This is the week where the President, through coordinated leaks at the highest levels, admits to the New York Times to ruthlessness when it comes to “fighting the bad guys.” First it was the drone strikes, and now it’s an excerpt from a forthcoming David Sanger book where we get the first acknowledgement that the President led and ordered cyberwarfare against Iran, in the form of the Stuxnet virus.
From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons, according to participants in the program.
Mr. Obama decided to accelerate the attacks — begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games — even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran’s Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet. Computer security experts who began studying the worm, which had been developed by the United States and Israel, gave it a name: Stuxnet.
Depending on who you talk to, the Stuxnet worm was either very successful in delaying Iran’s nuclear program, not successful at all, or irrelevant because Iran hasn’t made the decision to shift from a nuclear energy proposal to a nuclear weapons one. What is not in dispute is that this represents an escalation of warfare into the digital realm, which even the President recognized:
Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, 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. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons — even under the most careful and limited circumstances — could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.
As Marcy Wheeler writes, this leads us into uncharted territory with another expansion of warfare, even at the same time stressing the need for international cooperation in this arena. Obama rationalizes this by saying that the US had no choice when it came to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That will be broadcast widely to hawkish voters in states Obama wants to win in November, that he was willing to make “tough choices” in our national security interests.
But the choices weren’t tough, they were actually short-sighted. They focused on a near-term issue, when the long-term ramifications of engaging in cyberwarfare, especially because of the ease of blowback, are so clear. In fact, this blowback happened almost right away.
An error in the code, they said, had led it to spread to an engineer’s computer when it was hooked up to the centrifuges. When the engineer left Natanz and connected the computer to the Internet, the American- and Israeli-made bug failed to recognize that its environment had changed. It began replicating itself all around the world. Suddenly, the code was exposed, though its intent would not be clear, at least to ordinary computer users.
“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” one of the briefers told the president, “and we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”
If anything, there were limited consequences to this coding error, at least for the United States (it may have caused an explosion at an Iranian plant). The threat of escalating cyberwar taking out US weapons systems is pretty clear to see.
There’s also the amazing asymmetry between sanctioned and unsanctioned leaking in this Administration, where your criminalization or embrace depends on whose story you tell. The correlation between Sanger’s piece and James Risen’s reporting on a separate infiltration into the Iranian nuclear program – for which he received a subpoena, and for which the whistleblower who exposed the information to Risen is under prosecution – couldn’t be more stark.
Obviously, there’s a certain electoral frame being sought where the President is seen as a Tough Warrior. Any deviation from that leads to punishment. Some of the better reporters in the media are waking up to this and speaking out, but not enough.