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Leaking Cyberwar Secrets

The White House wants credit for successes but blames Israel for failures, a New York Times exposé shows

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo White House and Shutterstock)

It was quite a week for cyberwarfare. First came the revelation that Iran was suffering from a virus called Flame—apparently the most powerful spyware ever created, turning computers into virtual double-agents—which has already infected at least 1,000 computers, nearly all of them in Iran, the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Syria, and Lebanon.

Two days later, the New York Times published an explosive story by David Sanger detailing the collaboration between Israel and the United States in its cyberwarfare campaign against Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The program started under the Bush Administration, but according to Sanger “Obama decided to accelerate the attacks,” code-named Olympic Games, including the Stuxnet worm that set back the Iranian nuclear program by as much as two years.

The story, adapted from Sanger’s forthcoming book, is richly reported and heavily sourced to “current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program.” The story reveals that both the Bush and Obama Administrations have used cyberwarfare to wage campaigns—political and strategic—on various fronts. Stuxnet, for example, was not intended simply to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. It was also meant to convince the Israelis that Washington recognizes the urgency of the problem and thus Israel need not attack Iran. The Times article is evidence of the Obama White House’s efforts in yet another campaign: the 2012 elections.

Given that this was the second such cyberwarfare story that the Obama Administration has fed the New York Times—the first appeared in January 2011—it is obvious that this White House, like so many others before it, is using journalists to shape its image. While a number of analysts have criticized the administration for jeopardizing U.S. national security by leaking sensitive material to the press, the reality is that the story is not really about the details of this ongoing intelligence operation. It’s a political narrative, intended to shape public opinion about the competence and muscularity of this White House.

The nature of the story is given away in a quote from Vice President Joe Biden, exasperated after Stuxnet mistakenly appeared on the Web in the summer of 2010, exposing the code. Biden laid the blame at the feet of the administration’s ostensible partner. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” said Biden, according to an unnamed source. “They went too far.” In other words, the Obama White House wants it both ways—to claim credit for the successes of the cyberwarfare campaign and to shift blame on the Israelis in the event that things go wrong.

Biden’s quote dovetails with a theory that’s been circulating for a few years among security experts that the Stuxnet virus was the product of collaboration between first-rate professionals and rank amateurs. On this reading, the programming team was top-notch while the implementation team was less than capable.

Applying the Biden thesis, it would seem that the Israelis are the incompetent partners, responsible for the Stuxnet leak.

If the Israelis are in fact incompetent at waging cyberwar, then that’s real news, since the Israelis have always been reputed to be the best in the business. “If Israel is incompetent then why was Stuxnet successful?” journalist Yossi Melman, co-author of the forthcoming book Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, responded when I asked him about Biden’s comment. “A thousand centrifuges were disabled, which makes it a very successful campaign.”

Melman said that according to the Israeli officials he’s spoken with, it was Israel that initiated the idea of utilizing computer viruses. “They’ve been doing cyberwarfare slightly longer than the Americans. Military Intelligence Unit 8200 [Israel’s equivalent of the National Security Agency in charge of signals intelligence] has been exploring the potential for offensive as well as defensive cyberwarfare capabilities for at least a decade.”

As some critics have noted, a cyber-attack that spread to thousands of computers unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program is at odds with the Obama Administration’s “International Strategy for Cyberspace,” a policy laid out a year ago. “The digital world,” reads the document, “is a place where the norms of responsible, just and peaceful conduct among states and peoples have begun to take hold.” So, perhaps the administration, and Biden in particular, is eager to shift the blame to avoid charges of hypocrisy: The Americans do the good stuff, it’s the Israelis who do the bad stuff.

This is the flip side of the political narrative. “It’s a disinformation campaign to present Israel’s behavior as without discretion, without patience,” a former Israeli intelligence official told me. He recalls another New York Times story about a war game that starts with an Israeli strike against Iran in which thousands of Americans are killed. “The idea,” said the official, “is to present Israel as gung-ho and ready to go to war, and America has to stop it from doing something disastrous.”

It’s hard to imagine that the two sides walked into the Stuxnet campaign ignorant of each other’s abilities and limitations. “I don’t believe for a moment that such ‘teams’—if they existed as ‘teams’—didn’t have the chance to review or test each other’s code in some meaningful fashion,” said Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business. “I suppose it’s possible that complementary teams worked independently and then released an uncoordinated worm into the wild, but that’s a pretty poor way of trying to kill or disrupt or gain intelligence around the most difficult nuclear challenge America and Israel face. If I were an Israeli or American cyber-warrior, I would want to know the other’s code and protocol or doctrine for attack.”

In other words, the chances that the White House was really blindsided by Israel, like Biden says, are virtually nil.

But Israelis, said Melman, understand that the point of this story was to enhance the president’s image. “Israeli officials know that it’s an election year,” says Melman. “They believe the information was leaked to glorify the Obama Administration. Israeli officials are not going to rock the boat and ruin the party.”

The Times story is part of a larger narrative being driven by the Obama team, meant to enhance the president’s image in the middle of an election campaign where, according to some polls, the Republican candidate has pulled even with the incumbent. Forget the fact that Syria is burning, that the Russians have been emboldened by American impotence in the Middle East, or that the Iranians are tip-toeing across the finish line to get a nuclear weapon while American diplomats sit helplessly at a negotiating table. Focus rather on the image of a cool superhero commander in chief ordering clandestine attacks.

“Obama’s problem,” says the former Israeli intelligence official, “is that on one hand the administration has to show that they are doing something about Iran. But on the other hand, they can’t abandon their left-wing base. So, it’s better to shift blame to Israel. No Israeli government is going to be criticized for releasing a virus. We know we are at war, and America does not know it’s at war.”

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PhillipNagle says:

This president is the ost anti Israel since the founding of Israel, and yet so many Jews support him like sheep.

pushedoffthederech says:

I think the poster below needs to get access to facts. But the story is outrageous for another reason. NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, and Fox more than any other media “NEWS” outlet have been shilling for the Rethuglicans for years. After all,  most of the money politicians raise go straight to the media companies that control the news to pay for advertising. Why would they even let Americans know that there are people out there who want to take the money out of politics? Why would they ruin their own bottom lines? We don’t need government censors. The corporations who own news editors take care of that. Therefore it is outrageous to blame Obama for “leaking” to the NYTimes as if he was doing something  out of the box  and brand new in politics. All the article proves is how incredibly naive the author of the article is. Maybe he should sit down and read Robert Caro’s bio of LBJ. At least the first book. It tells you everything you need to know about American politics, money, media and corporations. The American people have been lied to and abused by the political system since the 19th century and we are the stupidest people on Earth. There are no Mr. Smiths and politics is a cesspool. Period.

Allen Hertz says:

Stuxnet, Flame and Gangland-style killings of Al Qaeda operatives notwithstanding, the more prudent view is that President Obama really is another Neville Chamberlain until he proves otherwise by effectively using force to bring an end to Iran’s race toward nuclear weapons. However, cynically deceiving the American public seems to be the principal goal of current USA foreign policy,  as President Obama specified to President Medvedev during the “open microphone” incident in Seoul.  Leaks to the New York Times are indeed intended to burnish President Obama’s image for the presidential campaign. However, the real world perspective is that USA prestige and power have plummeted under President Obama who combines betrayal of allies (e.g., Hosni Mubarak) with withdrawal (e.g., Iraq, Afghnistan) and crumbling friendships (e.g., Pakistan).  Bottom line is that no country now trusts the USA to honour its commitments and alliances. And, this is as true of Saudi Arabia as it is of Israel. Perhaps an appreciation of foreign relations is like beauty in the eye of the beholder.  For this reason, it is astonishing that there is so little criticism of President Obama who really personally runs his own foreign policy like a 21st century Napoleon III.  Foreign leaders have taken President Obama’s measure and are now awaiting the suitable moment to best a USA which is no longer much feared or respected.

Beatrix17 says:

Flame was old hat technology, although only recently discovered by a Russian technological firm hired by the Iranians.  That Israel was involved is unlikely since her systems were infected too. 

This is the 21st century.  I’m not going back to the 1960s to understand today’s politics. 

tjinmo says:

I wonder how the lefties would react to the existence of a waterboard list instead of a kill list….

tjinmo says:

my, such a short memory….I believe mr. scooter libby was hunted down and sent to jail for “leaking” the name: valerie plame….quite inconsequential compared to the current massive leaks.  Where’s the special prosecutor?

tjinmo says:

my, such a short memory….I believe mr. scooter libby was hunted down and sent to jail for “leaking” the name: valerie plame….quite inconsequential compared to the current massive leaks.  Where’s the special prosecutor?

craigpurcell says:

Mcain is calling for a special investigation.

“Obama’s problem,” says the former Israeli intelligence official, “is that on one hand the administration has to show that they are doing something about Iran. But on the other hand, they can’t abandon their left-wing base. So, it’s better to shift blame to Israel . While “Scapegoating,” is arguably the world’s second oldest profession, it should never be the basis of the American foreign and military policy, and certainly regarding the one and only, true, steadfast democratic ally that the United States has in the Middle East.

AMRaz says:

This piece would be a lot more convincing if Lee Smith had actual evidence, rather than implication, for his two main claims: (1) the Israelis were not, in fact, responsible for the mistake in question and (2) the Obama administration deliberately told journalists the Israelis were responsible.

But the  reasons Smith offers for believing the first claim are extraordinarily weak: the US and Israel worked on Stuxnet together, and Israel is good at cyberwarfare. Anyone who’s worked on a large software project knows that bugs introduced by a single programmer are often very difficult to detect. Collaboration between the US and Israel doesn’t mean Americans reviewed every code commit by the Israelis. (Notice that the quote from Professor Schrage doesn’t support the inference Smith is trying to draw from it.) And Israel’s undoubted cyberwarfare expertise is just irrelevant: everyone working on the virus, American or Israeli, was clearly a skilled programmer. The fact that the bug was introduced just shows that even good programmers make mistakes.

The second claim is downright misleading. Even if we assume the story was deliberately leaked by the administration (plausible, but not proven), anyone who read the articles would see that David Sanger’s sources ultimately indicated that it was unclear who introduced the bug. That’s why Smith is forced to pin his whole thesis on an extemporaneous remark made by Biden right after hearing about the goof. But if Biden had the foresight to drop the remark at that particular moment in order to orchestrate a smear campaign against the Israelis months later—well, let’s just say a lot of us have misjudged him. More likely, though, Lee Smith just didn’t have the goods and is a shoddy enough journalist not to care.

However, the current administration has never shown any reluctance to throw Israel under the bus if it was not politically expedient. I have never been more ashamed of my country than in the last three years.

 What’s a Rethuglican you dope?

fuster says:

doesn’t speak well of your sense of shame.

 American exceptionalism dos not mean serial apologies.  It means sicking by your long-time allies and sticking to base principles.  Neither of which Obama does.  Or does he really think that kissing Arab ass generates goodwill?

fuster says:

this doesn’t speak well about your sense of reality.  No one other than an exceptional ostrich-like person would be able to reconcile Obama’s blocking the Palestinian statehood ploy at the UN with kissing Arab ass.

and there’s not a dang thing unAmerican about apologizing for making mistakes.

 Explain his speech in Cairo in 2009?   In what way has he blocked the Palestinians?

fuster says:

in what way??????

http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?id=224394

———–

there’s nothing that needs to be explained about his speech in Cairo, Patrick (aside from lousy numeration re US Muslim population) unless you wish to be the type of truculent trog who objects to any attempt to speak nicely of Egyptians and Muslims.

 Yeah, I suppose I am a little truculent and personal experience leads me to trust Arabs about as far as I can throw them.  It is almost as though the phrase “trust but verify” was invented with them in mind.

fuster says:

I’m not asking you to trust them, Patrick, any more than I would ask you to trust the Russians or the Chinese or the Celts, Germans, Japanese or any other group.

What i expect is that you’ll recognize them all as human beings and capable of the full range of human behavior.

The US currently has a pretty rocky relationship with the Arabs, but that once was not so and might not always be so.

The occasional gracious word ain’t ass-kissing and given that most of the Arab League states are currently more concerned, along with the US and others, about iran than about our mutual differences, there might be a chance for some bit of rapprochement.

Not a ton of it, but a bit.

good night Patrick, perhaps we’ll speak some more.

 Have you ever had any personal dealings with Arabs?  I have and they do not recognize kindness as wee define it, they see it as weakness. 

The biggest failing westerners have when dealing with other cultures is that we expect them to be essentially like us.  They are not, and that is true whether we are talking about Asians, Arabs, Slavs or any other culture not of the western, Judeao-Christian, humanist tradition.

Westerners in general don’t take these differences into account anymore than they account for the ways in which Western Culture is different.  We are both seeing a ball and one calls it a ball while the other says it is a cube and wonders why the other is so dumb they cannot recognize what they are looking at.

What I find the most frustrating is that western liberals have much the more condescending attitude towards non-westerners.  I guess because their blinders are thicker.  What liberals see as conservative harshness I see as dealing with Arabs on their terms.  In order to effectively deal with another culture we have to speak in a language they understand.  Obama has failed to do that and hat is the root of my complaint with the way he has handled US-Arab discourse.

fuster says:

Have you ever had any personal dealings with Arabs?

long years of close dealings, both at work and in the neighborhood.  

They are no one thing, Patrick. They’re individuals and some I’ve not gotten along with ….at all, and others have been friends, inviting me into their homes and feeding me and accepting hospitality in my home.

Raymond_in_DC says:

 The same could be said about Biden’s remark – that he smeared Israel without any evidence to back up his claims.

Raymond_in_DC says:

” The US currently has a pretty rocky relationship with the Arabs, but that once was not so and might not always be so.”

Exactly when did the US *not* have a rocky relationship with Arabs? They’ve troubled us since the earliest days of the Republic when Arab pirates from the North African coast were seizing our merchant vessels and enslaving our citizens.

fuster says:

The US had a good relationship with the Arabs for a century prior to 1947., and you can’t be serious and not know this.

Even if you’re unaware of the American presence and works in Beirut, you must know a little something about Roosevelt  and  King Abdulaziz or at least have heard that the US has had a bit of an alliance with the Saudis and the other aristocracies in the Gulf.

Bernecky says:

Allen Hertz: “[I]t is astonishing that there is so little criticism of President Obama who really personally runs his own foreign policy like a 21st century Napoleon III. ” 

That’s very similar to what I thought, back when Obama was a candidate for the presidency the first time, and when nobody–Republican or Democrat–batted an eye at his on-no-evidence switch from being antiwar to being prowar. 

Natan79 says:

I do not like Republicans at all, but I like you even less when you call them Rethuglicans. And you spout cliches in every phrase. The left does not need brain-dead haters like you. Go away. 

David Gold says:

HaHa with Israel’s intelligence and savy both militarily , cyper wise and any counter intelligence the USA would be at a loss we need their expertise they need our$ If the Israeli military ran the afghan and iraq wars there would have been less casualties and more precise hits along with a victory that would have happened in a third of time

Eitan says:

These leaks are all part of an agenda, one must realize that the current resident in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave is more interested in consolidating his stature in the Middle East, especially amongst the Gulf States.
The mistakes of the past, will no doubt haunt Washington.
The call to arms and regime change, amongst the general population has triggered daily massacares in Syria.
Eitan-Golan. Israel.

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Leaking Cyberwar Secrets

The White House wants credit for successes but blames Israel for failures, a New York Times exposé shows

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