On June 21, Iran’s intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, announced that Iran had detected what he called a “massive cyber attack” against Iran’s nuclear facilities planned by “America and the Zionist regime (Israel) along with the [British spy agency] MI6.”
Moslehi may or may not have been making this up, but based on recent history and a striking series of revelations from U.S. national security officials in leaks to the New York Times, the Washington Post and in a new book, Confront and Conceal by David E. Sanger, the Iranian official has plausibility on his side.
More importantly, the Iranian charges suggest that a long-running cyberwar campaign against Iran by the United States and Israel has the potential to fatally undermine the already difficult negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 world powers over Iran’s nuclear research and uranium enrichment plans. “Obama [is] prepared to let half-baked schemes undermine any chance he might have had, at least in theory, to pursue serious diplomacy with Iran,” wrote Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett, both former officials at the National Security Council under George W. Bush, who’ve criticized Obama’s approach toward Iran.
In the worst case, in fact, the U.S.-led cyberwar effort – which, analysts in Washington say, is a form of offensive, undeclared warfare – could drastically heighten tensions between Iran and the United States even to the point of open conflict.
In Confront and Conceal, Sanger describes in detail the never-before-told story of “Olympic Games,” the code name for a major U.S. covert operation against Iran launched by the Bush administration, with Israel’s cooperation, in 2007-2008 and then vastly expanded by President Barack Obama. “You can’t help but describe it as an attack on critical infrastructure,” Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, told Sanger. “Somebody has crossed the Rubicon,” he said, likening the cyber sabotage of Iran’s plants in some senses to the August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Using information gleaned from Israeli on-the-ground spies with access to facilities such as Natanz, where Iran’s centrifuges spin, the U.S. team reportedly implanted a spyware “beacon,” likely by means of a small thumb drive, making use of insider knowledge from the German industrial giant Siemens. Apparently, reports Sanger, Israeli spies recruited or subverted engineers from Siemens to help out in the cause.
Using a model of a P-1 centrifuge obtained from Libya, which appears to have used the same model as Iran, “destructive testing” using a cyber bug took place.
Obama is said to have overseen the entire operation closely, despite his concern that Iran might respond by launching attacks on American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, on Israel, and on the vast Saudi oil complex. He is alleged to have continued the program even after the virus, called Stuxnet by those who later analyzed it, escaped the confines of Iran’s nuclear program and spread around the globe, especially in India and Indonesia. According to media reports, discovery led to panic inside the White House. “Inside the Pentagon and the CIA, there were meetings about whether the United States would be accused of being among the first to use a cyberweapon against a sovereign state,” writes Sanger.
Indeed, the United States has spent billions of dollars developing a defense system against cyberwar attacks from abroad while, more quietly, developing its own offensive cyberwar capability at the Pentagon. More often than not, the United States is quick to accuse China and Russia of conducting cyberwarfare against the United States, though so far mostly limited, it says, to espionage and industrial secrets. To ring alarm bells about cyberwarfare against the United States, the threat has been compared with the 1941 Japanese attack on Hawaii. “There’s a strong likelihood that the next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems, our governmental system,” said Leon Panetta, the U.S. defense secretary.
In the case of Iran, it seems, it was the United States playing the role of 1941 Japan.
For years, there have been repeated reports of U.S. efforts to acquire and refine offensive cyberwarfare capabilities. The Pentagon, under a project dubbed Plan X, is using the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in a five-year, $110 million effort. They hope to hone the military’s ability to use cyber-warfare to “dominate the digital battlefield just like they do the traditional battlefield,” notes Herbert S. Lin, a cyber security expert with the National Research Council of the National Academies.
Besides Stuxnet, the United States and Israel also collaborated on developing a cyber bug called Flame designed to penetrate Iran’s computer systems and send back massive amounts of data that could be used to target and disrupt its nuclear research and other industrial facilities in Iran, including oil production. According to The Washington Post: “Flame came to light last month after Iran detected a series of cyberattacks on its oil industry. The disruption was directed by Israel in a unilateral operation that apparently caught its American partners off guard, according to several U.S. and Western officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.”
Added the Post:
“The virus is among the most sophisticated and subversive pieces of malware to be exposed to date. Experts said the program was designed to replicate across even highly secure networks, then control everyday computer functions to send secrets back to its creators. The code could activate computer microphones and cameras, log keyboard strokes, take screen shots, extract geolocation data from images, and send and receive commands and data through Bluetooth wireless technology.”
So the charges from Moslehi last week don’t seem unlikely at all. What’s uncertain, now, is what Iran’s response might be.