PWASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors asked a judge on Tuesday to sentence James E. Cartwright, a retired Marine Corps general and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to two years in prison for lying to F.B.I. agents about his discussions with reporters about Iran’s nuclear program.
The Justice Department’s request to Judge Richard J. Leon, of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, was significantly harsher than what prosecutors had agreed was the normal sentencing guideline range — a year of probation to six months in prison — when General Cartwright pleaded guilty to that charge in October to settle a four-year leak investigation.
Although the general was convicted only on a charge of lying to investigators as part of his plea deal, prosecutors argued that his case should be seen as a leak case and that a two-year sentence would serve as a deterrent by showing “that disclosing such information to persons not authorized to receive it has severe consequences.”
Lawyers for General Cartwright told the judge their client should not go to prison. They said he had already suffered grievous damage to his reputation and significant lost income and should be sentenced to a year of probation and 600 hours of community service.
“The enormous consequences to General Cartwright of this prosecution and his very public fall from grace already have been more than sufficient to warn others to be truthful in speaking with federal investigators,” they wrote.
Judge Leon has set a sentencing hearing date for Jan. 31.
The leak investigation into General Cartwright, who left government in 2011, began in June 2012 after David E. Sanger, a reporter for The New York Times, published a book, Confront and Conceal, and a related article in The Times that provided details about Operation Olympic Games, an American-Israeli covert effort to sabotage Iranian nuclear centrifuges with the so-called Stuxnet computer virus.
According to the government’s sentencing memo, F.B.I. agents came to focus on General Cartwright as a possible source for Mr. Sanger’s reporting, as well as for a February 2012 Newsweek article by Daniel Klaidman that also discussed cyberattacks against Iran. But when agents interviewed the retired general about the book and articles on Nov. 2, 2013, he lied about his discussions with the journalists.
The memo said agents then showed General Cartwright email exchanges between him and the two reporters that contradicted his account, and as he read them, “his speech became slurred and he subsequently slumped over in his chair and lost consciousness.” The general was taken to a hospital, and when the interview resumed three days later, he admitted discussing classified information with them, it said.
General Cartwright and his lawyers have argued that he talked with the reporters for the purpose of shaping stories they had already reported out and preventing publication of more damaging information. Prosecutors expressed doubt, saying he did not articulate that explanation when the F.B.I. talked to him in November 2013.
Still, the defense submitted a letter from Mr. Sanger in which he noted that the existence of the Stuxnet virus had been publicly known since 2010, and he said he had already talked to “many sources in the United States, Europe and Israel” before his discussions with General Cartwright, who he said had expressed concerns about the revelation of certain secrets that influenced him when deciding what to withhold from publication.
The defense also submitted a sealed letter from Mr. Klaidman and numerous letters from lawmakers and current and former executive branch officials who urged leniency in light of the general’s career of public service.