Behind the US/Israeli Cyberattacks on Iran
Megha Rajagopalan, ProPublica
he New York Times has published a report detailing how the Bush and Obama administrations created the cyberweapon known as Stuxnet and used it to disrupt Iran's uranium enrichment program.
Much has been written about Stuxnet, which, as ProPublica recently reported, remains a threat beyond Iran. But the Times account, based on interviews with unnamed U.S. and Israeli officials, is the most extensive account to date of U.S. cyberwarfare capabilities. Here's our cheat sheet on what's new and the fallout:
- Because of Stuxnet's complexity, cybersecurity analysts have long suspected it was a U.S.-Israeli effort. The Times story confirms this for the first time, disclosing that the project was code-named "Olympic Games."
- Olympic Games began under the Bush administration, and during development, it was known as "the bug."
- President Obama has repeatedly expressed concern that if the U.S. acknowledges it is behind Stuxnet, it would give terrorists and enemy states a justification for their own attacks.
- Stuxnet was introduced into Iran's enrichment facility at Natanz by an unwitting Iranian. "It turns out there is always an idiot around who doesn't think much about the thumb drive in their hand," a source told the Times.
- To test the bug in secret Department of Energy labs, the U.S. used aging centrifuges handed over in 2003 by Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, making them into replicas of the nuclear enrichment facilities Iran used.
- The attack on Iran became the first known instance of the U.S. using computer code to physically damage another country's infrastructure. Obama, the Times writes, "was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade."
- The Israeli role in the attack came from a military unit called Unit 8200 that had "technical expertise that rivaled" the U.S. National Security Agency's as well as significant intelligence about Iran's nuclear facilities.
- When a programming error made Stuxnet's code public in 2010, Obama considered halting Olympic Games altogether. But in the end, the administration decided to accelerate the attacks.
It's unclear who was responsible for the programming error, but some in the Obama administration blamed the Israelis. The Times names Vice President Joe Biden: "Mr. Biden fumed. 'It's got to be the Israelis,' he said. 'They went too far.'"
- American officials claim that Flame, an even more complex piece of computer malware that has also attacked Iranian infrastructure, is not part of Olympic Games - but they didn't explicitly deny it was an American project.
- Opinion is divided as to whether Olympic Games was successful in slowing uranium enrichment in Iran. Administration officials said they had set the Iranians back 18 months to two years, but other experts say enrichment levels quickly recovered and that Iran today has enough fuel for five or more weapons with additional enrichment.
The Obama administration has long emphasized the importance of domestic cybersecurity, but recent statements show an increasing openness about offensive capabilities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged last month that government hackers had attacked Al Qaeda propaganda sites in Yemen, changing information in ads that talked about killing Americans to show how many Yemenis had died in Al Qaeda attacks.
For years, the Iranians had no idea they were being attacked, blaming their own workers or faults in their facilities, The Times said. But because Stuxnet was inadvertently released, any government- not to mention any hacker with spare time and a malicious streak - can create their own mutation of the weapon.
As the Times points out, "No country's infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States." Siemens makes specialized industrial controllers that were targeted by the Olympic Games attacks. As Siemens confirmed to ProPublica, the same hardware and software holes Stuxnet took advantage of in Iran exist in thousands of locations in the U.S. and worldwide. The vulnerable equipment controls everything from natural gas pipelines to refineries and power transmission lines.
American cybersecurity experts have long warned that it's only a matter of time before someone turns an equally destructive cyberweapon on our own systems. Now that Stuxnet's origins are clear, the odds of that happening might be even higher.