“The worm is loose.” On a midsummer day in 2010, Leon Panetta, the CIA director, had the unpleasant task of informing President Barack Obama and his national security team that the most sophisticated and complex cyber-attack the US had ever launched against an adversary had gone awry.
Known by its code name, ‘Olympic Games,’ America’s highly guarded, covert operation targeting Iran’s nuclear programme was at risk due to a careless mistake.
The Americans and Israelis had spent years developing this venomous software only to discover it was being replicated all over the Internet by hackers who renamed it ‘stuxnet.’
Obama and his team would demand to know whether the mistake was fatal to their carefully designed plan to undermine Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel.
The 'worm' in question was a cyber-worm; the Americans spent months devising the worm to strike directly at the tall, silvery centrifuges the Iranians were using to enrich uranium.
The Israelis and the Americans went to work; inserting the worm using a special technique that leaped the giant electronic moat the Iranians had built around their system to protect it from outside invaders.
For a new president with little patience for technological detail, Obama was deeply engaged in planning America’s covert attacks on Iran. After each major use of the new cyber weapon, Obama would meet in the Situation Room to assess the damage – and the delay to Iran’s programme – with the men overseeing the Olympic Games.
David E Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He graduated from Harvard College in 1982. He has been a member of two teams that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has been awarded numerous honours for national security and foreign policy coverage.
His first book, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power (Harmony, 2009), was a best seller. In his Confront and Conceal, a book about the president’s ‘secret wars’ and his ‘surprising use of American power’, Sanger makes some astonishing revelations.
He reveals that within the first two years of his presidency, Obama encountered a host of unforeseen foreign policy problems, including the prospect of a missing nuke in Pakistan.
‘The light-footprint strategy’
Obama was not the first President to use drones to hunt terrorists or cyber weapons to slow down a nuclear programme.
George W Bush launched the first drone attacks in hostile territory where American troops were denied access, and the first cyber-attacks to undermine the ambitions of outlier states seeking the world’s most powerful weapons.
Yet, Obama will be remembered as the man who utilised the full potential of those weapons. Slowly, he is using these weapons to formulate a new concept whereby the US can secure its military predominance around the world without resorting to the lengthy, expensive, and unpopular wars and occupations that dominated the past decade.
In these days of austerity, they are perfect tools – significantly cheaper than deploying troops to remote deserts and mountains, and often more precise. “These are the keys to a ‘light-footprint strategy,’ and who wouldn’t want a light footprint after the past ten years?”
A senior American intelligence official who has been instrumental in making use of both weapons said to Sanger early in 2012, “What’s different about this era?
We have a keener awareness than ever of what it costs, in blood and treasure, to go into a country on the ground, and how difficult it is to extract yourself once you are there.”
The secret war
For years, Shahid Beheshti has been one of several Iranian campuses that serve two purposes: one public, one hidden.
For the bright students who flock to its urban campus for science and engineering, it is part of a national mission to restore the Persian people to their historic role as the Middle East’s most influential power. To the West’s intelligence agencies, the campus is an academic cover story.
The handful of scientists who have been recruited as spies, or lured to the West as defectors, have described how Shahid
Beheshti’s best minds were funnelled into working on the most challenging problem of all: designing nuclear triggers and small, efficient nuclear warheads that fit atop an Iranian missile.
For years, Israel’s Mossad and the CIA have tracked the university’s scientists as they travel throughout the West, searching for the technology and parts Iran needs to complete their nuclear ambitions.
Thanks to a mix of incompetence, sabotage, and sanctions, that programme has already taken a decade longer than it should have.
Starting in 2010, however, the scientists began to wonder if sanctions were the least of their problems. That was when Mossad painted a huge bull’s-eye on the campus, turning its scientists into targets.
Majid Shahriari and his wife drove into the crossfire of that escalating confrontation one fall morning in Tehran in November 2010.
Shahriari was an expert on neutron transport – the physics at the heart of nuclear chain reactions. It is a field critical to understanding the behaviour of nuclear-reactor (and nuclear-weapon) cores.
Senior Iranian officials would later reveal that Shahriari was involved in a “major project” with Iran’s atomic energy agency, although they never explained what it entailed.
Traditionally politicians made up the cast in the political theatre. No more, as seen in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the people were not satisfied playing a supporting role.
Sanger convincingly stokes the fires of increasing political interest throughout the world. It is almost impossible not to read Confront and Conceal.
What it lacks in humour is surpassed by interesting and thoroughly researched anecdotes. “Don’t be naive; what occurs in American politics has repercussions in your World.”
Lachlan Munro Murray is a Scottishwriter living in Salalah, Oman.