An Iranian nuclear fuel manufacturing facility.(Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
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With ‘Flame,’ Israel Is Playing With Fire

But how effectively can computer viruses forestall military action?

Marc Tracy
June 05, 2012
An Iranian nuclear fuel manufacturing facility.(Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

“Cyber ambiguity” is the nice phrase—a play on Israel’s famed “nuclear ambiguity”—that the Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz coined as the Jewish state’s policy. Israel didn’t confirm that it created “Flame,” the new computer malware found spying on Iran’s computers, but it did everything else to hint that it probably had something to do with it. The IDF just revealed that it is “consistently and relentlessly in cyberspace, is collecting intelligence and protecting the IDF networks,” as well as occasionally “execut[ing] attacks and other information operations.” It’s been leaked that Stuxnet, the earlier malware that actually harmed enrichment, was developed by the United States and Israel and was tested at Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility; it even turns out that that the operators behind the espionage virus Duqu “were not active between sundown on Fridays and sundown on Saturdays”—Israeli time. (The Flame code, meanwhile, contains references to the Jason Bourne books and movies franchise.)

David Sanger also makes the nuclear analogy, noting that the implications of cyberweapons’ increased prevalence has not gone unnoticed in the White House. “President Obama raised many of the issues in the closed sanctum of the Situation Room, participants in the conversation say, pressing aides to make sure that the attacks were narrowly focused so that they did not take out Iranian hospitals or power plants and were directed only at the country’s nuclear infrastructure,” he reports.

Or, as Michael Tanji reported in Tablet Magazine a year-and-a-half ago of Stuxnet: “It is an indicator that, at a minimum, confirms what observers of the information warfare field have suspected for some time: When the enemy comes, he’ll turn out the lights first. The worst-case scenario is that the ability to negatively impact critical infrastructure is becoming democratized, and claims about being able to do things like shut down the Internet won’t be far-fetched but instead commonplace.”

But this is all intellectual speculation: what about Iran? What about Israel’s plans? Former IDF chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi summarized official thinking thusly: malware like Stuxnet and Flame, he said, “buys time, no more than that.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.