New York Times: Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran

The New York Times has a front-page story today alleging that the Obama administration continued the program of cyberattacks begun by the Bush administration.  Indeed, they sped it up.

In case any Microsoft lawyers are reading this post, I am alleging nothing about the US government or any malware, I am merely pointing readers to an article in the New York Times and summarizing it here (I point out this disclaimer because I have had to remove material from my blog posts before).

Summary of the article in the NYT:

  • 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.
  • Told it was unclear how much the Iranians knew about the code, and offered evidence that it was still causing havoc, Mr. Obama decided that the cyberattacks should proceed. In the following weeks, the Natanz plant was hit by a newer version of the computer worm, and then another after that. The last of that series of attacks, a few weeks after Stuxnet was detected around the world, temporarily took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time to purify uranium.
  • The United States government only recently acknowledged developing cyberweapons, and it has never admitted using them.
  • For years the C.I.A. had introduced faulty parts and designs into Iran’s systems — even tinkering with imported power supplies so that they would blow up — but the sabotage had had relatively little effect.
  • The N.S.A. and a secret Israeli unit respected by American intelligence officials for its cyberskills set to work developing the enormously complex computer worm that would become the attacker from within.
  • 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.” Nobody knows who is responsible for the bug.

Although people in the security industry for two years have long strongly suspected this (one notch beneath knowing it for a fact), this article on the front page of the New York Times pretty much confirms it.

I have read commentaries on Stuxnet where the writer asks “So, was Stuxnet successful?”  Their response to their own question goes like this:

Well, Stuxnet did disrupt the Iranian nuclear program so in that respect it worked.  But it was discovered earlier than it should have been so in that respect it failed.  The results are mixed.

Another problem with Stuxnet being discovered (along with all of these other pieces of malware) is that “Forewarned is forearmed.”  That’s a principle in magic that you should never repeat the same trick twice in a row for the same spectator.  If you do, there’s a chance that they will figure out how you did it.

It’s the same thing in industrial control systems like this that get sabotaged – fool me once, shame on me.  Fool me twice… you can’t get fooled again.

Something like that.

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