The Marine general considered the leading candidate to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest military post, was investigated and cleared of misconduct involving a young aide, according to results of a Pentagon inquiry released Wednesday.
An anonymous accuser claimed Gen. James Cartwright acted inappropriately during a 2009 overseas trip on which the aide traveled as a military assistant. Several sources confirmed that the former aide is a young woman, although her name and pronouns that would reveal her sex are blacked out in the heavily edited Pentagon inspector general's report. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity to describe aspects of the report that were not released.
The inspector general quickly cleared Cartwright of the most serious allegations, which involved claims that he may have had an improper physical relationship with the young woman. The report, completed in March 2010, did find that Cartwright mishandled an incident in which the aide, drunk and visibly upset, visited his Tbilisi, Georgia, hotel room alone and either passed out or fell asleep on a bench at the foot of his bed.
Cartwright claimed he had done nothing wrong and was later cleared of all wrongdoing by the top civilian Navy official.
"The investigation into the anonymous allegations was thorough. He cooperated fully and when it concluded the allegations were not substantiated," Cartwright spokesman Maj. Cliff W. Gilmore said Wednesday. "Gen. Cartwright believes it's important to have a system that allows anonymous complaints to be heard and appropriate for leaders, especially at his level, to be open to this degree of scrutiny."
Cartwright told investigators that he was working in his hotel suite when the woman entered after 11 p.m. the night of March 30, 2009, and began a conversation. She was seated on the bench, where at least one other aide later saw her slumped and apparently asleep, according to the inspector's report and interviews with officials knowledgeable about the trip.
The suite functioned as Cartwright's office, the door was ajar while the woman was inside and security personnel were nearby.
Cartwright, who is 61 and married, told investigators he thought it best to let the woman sleep it off, and she eventually returned to her own room. He said he worked most of the night and got about an hour of sleep.
The inspector general faulted Cartwright for not insisting that the aide leave or be removed. The report says she felt "license" to enter the general's room late at night and drunk, despite being advised by a security agent not to do so.
The report also faulted Cartwright for failing to act on an earlier incident in which the woman also apparently drank too much. In that case, she had a disagreement with a Secret Service agent guarding President Barack Obama at an elite annual dinner given by the Alfalfa Club in Washington.
Obama has not announced whom he will nominate to succeed the current Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, when Mullen's term expires this summer. Cartwright is currently Mullen's deputy, and military and other U.S. officials with knowledge of the conversations said Cartwright is the top choice to succeed his boss. Other names that have been mentioned are Navy Adm. James Stavridis and Army Gen. David Petraeus.
The candidate would first be recommended to the White House by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a step that is expected within weeks. Timing of the release of the inquiry appears tied to the question of whether Cartwright would be picked for chairman, perhaps as a way to clear the air amid rumors of the investigation that spread through the Pentagon. News organizations had filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the material, but the Pentagon released it more widely.
Gates knew of the investigation and its outcome, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday.
"To the extent he was involved, it was to ensure that this matter was properly reviewed and adjudicated," Morrell said. "The secretary is satisfied that this has been accomplished and absent any new revelations, the matter has been properly adjudicated and the case is closed."
Obama is aware of the misconduct claim and was not deterred by it, two officials said. White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on release of the edited inquiry results.
Some members of Congress were made aware of the allegations and the findings, apparently in preparation for eventual nomination hearings if Cartwright is selected for the chairman's post.
As the nation's No. 2 military official, Cartwright has forged what administration and military officials describe as a better relationship with the Obama White House than Mullen enjoys. The former fighter pilot is known as a keen intellect and savvy bureaucratic insider.
He has prominent critics, however, including military and some administration officials who have complained privately that Cartwright went around normal channels to confer with White House officials during the months-long review of U.S. war policy in Afghanistan in the fall of 2009. Cartwright's key behind-the-scenes role and complaints about it are laid out in journalist Bob Woodward's 2010 account of the strategy review.