Maybe it’s an age thing. There are stories that hit my computer and I get this itch at the nape of my neck that says, “sit on this, wait for it to unfold.” That is what journalists used to do, in the years before the 24/7 news channels and the internet. They waited for the whole story to unfold before reporting it, and they did so because there is nothing less accurate than immediate reactions to partial information.
That is why I have been sitting on a number of cyberwar stories for the past six weeks. On the surface, they seem unrelated, but they weave together in a very logical manner, if you just look at the whole picture.
Way back in 2008, Candidate Obama promised to have a transparent administration. The right wing has hammered him with that promise over everything from negotiations for the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank to Halloween parties for his daughters. The right wing has demanded and is still demanding that this president and this administration report to the press every time someone in the White House farts and what those farts smell like.
Go to Amazon and call up books on the Obama administration. Ninety percent of them are right wing rants and speculations, but ten percent of them are books written by real journalists who were allowed access to members of the administration: Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, Jodi Cantor’s The Obamas, Trita Parsi’s A Single Roll of the Dice, David Corn’s Showdown, Richard Wolfe’s Survival and Revival 2.0, and Jonathan Alter’s The Promise. All of these books share a couple of things with David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal. They involved actual interviews with members of the administration, and they involved cross-referencing and cross-relating that information to create a comprehensive picture of events.
They also share one more thing with Sanger. By the time they were published, the information in them was available to anyone with the time and the will to pour over hundreds, if not thousands, of isolated stories.
The administration is being accused of jeopardizing American security with the information in this book. Everyone from John McCain to Michele Bachmann has hyperventilated over the information in Sanger’s book. The President is “offended” by the suggestion that anyone in his administration “leaked” secure information to Sanger or anyone else. Attorney General Holder has ordered an investigation of the “leaks” and Congress is demanding a special prosecutor.
Seems to me I’ve heard this song before, like the first week in May when the government went through some convolutions over the “interception” of a new al Qaida underwear bomb. The
Republicans went nuts over the information that a Saudi double agent had infiltrated al Qaida in Yemen and gotten the prototype of a new bomb intended to be hidden on airplane passengers. OMG! We had exposed our double agents! We “leaked” the operation! Oh, and let’s ignore the fact that we extracted the family of our double agent, and put a missile up the nose of al Qaida’s chief bomb maker, al Quso, just before we “leaked” the information about the operation. Ever since the killing of Osama bin Laden, our government has been engaged in a systematic program of assassinating major members of al Qaida, with the right wing contradictorily condemning the killing of al Alwaki because he was an American citizen. But al Qaida knew that very soon, we would exhaust the intelligence that we had gathered in bin Laden’s compound. Bin Laden would have had data on only the top levels of his own operation, and as those men were killed, others would rise that bin Laden had never known. They must have been feeling fairly secure right about now, right up to the moment when we killed al Quso.
So, now al Qaida knows that for years, they have been infiltrated by fellow Muslims who are natives of the region, men who won’t betray their origins because their origins are the same as other members of al Qaida. They must assess what they do not know, measure what they cannot see. They must distrust the integrity of other al Qaida cells and question the loyalty of every man around them.
When is a leak not a leak? When it causes more damage than holding on to the information could possibly cause. Was any specific double agent put in danger because of the leak? Probably not. In order to uncover any remaining Saudi agents, al Qaida would have to torture every member of every cell, not the most efficient way to seek a traitor. These agents don’t issue weekly reports on hidden radios like spies in World War II movies. The man who took the new underwear bomb had been inside for at least three years.
Next up in the unfolding story….Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “revelation” that we have been hacking al Qaida for years. OMG! Another breach of national security! She Told Them What We Are Doing! Well, duh. Exactly how many brain cells does it take to figure out that if a bunch of Russian mobsters could snag millions of American credit card numbers and names out of thin air, we could hack into al Qaida e-mails and communications? Apparently, more brain cells than are collectively available in the right wing.
And finally, Sanger’s book about the cyberwar against Iran. Once again, look at the pieces that led up to this week.
The Bush administration put together the framework for the cyberwar in the Middle East. The Obama administration inherited it and then had to decide what to do with it. Sanger’s book examines that whole process.
The primary weapon in this cyberwar is a program called Stuxnet. It was manually delivered into the Iranian nuclear power plant, and accidently escaped in 2010. It’s accidental escape was a problem for the people who created it because they really didn’t want any collateral damage from it. It’s a vicious little beastie that has already given birth twice – to Duqu and Flame. Or maybe Duqu gave birth to Flame. It has screwed up the development of the Natanz plant to the point where running a simple trial-run exercise had to be done manually with walkie-talkies and radios because the computer system is so compromised.
When Stuxnet was discovered, it was immediately assumed that only a handful of countries had the capability to develop it – America, Israel, China and Russia. Logic eliminated China and Russia as the source. That left America and Israel, alone or in tandem. Disclosing that Stuxnet was ours is hardly the equivalent of handing over the deployment codes to our nuclear arsenal as state secrets go. This was more a “flip a coin” secret.
But look at this disclosure from a larger perspective.
Somewhere in North Korea, which has shared nuclear technology with Iran, a scientist is saying to himself “Rocket go up, rocket crash down, what if….” In Russia, which was a partner in the Iranian power plant, it has taken weeks for their computer experts to find one tiny piece of code that ties Flame to Stuxnet. And how did they get their hands on Flame in the first place? Flame is a Stuxnet child, and the Russians were tied into the Iranian nuclear power plant computer systems. Even I can figure out what happened.
And if Russia is infected, guess who else might be? Want to start with Syria?
Vladimir Putin just returned from China where he was negotiating a new “military co-operation” agreement with a long-standing enemy. Now, the Chinese must be wondering how infected the Russian systems might be and if they can safely partner with them.
And what about Israel? The Netanyahu government wants to go to war with Iran. They have made that abundantly clear for years now. Give them the slightest provocation and they will start carpet bombing anything they consider to be a military site and they will walk over Syria to do it. Sanger is clear in the book. Part of the motivation behind using these cyber tactics is to keep Israel in check. If you keep Iran from progressing too far, you prevent Israel starting World War III. Now, Netanyahu must be wondering what other little viruses and worms we have up our sleeves and how integrated their defense computer systems are to our systems, like perhaps that little radar station in the Negev that we so helpfully operate for them?
Finally, there’s Tehran. The Ahmadinejad government has stalled, balked and refused to negotiate in good faith with the international community over its potential to develop nuclear weapons. Sanger’s book is a game changer. It says to Tehran, we don’t need to use conventional weapons on you. We hold the future of your nuclear development in our hands and you can’t even guess where the next attack will take place. Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame are, for the moment, the pinnacle of cyberwarfare. How many more children and grandchildren, unguessed generations of mutations can these programs create? What has been infected and what can these programs do? We reduced your top-of-the-line nuclear power plant to 1950s technology where everyone had to communicate with each other over radios and walkies and push buttons by hand. What else can we do? Did a mutation from Stuxnet escape into your power grid? Can we turn out the lights all over your country? Can one blip transmitted from a satellite shut down your harbor operations, liberate the internet for dissidents, turn off traffic lights and turn Tehran into rush hour chaos? Do you really want to find out what we can do, or are you finally willing to enter into productive negotiations. And, by the way, we developed it, you haven’t been able to catch it in two years, possibly, just possibly, we have the cure-program.
Maybe it is an age thing. I look at the story of America’s cyberwarfare and I see the old nuclear weapons arsenal, the hundreds of missile silos, the announcements about the range of our ICBMs, the launching of the newest submarine or aircraft carrier, all those visible signs of our military power. This is a new kind of power, an invisible power, an implacable power that dodges and hides and cannot be stopped because, like one of those new drug-resistant super-viruses, just about the time scientists think they understand it, poof!, it’s gone.
Before the invasion of Iraq, a group of senior advisors at the Army War College advised the Bush administration that the invasion was a really bad idea because with all our advanced weaponry, we would be almost defenseless against a bunch of old-fashioned guerilla insurgents who believed they were fighting an occupying foreign army. Bush ignored them. I have this mental image of those men sitting around in leather armchairs in an oak-paneled room, warming tumblers of bourbon in their hands and discussing one of the best pieces of psy-ops ever played out against multiple enemies in one stroke.
When is a “leak” of national security secrets not a leak? When it’s a disclosure that says to the world, are you really sure that you are secure?