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Stuxnet A U.S.-Israeli Joint Effort?

There have been many theories advanced over the past several months about the origins of the Stuxnet worm, which has apparently played havoc with Iran’s nuclear weapons research program. Now, The New York Times is out with an investigative report that seems to indicate a U.S-Israeli fingerprint on the project:

The Dimona complex in the Negev desert is famous as the heavily guarded heart of Israel’s never-acknowledged nuclear arms program, where neat rows of factories make atomic fuel for the arsenal.

Over the past two years, according to intelligence and military experts familiar with its operations, Dimona has taken on a new, equally secret role — as a critical testing ground in a joint American and Israeli effort to undermine Iran’s efforts to make a bomb of its own.

Behind Dimona’s barbed wire, the experts say, Israel has spun nuclear centrifuges virtually identical to Iran’s at Natanz, where Iranian scientists are struggling to enrich uranium. They say Dimona tested the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive program that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms.

“To check out the worm, you have to know the machines,” said an American expert on nuclear intelligence. “The reason the worm has been effective is that the Israelis tried it out.”

Though American and Israeli officials refuse to talk publicly about what goes on at Dimona, the operations there, as well as related efforts in the United States, are among the newest and strongest clues suggesting that the virus was designed as an American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian program.

There are other clues, including the fact that the German-made controllers that help operate the Iranian centrifuges were examined for security vulnerabilities by a classified Energy Department laboratory in Idaho several years ago, and that the information regarding the vulnerabilities in the controllers was then used to create the effects that Stuxnet has had. The virus itself, is actually fairly amazing from a computer engineering standpoint, which argues strongly that it had to have come from a nation capable of creating such a program:

The worm itself now appears to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. Another seems right out of the movies: The computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.

The attacks were not fully successful: Some parts of Iran’s operations ground to a halt, while others survived, according to the reports of international nuclear inspectors. Nor is it clear the attacks are over: Some experts who have examined the code believe it contains the seeds for yet more versions and assaults.

And the political angle is just as interesting:

The project’s political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. In January 2009, The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush authorized a covert program to undermine the electrical and computer systems around Natanz, Iran’s major enrichment center. President Obama, first briefed on the program even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administration’s Iran strategy. So did the Israelis, other officials said. Israel has long been seeking a way to cripple Iran’s capability without triggering the opprobrium, or the war, that might follow an overt military strike of the kind they conducted against nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.

Two years ago, when Israel still thought its only solution was a military one and approached Mr. Bush for the bunker-busting bombs and other equipment it believed it would need for an air attack, its officials told the White House that such a strike would set back Iran’s programs by roughly three years. Its request was turned down.

Now, Mr. Dagan’s statement suggests that Israel believes it has gained at least that much time, without mounting an attack. So does the Obama administration.

By some estimates, the damage caused by Stuxnet has set back the Iranian nuclear program several years at least, to the point where it is now estimated that it would be 2015 before they’d be able to construct even a rudimentary bomb. That’s arguably better than what we could have accomplished with a military strike, and it comes without the international political implications, not to mention potential terrorist blowback, that a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran could have created.

But, there’s also something about this story that should give us pause:

“It’s like a playbook,” said Ralph Langner, an independent computer security expert in Hamburg, Germany, who was among the first to decode Stuxnet. “Anyone who looks at it carefully can build something like it.” Mr. Langner is among the experts who expressed fear that the attack had legitimized a new form of industrial warfare, one to which the United States is also highly vulnerable.

Now that we know what a properly designed computer worm can do to a nation’s industrial capacity, one would hope that someone out there is working on securing these systems. Otherwise, we could be dealing with a Stuxnet-like problem of our own some day.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jack says:

    Regarding your final paragraph, that is the fundamental problem with any weapon system, is it not?

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  2. john personna says:

    It sounds like it was a very good and clever attack.

    FWIW, when we first heard of Stuxnet there was a little fear that it would lead to widespread problems. Really the reason it didn’t is the same reason it succeeded. It had to be very targeted at a specific (and known) target.

    Re. the last paragraph, I’d hope that we are smarter about what we make web-accessible and who we give access to it. Of course, the Bradley Manning story is a great caution on that.

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  3. anjin-san says:

    it sounds like the cyber attack did as much harm to Iranian nuclear ambitions as a military attack would have done. and no one died. standing by for glenn beck and company to congratulate the commander in chief on a job well done.

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  4. mike says:

    something to think about though is that if a country crashes wall street or shuts down power grids here to such a degree that our economy is crippled (at least temporarily), the US would probably view this as an act of war and rightfully so. in the future, it will be more difficult for us to claim it is an act of war and act in response w/o violating the UN Charter.

    with that being said, I agree with Anjin – good work b/c Iran’s program needs to be taken down one way or another.

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  5. Franklin says:

    Brilliant!

    But I also agree with Jack.

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  9. Einstein says:

    Maybe Bill Clinton will sell some nuclear weapons to Iran. He gave China all of our most secret military information including the neutron bomb technology. It is amazing how our lamestream media lies or fails to report the most incredible acts of treason against our nation when committed by top officials in our government. What mass murdering Bill Clinton and his dog faced wife Hitlery did to our nation is unforgivable, yet they are still active in politics when they should have been found guilty of high treason long ago. Dick Cheney was in charge of the 9-11 attacks, the evidence is overwhelming and indisputable, yet the lamestream media was used again to brainwash the majority of Americans into believing the lies and propaganda spewed out by the corrupt government.

    It only takes a person 15 minutes to research “9-11 truth” and find overwhelming evidence that the US government planned and executed the attacks. The media has lowered themselves to calling childish names of those who have discovered the truth of what happened. They refuse to discuss the facts and will never allow a true discussion to take place. Geraldo Rivera did discuss the truth about WTC7 one night on his show but on the next night they cut that part out and replaced it with a story that was not even worth mentioning. They do not want the true facts of 9-11 to become common knowledge among the zombie Americans who still believe the “official” lies and propaganda because they have not been exposed to the truth. Most Americans are not even aware that three skyscrapers fell in NYC on 9-11 as the “official 9-11 report” didn’t even mention WTC Building 7 being imploded even though it was home of the CIA, FBI, SEC and several other important government agencies. Many Wall Street criminal investigations records were destroyed on 9-11, the most famous being ENRON. No doubt this is why WTC7 was taken down by controlled demolition as were WTC1 and WTC2. Even though the controlled demolition was planned ahead of time, there were live people locked inside WTC7 shortly before it came down at free fall speed. These people were being deliberately executed by our corrupt government for their knowledge of these treasonous acts. One man who busted out a window to yell for help was rescued by firefighters, but a few months later he was found dead under suspicious circumstances.

    They know anybody with average intelligence who takes the time to research the facts will discover 9-11 was an inside job and they have been lied to by the government and lamestream media. To keep people from even checking it out after ten years they still violently attack anybody who dares to question the official lies and propaganda. If they would only answer some important legitimate questions and release some of the 85 Pentagon videos they have been hiding, stating the excuse they are withholding these videos for reasons of “national security.” The truth being they are hiding the videos for reasons of their own security, because if released, many government “officials” would be standing trial for treason, mass murder, fraud etc.

    We must demand all evidence be released and the cover-up stopped immediately, let the chips fall where they may as this false flag event is destroying our freedom. The true terrorists are inside the CIA, FBI, Congress, White House and Pentagon, men in caves 6000 miles away are not attacking us. Exposing the truth will allow us to remove the corrupt forces which are destroying our nation. It will expose the fraud used by the Fed to enslave us by the international banking mafia. We owe these banksters nothing but long prison terms or quick hangings. They created money out of thin air for their own personal gain while charging us interest on this money they have counterfeited and/or stolen. There are no videos whatsoever showing a plane hitting the Pentagon because it was actually a missile fired into the exact spot where financial records were kept which would show where the missing $2.3 trillion disappeared to. Since 9-11-2001 the Pentagon has misplaced another $3-4 trillion which is being ignored by the corrupt Rothschild controlled government and their Rothschild controlled media. Both of which are run by the Rothschild owned Federal Reserve Bank. The last president to go against the Fed was JFK whom they made an example of for future presidents to take note of what awaits anybody who dares to question or threaten the Fed’s powers.

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