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Obama Follows Bush Model on Cyberattacks

Nearly two years after the Stuxnet worm was discovered destroying Iranian centrifuges, a New York Times (h/t Ars Technica) investigation has finally confirmed the worm’s origins: America and Israel. Although the revelation surprised no one, it marks the first official admission that the two countries were behind the attacks and reveals just how seriously the Administration is taking the development of new cyberweapons.

As the Times report notes, Obama has drastically expanded America’s cyberweapons program since taking office. And much like the drone attacks program, the president is taking an active role in determining its use:

“Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked, according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.

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 In the following weeks, the Natanz plant was hit by a newer version of the computer worm, and then another after that.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.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation, however, is that the sabotage program, codenamed “Olympic Games” was originally developed by the Bush Administration and then greatly expanded by Obama. As the Times reports:

But by the time Mr. Bush left office, no wholesale destruction had been accomplished. Meeting with Mr. Obama in the White House days before his inauguration, Mr. Bush urged him to preserve two classified programs, Olympic Games and the drone program in Pakistan. Mr. Obama took Mr. Bush’s advice.

When running for president four years ago, Obama made his opposition to the foreign policy of the Bush Administration the centerpiece of his campaign. Promising that an Obama presidency would mark a clean break with the policies of his predecessor and restore America’s image in the eyes of the world, he rallied support from a media and public that was tired of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Bush’s “cowboy” image in much of the world.

Four years on, however, Obama’s first term has turned out rather differently. Guantánmo is still open, drone strikes have increased, and America remains in Afghanistan. Indeed, most of Obama’s largest foreign policy successes have come where he has followed and expanded on the policies of his predecessor. His track record on cyberwar fits the same pattern.

Recent incidents like the the “Flame” virus make it abundantly clear that cyberweapons are becoming an increasingly vital part of America’s military arsenal. As other countries work on developing cyberweapons of their own, America will need to keep developing these attacks—and defenses against them—to retain its edge.

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  • Luke Lea

    Which countries are most vulnerable to cyberattacks? Hope it’s not the ones most dependent on the internet.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Most interesting is that the administration chose to leak so much information about a program that should be classified. Wonder why.

  • Corlyss

    “a New York Times (h/t Ars Technica) investigation has finally confirmed the worm’s origins: America and Israel. Although the revelation surprised no one”

    Given the NYT’s reputation for onesidedness and their dismissal of their fact checkers over a decade ago, why should anyone believe them? If the allegations are true and had happened during the Bush administration, it would have been a heinous act equal to torture or drone executions. If the allegations are true and covert op originates with Obama, the only reason it is mentioned is to beef up his tough-on-terrorism image. Since the NYT is a Democratic propaganda organ, I see no reason to credence it, one way or the other.

  • Frank Arden

    So, a New York Times “investigation has finally confirmed the worm’s origins: America and Israel. Although the revelation surprised no one, it marks the first official admission that the two countries were behind the attacks…”

    Who was the official in the administration who officially admitted this to the NYT and for what purpose was the “official admission” made?

    Was this “official admission” of highly classified activities (what we used to call “Top Secret”) admitting this to the media made because the official thought it was reprehensible (Daniel Elsberg and the Pentagon Papers come to mind)?

    Was this leak of classified material to the Times an act of conscience by a tortured whistle-blower who risked his career to expose an illegal act of war against a sovereign nation without a declaration of war by his country?

    Does this “official” face opprobrium and criminal legal action by the administration for this breech of US security?

    Does the New York Times face any sort of legal trouble for publishing classified material?

    “Although the revelation surprised no one,” then why did the Times embark on an “investigation” that was not newsworthy merely to tell everybody what they already knew?

    I applaud the president’s continuation of the “Olympic Games” cyberattack strategy originated by the Bush Administration.

    But the cynical use of this classified information for Mr. Obama’s reelection prospects nauseates me. It fits his pattern of his gratuitous use of the secrets that brought justice to Osama bin Laden.

    All presidents are politicians whose political instincts inform them to take credit for any success. But, statesmen are informed by the higher calling of country rather than the mere grubby business of the next election.

    Statesmen have faith that history will give them the accolades for the better decisions they made.

    I understand the Obama Administration knows has failed on the economy, that it has failed in foreign policy as Iran and North Korea continue to poke the US in the eye, while the “reset” with Russia has failed, while Obama continues to snub our allies: the UK, Poland, the Czech Republic, and India. I understand the administration’s temptation to appear virile and manly and important and successful. Yes.

    But to threaten national security for the sake of the next election is not statesmanship.

    It is appalling.

  • SC Mike

    Cyberwar is war and the NYT’s report confirms what has been suspected: the US and Israel launched attacks against the Iranians.

    It is good that they have, but not so good — in fact potentially destructive — that the world gets confirmation from US sources. Iran now has justification for attacks against those who have damaged its infrastructure. This serious breach of security will do much more than hamper further intelligence activities as the Iranians secure their networks, disable USB ports on computers connected to their networks, and so forth. They will retaliate not only in cyberspace, but in real space.

    It’s no secret that Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah have agents throughout the continental US (CONUS); they’ve been at war with the US for over thirty years, more than enough time to establish as many independent networks as they consider prudent, and at a low cost. Iran’s connections with the West produced a well-educated population from which true-believers in the cause could be recruited to serve not only as sleepers in the US, but also as successful candidates in science, technology, and general business roles, serving as sources of intelligence and funding for local operations when required.

    It’s likely that the sleepers focused their collection activities on strategic targets, not just organizations, but also personnel. We may soon find out if they have any leads on individuals and organizations that played a role in Stuxnet, Duqu , and Flame. It’s particularly unfortunate that the NYT’s reporting disclosed one or more US covernames for the programs responsible for the development of the worms / viruses because we may not know the extent of Iranian intelligence activities, particularly their signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities in the US.

    The US did have SIGINT sites in Iran before the Shah fled, and while there was limited sharing of techniques and take, much of the equipment fell into their hands when we departed, providing them with some insight into how we went about doing SIGINT. While the digital revolution has radically changed the technology and environment, many practices and procedures, now automated, remain the same. Because we find many sophisticated systems aboard even small ocean-going vehicles used by drug-runners, we have to consider that an oil-producing country can also mount an effective intelligence collection and processing system.

    But whatever precision their SIGINT or overall intelligence capability may be in CONUS, they can afford to be sloppy to some extent. While they cannot afford to threaten or kill randomly on a large scale, they can rely on a shotgun rather than a rifle approach in their attacks on those organizations and individuals whom they consider affiliated with efforts against Iran.

    Hmmm. Then again, maybe they believe they can afford to kill on a large scale. We may not know what their capabilities are within the US, what resources they have at hand…

    CIA Director Petraeus has already, one hopes, requested that DOJ begin an investigation into the leak and initiated offensive and protective measures to contain the known Iranian, Hamas, and Hezbollah cells in the US.

    That would be a good start. Who knows where this will end.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I’m no Obama fan but I agree with him on drones and cyberwar. Just as the AK-47 created an asymmetry that changed the strategic balance between professional armies and insurgents, the drone and cyberwar restore a certain amount of symmetry. How much is not yet clear, but it seems it was clear enough to both Obama and Bush that neither have let false scruples get in the way of pursuing the national interest. This much is clear – we don’t have to put up with fanatics like al Awiaki fomenting terrorism with no fear of consequences and state actors like Iran are less free to pursue proxy war and plot assassination in our capital with impunity. I also have to say that Obama has learned the lesson of Guantanamo which is to avoid VISIBLY taking prisoners so that the lawfare quislings have nothing with which to create vexation.

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