Obama’s “Zoo Animal” Broke Free and “Crossed the Rubicon”

At the bottom of it all has been the Bomb. For the first time in our history, the President was given sole and unconstrained authority over all possible uses of the Bomb.


Every executive encroachment or abuse was liable to justification from this one supreme power.

If the President has the sole authority to launch nation-destroying weapons, he has license to use every other power at his disposal that might safeguard that supreme necessity. If he says he needs other and lesser powers, how can Congress or the courts discern whether he needs them when they have no supervisory role over the basis of the claim he is making? To challenge his authority anywhere is to threaten the one great authority.

–Garry Wills, Bomb Power

I suppose I’ll eventually get around to discussing how the series of condoned leaks portraying President Obama as the Deciderer all rest on the pathetic but true fact that he is only borrowing George Bush’s claim to that title.

But for now, I want to focus on the one part of David Sanger’s mixed-metahpor saturated installment in the Deciderer 2.0 series that rings most true:

Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons — even under the most careful and limited circumstances — could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.

“We discussed the irony, more than once,” one of his aides said. Another said that the administration was resistant to developing a “grand theory for a weapon whose possibilities they were still discovering.” Yet Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.

With cyberwar, with drones, and (to a lesser extent) with the embrace of the terrorists’ transnational methods to fight terrorists, Obama has crossed into uncharted territory of the sort Wills explored in his book, Bomb Power. These changes are likely a step beyond the Bomb Power paradigm, whatever that entails.

Yet Obama has only barely begun to think through the ramifications of these tools. He has, instead, focused on the near and overblown threats of Iran and AQAP, not seeing both the strategic implications of even those choices, much less the implications of the sort Wills describes arose in the wake of our use of a nuclear bomb.

The President has embraced waging extralegal war using drones from the Oval Office. The President has embraced using easily manipulable code to wage physical war. What are the implications of these decisions?

Oh sure, Obama started paying attention after the fact. A year ago, he rolled out a “National Strategy for Cyberspace,” calling for international cooperation to enforce responsible behavior of the sort we have already violated.  Even more recently, DOD has been tinkering with our rules of engagement.

But there are signs it is already too late, the battle lines have been drawn. We’ve already seen the Executive Branch’s refusal to share details with Congress, followed by flaccid attempts to force it to do so.

Sanger’s article describes how in 2010 we began to see the unintended consequences of sloppy–or covert–coding.

In the summer of 2010, shortly after a new variant of the worm had been sent into Natanz, it became clear that the worm, which was never supposed to leave the Natanz machines, had broken free, like a zoo animal that found the keys to the cage. It fell to Mr. Panetta and two other crucial players in Olympic Games — General Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael J. Morell, the deputy director of the C.I.A. — to break the news to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.

An error in the code, they said, had led it to spread to an engineer’s computer when it was hooked up to the centrifuges. When the engineer left Natanz and connected the computer to the Internet, the American- and Israeli-made bug failed to recognize that its environment had changed. It began replicating itself all around the world. Suddenly, the code was exposed, though its intent would not be clear, at least to ordinary computer users.

“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” one of the briefers told the president, “and we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”

Yet Sanger, like any obedient sanctioned journalist, doesn’t mention the most ominous unintended potential consequence of StuxNet, one contemplated by the Russians: setting off an explosion at Bushehr. The possibility of setting off–perhaps unintentionally–nuclear explosions without attribution. And we know the Administration is preparing to act even more carelessly in the future. Meanwhile, all our military toys contains hundreds of backdoors, ripe for the picking.

More interesting is how Obama is willingly chipping away at the Bomb Power President, perhaps without noticing. There is, of course, the matter of the Israelis. Can’t wage cyberwar with them, can’t wage cyberwar without them, so you never know when some surprise code will show up. Heck, we even refuse to admit that they’re stealing from us every bit as much as our rivals. Doing so might make us stop and think twice about whether we’re prepared to play this game.

I’m most interested in what this entails for secrecy. The Sanger article, of course, is an egregious version of sanctioned leaks of classified information. The most intriguing bit, to me, is this suggestion we’ve found a way to bridge air gaps.

In fact, thumb drives turned out to be critical in spreading the first variants of the computer worm; later, more sophisticated methods were developed to deliver the malicious code.

But the most amusing tidbit is this mention of the sabotage we’ve conducted in the past.

For years the C.I.A. had introduced faulty parts and designs into Iran’s systems — even tinkering with imported power supplies so that they would blow up — but the sabotage had had relatively little effect.

The fact that we introduced faulty designs into Iran’s systems is, you’ll note, precisely the information that Jeff Sterling is currently being prosecuted for, that James Risen is being subpoenaed for. But here it is, dropped into a sanctioned leak story, easily the least interesting nugget.

At this level, then, this story displays the height of the Bomb Power President’s abuse of information asymmetry, permitting selected people to spread the same secrets that are criminalized from others.

But the larger tale–particularly the escape of StuxNet and its subsequent exposure–shows the lie of this arrogance. The Chinese, certainly, can take what they want. Bradley Manning allegedly can take what he wants too. And unless the code is perfect, and unless the Israelis refrain from toying with the code, eventually the code, the Bomb Power itself, will become available.

Obama’s foolish embrace of these new technologies without considering the larger impact may lead to the decline of the Bomb Power President–of Presidents, generally. It may lead to something far more fearful.

But one thing is clear: he didn’t really stop to think about all that before he set free his zoo animal.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

24 replies
  1. SpanishInquisition says:

    “Yet Obama has only barely begun to think through the ramifications of these tools”

    Obama makes sure that the personal political ramifications are thought through long and hard by having Axelpollster at national security meetings, which any other ramifications just aren’t important to Obama.

  2. lysias says:

    There are rumors on the Internet that the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which used the kind of Siemens control unit targeted by Stuxnet, was a victim of Stuxnet. I am not qualified to judge whether these rumors might possibly be true.

    Certainly, Sanger’s NYT story today shows how Stuxnet had unintended consequences — unintended at any rate by the White House.

  3. joanneleon says:

    The Guardian:

    The timing of the disclosure to David E Sanger, who boasts of access to Obama and his closest officials, is significant in a presidential election year.

    In recent weeks, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has tried to portray the Obama administration as weak and muddled on foreign policy, most recently over the crisis in Syria.

    The recent highly sympathetic media disclosures appear to have been carefully calculated to counter this suggestion.

  4. joanneleon says:

    Running centrifuges out of control does not give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

    Hiding classified information from the American people until it is politically advantageous to release the information by leaking it to the NYT does not give me a warm and fuzzy feeling either. It bothers me a lot, especially considering that decisions made on the fly, based on what your opponent is saying about you out on the campaign trail, when you are working the 24 cable news cycle and wanting to get specific counter moves and rebuttals out there quickly… how much time does that allow for careful consideration of the classified information being disclosed? And if it was so easy to decide to disclose it, why the hell didn’t you tell the people who paid for all of this, in whose names it is being done, and who clearly have a right to know if you so easily spilled it out to the NYT in time to respond to Romney and catch the day’s or week’s news cycle?

    I mean, am I missing something here or is this bizarre? Do they have a bunch of classified info stacked up and ready to leak for political purposes? Did they by any chance refuse to answer or ignore any FOIA requests for that very classified info in the meantime because the timing was not to their political advantage at that moment?

    If this obsession with the warrior image is so all consuming, I worry about what kinds of decisions will be made to bolster that image.

  5. What Constitution? says:

    But, but, but, we have to develop these technologies. Anything less would risk another Mineshaft Gap. Terrible, terrible cyberterrorism consequences — we need to be the first on the block. And since Obama is Good, we’re damn lucky to have him wielding (sorry, I’ meant conscientiously guiding) these powers, too.

  6. Charles D says:

    Isn’t it about time for all members of Congress who still retain some belief in the Constitution and some fealty to their Oath of Office (if there are any) to join together regardless of pary and impeach this President on the grounds that he is wildly expanding the powers of his office far beyond any rational interpretation of the Constitution?

  7. lysias says:

    @John B.: Apparently one thing Stuxnet does is to continue to give safe readings when an emergency arises. That could have caused big problems after the earthquake and tsunami had hit.

  8. GulfCoastPirate says:

    @Charles D: They would have to get permission from the Israelis first. This is all bullshit. Obama knew the Iranians weren’t anywhere close to developing any weapon. He did all this crap to please AIPAC for his reelection. A reelection whose prospects for success look dimmer by the day.

  9. SpanishInquisition says:

    @joanneleon: “I mean, am I missing something here or is this bizarre? Do they have a bunch of classified info stacked up and ready to leak for political purposes?”

    Seeing how that how Axelrod is on national security meetings, I expect they spend a whole bunch of time deciding what to leak and what to block.

  10. Jim White says:

    One thing to keep in mind about what Sanger is disclosing and the timing of it is this is a preview of a book. That means this entire move has been carefully coordinated for both content and timing.

  11. lysias says:

    @Jim White: Amazon says Sanger’s book comes out June 5. I.e., the text was all vetted and finalized months ago, and copies are already in the bookstores.

  12. Arbusto says:

    @joanneleon @3:

    “The timing of the disclosure to David E Sanger, who boasts of access to Obama and his closest officials, is significant in a presidential election year.”

    Sad how otherwise good reporters become Administration lackies after access to the WH. Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward , Jonathan Alter and Richard Wolffe lead my list.

  13. TarheelDem says:

    Obama is Truman revisited, without any moderating influences. Instead of rolling back the “necessities” of the Cold War, Presidents have been extending their unilateral power for a over two decades. There is a technological determinism about the attitude that exists in DC. And the cost of weapons that could potentially be used against the US drops through US-developed technology. Yes, this is madness.

  14. Duncan Hare says:


    Not unless Stuxnet can create earthquakes and Tsunamis.

    There is a fairly good trail of cause & effect at Fuku.

  15. spiny says:

    I’m pretty agnostic on the actual cyber attack- it might very well end up being a classic case of the long term consequences outweighing the short term gain. And as you point out, the short term gain depends a lot on who you believe and what the Iranians are really up to. If it is true that it set back their bomb program a couple of years or even stopped an imminent Israeli attack, then it might have been worth it. As they say, history will be the judge.

    Having said that, if the administration leaked this information, it seems like a really bad idea. Especially if it was for purely political reasons. For one thing, I think we are a hell of a lot more dependent on correctly functioning computers than the Iranians are and starting a global cyber war arms race where we have lost the moral high ground seems like a really bad idea on so many fronts.

    You would think that congress might even want to investigate this leak- or have they entirely given up on that sort of stuff?

  16. Ford Prefect says:

    Marcy, terrific piece. Per usual, of course.

    These two pieces in the Times were almost disturbing for me. On the one hand, their extreme cynicism is no longer surprising. On the other, it’s disturbing that these “stories” are basically campaign agit-prop, with Sanger acting as unthinking, amoral stenographer, even cheerily so at times. The White House is putting its murderous intent on display like the new Mercedes concept car at the Berlin Auto Show. They’re actually proud of themselves!

    This is why I would suggest the idea of Obama actually expending much energy on pondering the broader issues is probably wishful thinking. Any discussion along those lines was probably along the lines of, “What can we get away with?” That, I’m also sure, was a very brief exchange, followed by some forced resignations from anyone who deigned to raise real issues. (Paging Dennis Blair. Mr. Blair to the White Courtesy Telephone please!)

    Wills take on Bomb Power is instructive from an institutional angle. But what the current crew is, in many respects, vastly worse than Bomb Power. It’s just too easy. Nukes, on the other hand, are paradoxical in the sense they are only valuable if you don’t use them. If there’s one lesson about nukes, it’s that using them guarantees National Suicide, if not directly, then at least by global blowback.

    Drones, SPECOPS, assassinations, cyberwarfare, torture at “black sites”… these are all examples of very usable weapons. As such, they are much more likely to be used, whenever Obama’s Star Chamber thinks it’s cool. As such, it seems clear these people have detached themselves from any real sense of DUTY, in the traditional sense of the word within the history of this Republic. The fact they are using these “methods of waging unilateral war” as a marketing device… well, it says more than I’d ever like to hear from anyone. About anything.

    Maybe all this started out as well-intentioned. Maybe there are times when this kind of power can be used in a way that isn’t a freakin’ disaster. But judging by Obama’s insertion into the Yemeni Civil War (on behalf of the Saudis, no less!), I’m guessing those days passed some time ago. The blowback is a-comin’ and Dear Leader won’t be paying the tab on that one.

    Indeed, the mere fact that Obama is actively selling acts of war against Iran right now is most telling. Sure, it’s making the AIPAC crowd happy, but he’s also toying with what portends to be an unmitigated disaster for much of the world (us included) and the only concern he seems to have is that it doesn’t start before election day. And judging by these two bits of agit-prop, I’m sure there is more in the pipeline at Pravda On The Hudson. How does the cliché go? We don’t roll out new products before Labor Day. And given that BO’s in an absurdly tight race……

    So what kind of people would actively sell the fact they define their civilian victims in a way reminiscent of, “If he’s running, he’s VC”? It’s not like they don’t know what they’re doing. Why on earth would they put that up as something desirable to the polity? Either they’re really (bleep)ed up, or the polity is. Maybe both. But in any case, it’s difficult to imagine a clearer path to totalitarianism than this stuff.

    Between BO’s insane warmongering under the guise of being oh-so-clever–bereft of any real public discussion–and the attacks to come on the Social Safety Net and labor rights and damn near anything else worth defending, I’m absolutely dreading the post-election party in DC come November.

  17. Ford Prefect says:

    @spiny: The word “leak” implies an involuntary, unapproved release of presumed embarrassing information. So this is not a leak.

    It’s campaign agit-prop, which means it’s policy-driven. That is a vastly different context from a “leak.”

  18. MadDog says:

    @Ford Prefect: Some used to call it “unintended consequences”, but I can’t fit that so easily over these actions and policies. It is more like “ignored consequences” with politics trumping all else.

  19. Ford Prefect says:

    @MadDog: Perhaps. But I can’t get the phrase, “It’s a feature, not a bug,” out of my mind in these instances.

    These really aren’t stupid people. We’re talking about huge institutions (WH, congress, State, DOD, CIA, NSA and so on) employing literally thousands of people who are all engaged in this agenda. I don’t care about personalities. These are Matters of State.

    That’s what makes the obvious, “politics trumping all else,” so disturbing. This goes way beyond short-term payoffs in one campaign. It’s obviously much bigger than that. The entire political establishment is oriented around this agenda, regardless of party: some generals (not all, even most), spooks, corporations, lobbyists, think tanks, foundations, self-serving politicians… IOW, the entire political eco-system in Washington.

    I tend to think that reality is the foundation of Obama’s cockiness. It comprises his entire eco-system in DC and that’s where all the incentives are. From his POV, there are no disincentives to madness.

  20. What Constitution says:

    @ Ford Prefect: Your statement that it seems “clear these people have detached themselves from any real sense of DUTY, in the traditional sense of the word within the history of this Republic” strikes a chord.

    Every course of action by this cabal starts with a presumption that “there are no rules and we owe no explanation to anyone” and finishes with a wrap-up exercise of seeking (secretly) to articulate why the proposed course of action is “exempt” from all principles of our form of government. There is no sense that “DUTY” starts with the obligation to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” and, therefore, no mooring to any “traditional sense of the word within the history of this Republic.” Duty has come to equal “re-election” and that turns on a perception that appearing “tough on Terra” renders one electorally invincible. The tools of this policy are framed in “can it be achieved technologically”, not “is it permissible?”

    There is an ever-more-obvious absence of any consequences for executive action contrary to the law or the Constitution. That allows one’s sense of “Duty” to be governed by the practicalities of re-election rather than by arcane niceties of a system of government designed to impose constraints upon governmental power. Unfortunate.

    But it is, at its core, about Duty. Will we, or won’t we, demand respect for “Duty” as meaning more than re-election?

  21. ackack says:

    Just yet another confirmation of the evolution of the US, POTUS finally admitting we operate the biggest most powerful terrorist organization on the planet.


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