New York Times reporter David Sanger received wide access to high-ranking members of the Obama administration and the security apparatus to write his book about what he has termed “Obama’s Secret Wars.” The latest excerpt published in the Times today shows that Sanger is rewarding his subject with yet another account portraying the president as a bold warrior against America’s foes. The subject this time is the cyber warfare being waged by the United States and Israel against Iran and, according to Sanger, Obama was an eager advocate of turning American nerds loose on Tehran’s computers. But, as was the case with other successful elements of Obama administration counter-terrorism strategy such as the use of drones, the use of cyber weapons is another example of the president merely continuing an initiative developed by the Bush administration.
The impetus for the publication of this report may have been the revelations about a new virus called Flame that has infected Iranian computers. However, that story as well as the interesting tale Sanger tells about the last three years of covert American and Israeli efforts to halt or delay Iran’s nuclear program by means of cyber attacks, shouldn’t deceive anyone into thinking that any of these clever stratagems are a substitute for a real commitment to put an end to the threat.
While the president deserves credit for following the advice President Bush gave him about continuing the secret program (or at least what used to be secret before the president and his staff decided they needed to spill the beans so as to enhance his chances for re-election) code-named “Olympic Games,” the subtext of the story is that the effort hasn’t really succeeded.
Though the administration gives itself great credit for proceeding with the Stuxnet virus attack even after it became public knowledge, the results do not seem to have been as impressive as the president’s cheering section would like us to think. As even Sanger notes:
These officials gave differing assessments of how successful the sabotage program was in slowing Iran’s progress toward developing the ability to build nuclear weapons. Internal Obama administration estimates say the effort was set back by 18 months to two years, but some experts inside and outside the government are more skeptical, noting that Iran’s enrichment levels have steadily recovered, giving the country enough fuel today for five or more weapons, with additional enrichment.
If that is true then it must be acknowledged that though both Bush and Obama were right to try Stuxnet and other cyber attacks, they aren’t the solution. As smart as the American and Israeli computer geeks might be, the assumption that the Iranians are too stupid or backward to defend their systems is absurd. As has always been the case with every sort of military technology invented, for every offensive tactic developed there is a defense. The fact is, despite Stuxnet and Flame, the Iranian centrifuges are still turning. The military research at Parchin has already been conducted and may now have been removed to a site Western sources don’t know about. Despite the cyber attacks and the inherent flaws that may exist in the Iranian program, they have managed to develop facilities and technology that is getting them closer to a bomb.
The covert action undertaken by the administration was appropriate and should be continued. But for all of the breathless patting themselves on the back that comes through in the Sanger piece, another familiar theme to observers of the Obama administration emerges: hostility to Israel. Sanger’s sources claim that Stuxnet’s failure was Israel’s fault.
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.”
Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” he said. “They went too far.”
We don’t really know whether this true and neither does Sanger or Vice President Biden, but it is telling that in a piece dedicated to promoting the idea of President Obama as a ground-breaking cyber warrior, there would have to be a passage trashing the Israelis.
Leaks like these can only add to the level of distrust the Israelis feel for the administration’s intentions on Iran. The administration’s effort to enhance its image via these stories is a poor substitute for a genuine commitment to do whatever it takes to end the nuclear threat that can’t be stopped by viruses alone.