The United States and Israel have embarked on a campaign of war by other means against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In an attempt to slow down or even cripple the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the two allies have staged a series of attacks against it using sophisticated computer malware.
In what appears to be a deliberate attempt to pump up President Barack Obama’s national security reputation in the middle of his reelection campaign, details of the operation were leaked to the press. Someone in a position of authority leaked the information to the New York Times. The descriptions and interactions are too detailed to be conjecture. Besides, no one is saying that the information that was revealed is incorrect.
The basic story is that the computer virus was developed by the Israelis with the assistance of the U.S. National Security Agency and the Department of Energy. The malware was placed in the Iranian computer network with the assistance of the CIA. They apparently used an agent affiliated with the Mujaheddin e Khalq who was supplied by the Israelis.
The Mujaheddin e Khalq is an Iranian-exile organization that is opposed to the current Iranian regime. They have carried out operations within Iran against the regime. Designated as a terrorist organization in 1997 by the U.S. government, the organization has petitioned to be removed from the list.
The initial malware was known as Stuxnet, that was revealed in June 2010. Stuxnet initially spreads via Microsoft Windows, and targets Siemens industrial software and equipment. While it is not the first time that hackers have targeted industrial systems, it is the first discovered malware that spies on and subverts industrial systems, and the first to include a programmable logic controller (PLC) rootkit.
It is believed that the Stuxnet malware damaged 1,000 Iranian centrifuges by speeding them up to a point that components warped and broke down. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in September 2010 experts on Iran and computer security specialists were increasingly convinced that Stuxnet was meant “to sabotage the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz – where the centrifuge operational capacity has dropped over the past year by 30 percent.” On 23 November 2010 it was announced that uranium enrichment at Natanz had ceased several times because of a series of major technical problems.
Recently, details began to emerge that shed new light on cyberwar being carried out by the United States and Israel. It appears that as long as there are no boots on ground, Barack Obama is more than willing to carry out cyber attacks against enemies of the United States. In a detailed article in the New York Times on June 1, 2012, David E. Sanger gave a complete description of the interactions within the United States government.
His description of President Obama as the commander of this war by other means is quite flattering to the President. Sanger claims that the account of the American and Israeli effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program is based on interviews over the past 18 months with current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts. None would allow their names to be used.
A second computer program, named Flame, has supposedly been introduced into the Iranian system. This program, also known as Flamer, sKyWIper, and Skywiper, can spread to other systems over a local network (LAN) or via USB stick. It can record audio, screenshots, keyboard activity and network traffic.
The program also records Skype conversations and can turn infected computers into Bluetooth beacons which attempt to download contact information from nearby Bluetooth-enabled devices. These data, along with locally stored documents, are sent on to one of several command and control servers that are scattered around the world. The program then awaits further instructions from these servers.
Both Stuxnet and Flame are continuing to wreak havoc throughout the Iranian computer network but there are several dangers. The malware may become uncontrollable and spread throughout the world’s networks, causing even more damage. The Iranians may decide to carry on their own war of other means with assassinations and bombings against key American and Israeli targets.