Did America's Cyber Attack on Iran Make Us More Vulnerable?

The covert operation set back Tehran's nuclear program several years -- but may have put America's own infrastructure at risk.  

cyber.jpgU.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta meets with China's Minister of National Defense General Liang Guanglie about cyber attacks in March 2012. (Reuters)

After years of downplaying offensive U.S. cyber capabilities and fretting about Chinese cyber weapons, a major assumption has been turned on its head: America has now conceded that it conducted the most sophisticated state-sponsored cyber attack in the history of civilization.

This history-making development was reported by the Times' David Sanger in his new book Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. We now know that the United States has spent billions, hidden in non-public budgets, to develop a capacity to attack the infrastructure of Iran.

This has gone on even as the State Department and the White House have been desperately seeking a series of treaties and agreements to regulate and reign in such activities by others. When President Obama declared, on May 29, 2009, that America's "digital infrastructure" was a "national strategic asset" and would be protected as such, he defined what was largely seen as a defensive policy on cyber attack: We won't do anything to you unless you do something to us.

America's attack -- which, Sanger reports, the government nicknamed "Olympic Games" -- is probably the most significant covert manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum since World War II, when cryptanalysts broke the Enigma cipher that allowed access to Nazi codes.  Many historians believe that the U.S./U.K. code-breaking efforts shortened that war by several years, helped stop the Japanese at Midway, facilitated the death of Admiral Tojo, and immeasurably helped the Soviets hold out in Stalingrad.  

Olympic Games seems to have set back the Iranian nuclear program by several years. The U.S.-Israeli intelligence cooperative that collaborated on the cyber weapon may one day be credited with preventing a wider war in the Middle East. Most notably, the United States and Israel delayed Iran's nuclear development without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. There may be no better contemporary example of how covert action and intelligence can provide policymakers with their most precious resource: more time.

But now that the secret is out, the calculus changes. Sanger and his sources have been flayed by some critics for betraying a precious national security equity. The coding for Olympic Games became public (albeit with its code-writers unknown) a few years ago, when it was leaked to the outside world under the name Stuxnet. Most analysts fingered the U.S. and Israel, with different theories as to who had taken the lead. The governments of China and Russia, two major investors in cyber weapons, probably based their own calculations on the idea that the U.S. authored Stuxnet.

But there is a difference between assuming something and knowing it. Privately, U.S. officials insist that China has been aggressively attacking U.S. systems for years. But China's penetrations have been almost all passive -- whatever bots the Chinese are able to plant inside American computer networks seem to be just sitting there, collecting data (maybe) or waiting until they are given a signal to do whatever they are supposed to do. In short, China is gathering intelligence, not waging warfare. Although it is extremely difficult to create analogies between the cyber domain and the world of bombs and bullets, there is a self-evident line between a computer program that sits and does nothing and one that actively disrupts another country's strategic assets.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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