Lee Smith has an interesting take on one aspect of the administration’s calculated cyberleaks, produced obediently by the New York Times, detailing the cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in conducting cyberwarfare against the Iranian nuclear program. It’s true, Smith writes, that in one sense these articles are meant to make Obama seem tough, but they are also to pass the buck if and when things go wrong. Smith writes:
The nature of the story is given away in a quote from Vice President Joe Biden, exasperated after Stuxnet mistakenly appeared on the Web in the summer of 2010, exposing the code. Biden laid the blame at the feet of the administration’s ostensible partner. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” said Biden, according to an unnamed source. “They went too far.” In other words, the Obama White House wants it both ways—to claim credit for the successes of the cyberwarfare campaign and to shift blame on the Israelis in the event that things go wrong.
It’s telling that the administration thinks blaming Israel is a good election strategy, and Smith’s piece is worth reading in full. But a couple quotes from Israeli sources stood out to me. First Yossi Melman, the Israeli journalist, tells Smith: “Israeli officials know that it’s an election year… Israeli officials are not going to rock the boat and ruin the party.” Later in the story, an Israeli intelligence source tells Smith: “No Israeli government is going to be criticized for releasing a virus. We know we are at war, and America does not know it’s at war.”
I’m not so sure that’s the case, but it does reveal something else about the two countries: Israelis understand American politics well, and American officials and journalists don’t seem to understand Israeli politics at all.
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.
Iran’s confirmation that the computers of a number of their officials have been attacked by a new virus will give further ammunition to those who argue that the nuclear threat from the Islamist regime can be neutered by intelligence coups and technology. Like the Stuxnet virus which supposedly flummoxed Iran’s scientists last year, the new Flame worm may cause some havoc in Tehran and the nuclear facilities scattered around the country. And it will give Western and Israeli intelligence agencies and government officials a chance to crow about their capabilities, much as Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon did today.
But even if this is Israel’s handiwork and the damage it does is greater than then the mere temporary inconvenience wrought by Stuxnet, no one should be fooled into thinking a virus will ultimately stop Iran’s nuclear program if the regime is determined to persist in its goal. Any technological attack will spawn a defense and a counter-attack. Though Flame may give Israel and/or the West a temporary advantage in the cyber war being conducted with Iran, it cannot by itself or even in combination with other covert activities such as assassinations, solve the problem. That is only possible by diplomacy or force.