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U.S. clandestine role in cyber warfare now goes up for public scrutiny

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress condemned the disclosures of classified information after The New York Times on June 1 reported that the United States has spent years conducting secret cyberattacks against nuclear enrichment facilities in Iran. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went so far as to suggest the Obama administration deliberately leaked information about Stuxnet, a virus that likely crippled Iran's underground nuclear plant in Natanz, in order to make the president "look strong and decisive on national security in the middle of his reelection campaign." Obama called the accusation "offensive," but U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a criminal investigation into a recent string of national security information leaks.

The United States has spent years conducting secret cyber warfare against nuclear enrichment facilities in Iran, perhaps setting back the Iranian nuclear program by 18 months or more, according to the Times report. The classified program, code-named "Olympic Games," got its launch under President George W. Bush around 2006 but accelerated under Obama.

Working with Israeli officials, the program created a complex computer worm that infiltrated the control systems of Iran's nuclear site, spied out the systems' design, and sent instructions that caused the plant's centrifuges to spin out of control. In 2010, the virus temporarily shut down almost 1,000 of 5,000 centrifuges in Iran.

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The Stuxnet virus became public knowledge two years ago when a programming error allowed it to escape Iranian networks. Computer security experts studying the virus have long suspected the United States and Israel of designing it-and U.S. government and private funds actually have gone into developing counter-security measures on the assumption it could migrate to other countries, including energy grids and other nuclear facilities. The United States government has never formally admitted to using a cyberweapon: Times correspondent David E. Sanger learned about the covert operation from American, European, and Israeli officials who spoke off the record.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


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