According to a new book, excerpted in The New York Times today, the United States has been quietly waging a secret cyber war designed to take down the Iranian nuclear program. The cyberweapon program, code-named "Olympic Games," was begun during the Bush administration, but has accelerated under President Obama's direction, even after the controversial Stuxnet worm escaped into the wild.
The book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, is written by Times correspondent David Sanger, and is based off interviews with anonymous intelligence sources with access to the highly-classified program. Sanger appears to confirm that Stuxnet was the work of a joint effort between American and Israeli intelligence units, who were determined to bring down the Iranian nuclear program from within.
While there were concerns within both the Bush and Obama administrations about the use of uncertain technology and tactics, officials made the calculation that "Olympic Games" was worth trying, if only to prevent the Israelis from launching a dangerous military strike on Iran on their own. According to Sanger, rather than shut down the program after it became more widely known, the president ordered it to continue, launching more advanced and brazen attacks, including the first computer attack that ended in physical damage to the Iranian plant.
The Times excerpt is a fascinating story about how Stuxnet was developed and deployed, but also hints at larger questions about the use of cyber weapons and how they could come back to haunt the United States. The original worms — which destroyed vital Iranian centrifuges that set their nuclear program back considerably — were never meant to reach the larger internet, but as is usually the case with dangerous computer software, they became impossible to contain. And once the U.S. unleashes a weapon, it's only a matter of time before it could be used against Americans — who would no longer be able to claim that their enemies had crossed a line.