It hasn’t gotten much attention, but this week the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property—a clumsy name for a valuable undertaking—issued its findings on the threat posed by espionage against American industry, mostly in the cyber domain, and suggested steps to mitigate them. The entire report of the commission, chaired by retired Admiral Dennis Blair and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, is worth reading.
It certainly underlines the size of the problem, estimating that annual losses from intellectual property theft top $300 billion and result in the loss (or more properly the failure to add) millions of jobs to the U.S. economy. It also squarely blames China as the main source of all this theft, accounting for 50-80 percent of the whole. “National industrial policy goals in China encourage IP theft,” the commission found, “and an extraordinary number of Chinese in business and government entities are engaged in this practice.”
As the Obama administration and its European allies prepare to embark on yet another drawn-out and almost certainly futile round of diplomacy with Iran, the lack of a sense of urgency about the nuclear threat is once again obvious. The belief that more negotiations or sanctions can convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition seems to be rooted in the idea that the West has virtually unlimited time to deal with the problem. That’s why so many in the chattering classes mocked Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when he famously drew a red line across a cartoon bomb when speaking at the United Nations. Some in the foreign policy establishment seem to think Israeli fears about Iran are overblown or merely a ploy by its right-wing government. But it is also rooted in a degree of complacency about Iran’s capabilities. That complacency seemed to underline the optimism about the ability of the Stuxnet virus that was reportedly unleashed on Iran by the U.S. and/or Israel last year even though it was soon apparent that it had only a temporary affect on their nuclear project.
Western overconfidence about Iran’s capabilities should have been shelved after that, as well as the wave of cyber attacks believed to have originated in Iran that crippled computers in the Saudi Arabian oil industry as well as some American financial institutions last fall. The fallout from those attacks led outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to say that the U.S. was vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor” but in case no one was paying attention, it appears the Iranians have struck again. This time the targets were American banks, and American security experts were clear that the culprit was Iran.
That the Iranians—who are the world’s leading sponsor of terrorist groups—would wish to harm the United States is not a secret. But what seems to surprise some observers is the skill and sophistication that is evident in this cyber offensive. According to the New York Times, the nature of these attacks dwarf what the Russians did to Estonia in 2007 when it attempted to take down its Baltic neighbor’s economy. While the cyber attacks are troubling in and of themselves, they also ought to expose the idea that the Iranians are years away from a bomb as the sort of hopeless optimism that ought not influence the debate about whether to forestall the threat.
The P5+1 talks resumed today in Moscow, and the only news filtering out of the negotiations is that Iran has been even more insistent than in past meetings about getting the West to drop the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the Islamist regime. The general assumption is that this is a sign of weakness that shows the Iranians are wearying of the pain the sanctions have imposed and are liable to abandon their nuclear ambitions. But despite the hardships the sanctions have caused the Iranian people, Tehran’s bargaining position may be stronger than some Western optimists have assumed.
Iran has not budged from its demand for recognition of its right to right refine uranium while also continuing to increase the ongoing rate of production and stonewalling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. So there is little doubt Iran is playing the same game in Moscow as it did in earlier negotiating sessions in Ankara and Baghdad. Far from displaying weakness, the Iranians may still be operating on the belief that both President Obama and his European partners are more desperate for a deal — any deal — that will allow them to walk away from a confrontation on the nuclear issue.
Sens. John McCain and Saxby Chaimbliss are calling for a Senate probe into whether White House officials leaked details of the cyber warfare program against Iran to the media for political gain. But Senate Democrats are also furious about the leaks, according to The Hill:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said the leak about the attack on Iran’s nuclear program could “to some extent” provide justification for copycat attacks against the United States.
“This is like an avalanche. It is very detrimental and, candidly, I found it very concerning,” Feinstein said. “There’s no question that this kind of thing hurts our country.”
“A number of those leaks, and others in the last months about drone activities and other activities, are frankly all against national-security interests,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think they’re dangerous, damaging, and whoever is doing that is not acting in the interest of the United States of America.”
The Stuxnet virus, which caused Iranian centrifuges to malfunction and which became public in 2010, attracted worldwide publicity. It was always assumed by those in the know that this cyberattack was concocted by the U.S. and Israel, but neither country would provide confirmation about this highly classified program. That seems to have changed with the publication of this New York Times article by David Sanger, revealing (assuming the article is accurate) that Stuxnet was part of a covert program code named Olympic Games to wage cyber-war on the Iranian nuclear program,which Jonathan Tobin discussed on Friday.
The article is full of fascinating information that should be of great interest to American–and Iranian–readers. The question is: why are we reading this? There are probably few covert programs, if any, that are as sensitive as this one. As Sanger notes: “The United States government only recently acknowledged developing cyberweapons, and it has never admitted using them.”
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.