run the risk that once they know that, they’ll take that capability, tweak it, and turn it back against you.” but, given everything Townsend knew about Cartwright, it was her belief that he had only talked to someone in the press about Stuxnet because policymakers believed “there was some advantage to having it out there.” Or, the Obama administration wanted it out there to help the administration look good.

The Pentagon’s resident stenographer for CNN, Barbara Starr, expressed similar disbelief on Erin Burnett’s program, “OutFront”:

What happened? That’s really, isn’t it? That’s the question, Erin. And I don’t think anybody has an answer. We do know that General Cartwright under investigation by the Justice Department, everyone’s jaws dropped when this story broke because he is — you know, he may have his enemies, but he is a respected, retired four star military officer. This is not a guy who goes rogue. So you might wonder if maybe somebody in the White House originally encouraged him to discuss this program.

Starr’s update included a mention of his lawyer, former White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, declaring, “General Cartwright is an American hero who served his country with distinction for four decades. Any suggestion that he could have betrayed the country he loves is preposterous.”

This update prompted Burnett to declare, “This is just an incredible story when you think about it. The president going after so many for leaking and this time somebody who was so close to him. If this person did leak what he’s accused of leaking reportedly was actually something that helped the president.” It was almost as if Burnett was saying that leaks are okay if they help the president.

And, in an earlier update on CNN that day, Starr said, Cartwright was ”respected as one of the most brilliant military minds that there is, a four star marine retired in 2011, very close to President Obama, an expert in nuclear weapons and cyber warfare. Hard to understand, many people say, that he might have gone down this road. So a lot of people are waiting to see what happens, what the next step is.”

The natural next step would be to begin caricaturizing him as a “grandiose narcissist” and figure out what kind of personality defects he had that would have led to him disclosing this secret cyberwarfare operation. However, this is a respected member who worked at the top of the military industrial-complex.

NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten even went so far as to vouch for Cartwright when he was on “All Things Considered”:

Most of us who have covered national security issues have known General Cartwright. I have to say, my impression has always been that he’s a real straight arrow. He certainly never leaked anything to me, Robert. He was always very careful in our conversations not to get into anything classified. So this is hard to understand.

Had it been a high-ranking government official, someone who had actually taken some risk to blow the whistle on a program that made the administration look bad, one can be certain Gjelten would not be making it clear that person never leaked any classified information to him. He would not be sticking up for someone who obviously had been a source for stories before.

Leaks are the only way the public learns anything anymore about what the US government is doing in the shadows to defend “national security” or project American power. It is the only way that any citizens learn about corruption, illegality, malfeasance or wrongdoing or, in the case of Stuxnet, a precedent in warfare that could internationally normalize the practice of attacking a nation’s critical infrastructure to protect national security.

A leaker is really a source and essential for investigative journalism to remain alive and well in America, but often the information being obtained by reporters can be the information on national security policies or programs that officials in government want public. There can be clear political motives, such as testing whether the act or measure is one that government should engage in again. Such leaks, if sanctioned, work more as propaganda unless a reporter is putting comments into proper context and not always accepting what is said as unquestionable truth.

Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who spoke via Skype to the Socialism Conference in Chicago, IL, on Friday night, skewered US establishment media:  ”The only kind of leaks that are bad are leaks that the government doesn’t want disclosed to the public.”

The only crime that you commit is when you do reporting that the government doesn’t want you to do, when you expose things to your readers and to your viewers that embarrass political officials. The only thing that is journalism is to them is when they carry forward the message that has been implanted in their brains by the political officials whom they serve …

This answers the question of whether Times reporter David Sanger should be afraid the media will start asking if he “aided and abetted” the crime of committing journalism, as individuals in the US media have done to Greenwald because National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden was and continues to be his source for stories on the NSA.

It helps to explain why reporters are likely to let out even louder gasps if he is charged with violating the Espionage Act and appropriately express concerns about using this law to go after leakers in ways they never did when it was revealed Snowden was charged with committing Espionage Act violations.

Cartwright was part of the culture of access journalism in Washington. Reporters had cooperative relationships with him. They understood what to publish and not to publish, which makes it hard for them to consider him an “insider” or an “informer.”

None of these reporters Cartwright had relationships with probably ever intended to challenge the programs or policies related to cyber warfare, drone operations or the war in Afghanistan. They merely intended to get some kind of information from a source so they could have an “officials say” story that could make for a good headline in tomorrow’s news. And that is why media are likely to downplay or even defend what Cartwright did if he happens to actually be charged with leaking information on Stuxnet.