“We have a great general . . . [who’s] going to potentially serve five years in jail for lying to the FBI, one lie,” presidential nominee Donald Trump said. “She’s lied hundreds of times to the people, to Congress, and to the FBI. He’s going to probably go to jail.” At last night’s third and final debate in Las Vegas, Donald Trump was pivoting to the breaking story about much-loved former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman General James E. Cartwright. And as Trump said, Cartwright may be on his way to prison.

Let’s consider this story without politicizing it for a moment.

THE FACTS

Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports that Cartwright leaked classified information about the groundbreaking American-Israeli cyberweapon Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear centrifuges for love of country. Then, presumably for the same reason, Cartwright lied to the FBI investigating the leak. Rogin writes, “Cartwright asserted his motivations were patriotic. ‘My only goal in talking to the reporters was to protect American interests and lives; I love my country and continue to this day to do everything I can to defend it.’”

THE LOGIC

I can understand how Cartwright might have interpreted the opportunity to simply talk to New York Times’ David Sanger and Newsweek’s Dan Klaidman about their intentions to break the Stuxnet story—or more Stuxnet stories—may have protected “American interests and lives.” That would have meant dissuading them from publishing, or dissuading them from publishing more.

Federal News Radio’s Tom Temin reports that Cartwright maintains that “in confirming the Stuxnet story to the reporters, [Cartwright] was trying to get them to not publish national security secrets.”

THE GAME

Cartwright could very well have been “officially” contributing to the not-uncommon intentional leak of sensitive or classified information that happens around the Beltway all too routinely. Professionally speaking, it’s a dangerous game. Over the course of a forty-year career, Administrations and senior leaders change many times, and among those playing these kinds of games, the all too often the first loyalty is to one’s own reputation, not to a colleague. When all hell breaks loose and careers are on the line and jail-time is threatened, it’s every man or woman for him- or herself. Those are the rules. They’re ugly. But they’re the rules. Only a very few, very honorable, very courageous break them.

It’s not hard do believe that there may have been a host of reasons why the Administration might have wanted Iran to know that the United States was behind their self-destructing centrifuges, especially if the proverbial cat was already out of the proverbial bag. It’s not hard to believe that senior leaders advised Cartwright to engage the reporters on the classified information, for any number of reasons.

Tom Termin observers, “I don’t feel sorry for Cartwright so much as astonished that someone with 40 years of service and adherence to rules, would even answer a phone call from a reporter about such a sensitive national security matter, much less jump into it.” In Washington, D.C., that he’d jump into the fray isn’t astonishing at all. Pleas for sympathy and arguments that Dave or Hillary or others who leaked were treated more leniently aren’t astonishing. That, too, is part of the game. It’s a play, a drama unfolding for the public audience.

To jump in on his own without what he believed was top-cover would be astonishing. To jump in eyes wide shut to the potential second and third order effects—including the effects to his own career—would be astonishing.

LESSONS LEARNED

We’d be naïve to imagine that in climbing to the most powerful seats of leadership in the United States government, rubbing elbows with the world’s leadership, one would never have the opportunity, and an apparently good patriotic reason, to leak sensitive or classified information to someone, at some point. We’re fooling ourselves to think that someone didn’t encourage Cartwright to talk to the reporters, and that in doing so he would concede certain points in order to achieve what may have been an outcome that could best serve American interests and somehow protect American lives. We’re fooling ourselves to think that Cartwright wasn’t fully aware that he was putting his career in the balance, albeit for reasons he interpreted as patriotic.

The lessons here are very simple ones. If you want to keep your honor intact, don’t cross bright lines in handling classified information. If you should, don’t lie to the FBI. That could mean you don’t reach the highest rung on the professional ladder. You may have to choose the highest rung or your honor. Ultimately, when you make the choice, stand by it.

And if you’re sacrificing your integrity for what you believe is some higher good, then have the courage and strength of character to embrace the outcome.

It’s a dirty game.

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.

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