Gang Warfare to Protect Israel’s Secrets

Easily the most overlooked line in David Sanger’s story on StuxNet is this one:

Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.

If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work. Israel could carry out a conventional military attack, prompting a conflict that could spread throughout the region.

It’s a sentiment he repeats in this worthwhile interview:

FP: There haven’t been thoughtful discussions about the consequences or the ethics or the international legal ramifications of this approach. Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and you are confronted with this. Isn’t your first reaction, “How is them blowing up Natanz with a code any different from them blowing up Natanz with a bomb? And doesn’t that justify military retaliation?”

DS: Blowing it up with computer code, rather than bombs, is different in one big respect: It very hard for the Iranians in real time to know who the attacker was, and thus to make a public case for retaliating. It takes a long time to figure out where a cyber attack comes from.

That was a big reason for the U.S. and Israel to attack Natanz in this way. But it wasn’t the only reason, at least from the American perspective. One of the main driving forces for Olympic Games was to so wrap the Israelis into a project that could cripple Natanz in a subtle way that Israel would see less of a motivation to go about a traditional bombing, one that could plunge the Middle East into a another war. [my emphasis]

A key purpose of StuxNet, according to Sanger, was not just to set back the Iranian nuke program. Rather, it was to set back the nuke program in such a way as to set back Israel’s push for war against Iran.

With that in mind, consider the way the article blamed the Israelis for letting StuxNet escape.

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.”

Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” he said. “They went too far.”

After having explained that the whole point of StuxNet was to stop the Israelis from bombing Iran, the article then goes on to say that what alerted the Iranians to StuxNet’s presence in their systems–and effectively gave a very dangerous weapon to hackers around the world–was an Israeli modification to the code.

The Israelis went too far.

Those details are, IMO, some of the most interesting new details, not included the last time David Sanger confirmed the US and Israel were behind StuxNet on the front page of the NYT.

How very telling, then, that of all the highly revealing articles that have come out during this Administration–of all of the highly revealing articles that have come out in general, including Sanger’s earlier one revealing some of the very same details–Congress is going apeshit over this one.

First, there’s John McCain, pitching this as an election stunt.

McCain first called attention to the issue with a fiery speech on the Senate floor Tuesday evening, pointing to a new book by New York Times journalist David Sanger that reveals U.S.-Israeli cybercampaigns used against Iran.

McCain charged members of the administration with leaking classified information and called for an investigation by a special counsel. He also called for people to be prosecuted if guilt is found. His Democratic counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., agreed to hold a hearing to investigate.

“It is difficult to escape the conclusion that these recent leaks of highly classified information, all of which have the effect of making the President look strong and decisive on national security in the middle of his re-election campaign, have a deeper political motivation,” Mcain said.

Then there’s John Kerry attacking the NYT.

“I personally think there is a serious question whether or not that served our interest and whether the public had to know,” Kerry, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, told reporters. “To me it was such a nitty-gritty fundamental national security issue. And I don’t see how the public interest is well served by it. I do see how other interests outside the United States are well served by it.”

The worst is the Gang of Four–Dianne Feinstein, Saxby Chamblis, Dutch Ruppersberger, and Mike Rogers–rolling out new legislation to crack down on leaks.

The four members of the intelligence committees also called the leaks “damaging and intolerable.” They plan to modify and strengthen legislation regarding leaks. “We believe that significant changes are needed, in legislation, in the culture of the agencies that deal with classified information, in punishing leaks, and in the level of leadership across the government to make clear that these types of disclosures will not stand,” the lawmakers said in the statement.

Oh, and DiFi sent Obama a classified letter. Ut oh.

And all this comes just a few weeks after the House passed an Amendment mandating an investigation into three stories which were pretty obviously designed to make it harder for Israel to attack Iran.

Our do-nothing Congress has found one issue on which there is broad bipartisan agreement: that leaks are one thing, but leaks that thwart Israel’s efforts to foment war against Iran must be criminalized.

33 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    Let’s see. The Saudis have us by the balls, and the Israelis have us by the throat. I guess this leaves the Chinese sitting on our backs.

    At least we still have that empty space between our ears. Whew!

  2. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: See, I think the Saudis have us by the balls. And Israel has our politics by the throat. But otherwise they have little to threaten us with. Which explains the dynamic here.

  3. Frank33 says:

    Computer Pirates here there and everywhere. What an exciting time we live in.

    “An error in the code”. Who could have anticipated that. The Microsoft “Kernel” has a few errors itself which makes it vulnerable to any script kiddie. But script kiddies and pirates do not have access to the Microsoft crypto codes that seem to have escaped into the wild. Stuxnet is obsolete compared to “Flame”. Flame, 20 Megs in size with a database for collecting information, is obviously a government program designed for espionage. It is a software tool that could compromise most of Bill Gates computers.

    Microsoft’s closed software requires coding, keys, for everything to function. Somehow, their cryptographic algorithms were compromised. Or Microsoft gave the keys to the Government. Take your choice.

    Fortunately, the new, improved Windows 8 will solve all the problems, and make the UX (User Experience) profoundly enjoyable. Or not.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Great post EW. On June 1st Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett focused on some of those same sentences and points:
    Obama’s Secret War Against Iran Dooms Diplomacy and Imperils American Interests
    “Second, the Sanger article makes undeniably clear—if it were not sufficiently evident already—that the reason for the President’s hostility toward Iran has nothing to do with American security. Rather, Obama’s aggressiveness—which carries with it a willingness to put significant long-term American interests at risk—is motivated by a perceived imperative to prevent the Israelis from doing something that they cannot credibly do in the first place: namely, strike and destroy Iran’s nuclear program. ”

    To think McCain, Feinstein, Kerry, Levin would be so riled up about these alleged leaks. Did McCain or any of these other Reps get as riled up about Plame’s outing? Did any of these same individuals get upset when Aipac officials were caught red handed illegally accessing highly classified U.S. national intelligence? I don’t remember them shouting out about Aipac undermining U.S. national security.

    This “After having explained that the whole point of StuxNet was to stop the Israelis from bombing Iran, the article then goes on to say that what alerted the Iranians to StuxNet’s presence in their systems–and effectively gave a very dangerous weapon to hackers around the world–was an Israeli modification to the code.” reminds me of Fox News Carl Cameron’s report about an Israeli communications systems company that had access to 95% of Americans phone calls being infiltrated by a foreign nation through some “back door” in Israel’s system.

    Continues to be alarming how much control Israel has over U.S. foreign policy and how what they demand is not necessarily good for the U.S. Wonder how much $$$ this program for Israel cost American taxpayers in not only $$$ but security?

    According to the Leveretts the Obama administrations approach with Iran is basically all wrong.

  5. Kathleen says:


    Both Biden and Obama’s cajones are purple and blue from so many Israeli official kicks below their belts

  6. lefty665 says:


    “Somehow, their cryptographic algorithms were compromised. Or Microsoft gave the keys to the Government. Take your choice.”

    Don’t suppose that’s got anything to do with Microsoft inviting NSA into the development of Windows versions starting with XP do you? Just to help with “security”, but they didn’t say whose. A thoughtful Agency might have left themselves a backdoor just to help with “support”.

    Wouldn’t want to inadvertently lock themselves out. Wouldn’t want to make it harder to fill that Beef Hollow they’re building in Utah.

  7. SpanishInquisition says:

    “If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work”

    Uh by Obama’s own definition, Olympic games was war. Obama escalated things from diplomacy to war and he didn’t even get authorization to go to war.

    “The Israelis went too far”

    Actually we don’t know that – all we know is what a self-interested non-transparent leaker is saying. It’s to Obama’s benefit to blame someone else other than himself for whatever problems are caused by this virus. Even the quote from Biden itself taken at face value is just an assumption on Biden’s part. This is why the ACLU has been going to court over FOIA because self-serving leaks combined with a lack of transparency just let the leakers create their own narratives withou letting the public get to the fundamental truth of the matter.

  8. lysias says:

    “If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work”

    No time, because of what? I thought there was no evidence the Iranians have a program to build nuclear weapons.

    What and whose time limit would be passed?

  9. lysias says:

    If the whole point of the exercise was to conceal authorship, why were the Israelis allowed to entitle one of the code sections “Myrtus,” which people quickly connected to the Book of Esther?

    Since the Israelis are also being blamed for whatever in the code allowed Stuxnet to escape, are we to conclude that Israelis were allowed to compose the whole program — or at least to have the final right to edit?

  10. orionATL says:

    i don’t see mentioned in the obama admin’s discussion of actions to take against iran consideration of certain fundamental facts that would justify hostile action toward iran by israel or the u.s.:

    did iran have, or was it close to getting, a nuclear weapon, or not?

    what was the estimated achieved level of enrichment at that time?

    what was the estimated maximum level of enrichment the equiment avilable to iran could produce?

    would the achieved or the maximum be sufficient to craft “adequate” (adequate for MAD, that is) numbers of nuclear weapons for iran.

    did iran have or was it close to having (building AND testing) a nuclear weapons delivery system (other than pick-ups).

    is there, in reality, a too-late-to-attack timepoint in any nation’s nuclear weapons program?

    was it clear that iran wanted and was politically committed to building a set of nuclear weapons?

    now some questions of diplomatic/military strategy:

    was it not always the case that israel had no intention of bombing iran?

    was it not the case that israel always intended that the u.s., not israel, should “take care/out” iran’s nuclear program, whatever that program’s purposes were, even if wholely non-military, i.e., energy and technology oriented?

    should not israel have been faced with suffering the consequences of its own actions, whatever those might be, with respect to iran’s nuclear program?

  11. orionATL says:


    if i’m recalling corretly, commenter william ockham has written here that the public revelation of stuxnet was intentional and occurred more than once.

  12. orionATL says:


    with resect to my final three points, israel would already have unilaterally bombed the iranian nuclear facilities/program if they thought they could get away with it without suffering themselves. they had already done so to iraq and syria.

    the conclusion is clear to me, israeli’s bluff should have been called early on and the p.r. actions of its aipac/adl political arm here in the u.s. strongly challenged.

  13. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I think you’re mostly right about an Israeli threat to us.

    The way I see it is that Israelis figured the only way to properly motivate the big dog (US) was by threatening to do something both crazy and stupid. Namely, that the Israelis themselves would strike Iran.

    Any fool could see that the downside was far worse than any potential upside. Any fool but a big dumb loyal dog.

  14. SpanishInquisition says:

    @MadDog: This however isn’t a question of what is believable but what is factual. All Presidents would love to be a position where they can have plausible deniability for whatever problems happen. This is a matter of transparency and public oversight, which whether it is true or not the Obama administration stands to gain by blaming someone else (in this case the Israelis) for whatever problems happen. Even taken it for granted that the Israelis changed the code, why would Obama allow them to do that in the first place – this is just a convenient excuse while denying us oversight.

  15. SpanishInquisition says:

    @lysias: “Since the Israelis are also being blamed for whatever in the code allowed Stuxnet to escape, are we to conclude that Israelis were allowed to compose the whole program — or at least to have the final right to edit?”

    This is the problem with the Obama admin leaks in how that they are self-serving and don’t really allow for oversight. For all we know the Obama administration was only tagentially involved in Stuxnet with Israel being in charge of the program, but with the Obama admin being quick to claim the bulk of the credit for their own selfish purposes. I say this because of what we saw with the Obama admin Plaming our allies with Undiebomber 2.0 even though the US was part of it, but other countries had the lead.

    For the same reason I can’t take the Obama admin serious when they claim they killed “militants,” I can’t take it seriously when the Obama administration blames someone else but just wants credit for the good thinngs.

  16. What Constitution? says:

    @SpanishInquisition: “Good” things? Seems an apt place to observe “I don’t think that word means what [they] think it means….”

  17. GKJames says:

    I don’t understand Washington’s stated rationale. We commit an act of war so that one of our allies doesn’t commit one? If the US were seriously concerned about instability in the region, and if it wanted to make sure that the Israelis don’t assault Iran, there are policy choices other than committing an act of war against the victim of the intended assault. The most effective would be to make it clear to Jerusalem via back channels that the US will — repeat, will — interdict any Israeli aircraft heading toward Iranian airspace.

  18. SpanishInquisition says:

    @GKJames: Obama doesn’t want to have to explain himself. Obama just wants to do whatever he or Axelrod feels like and things like Congressional oversight and public oversight just get in the way his re-election campaign.

    I wonder if Obama did Libya without Congressional authorization in order to set precedent for Iran. Afterall at the time Libya was going on Obama was already working on the launching of war on Iran via the virus.

  19. GulfCoastPirate says:

    @emptywheel: Well then, they were wrong. We aren’t at war with Iran and won’t be anytime soon no matter what Bibi wants.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it – not even Obama, after all he’s done, can be idiotic enough to go to war with Iran when he knows full well there is no chance of success.

  20. Divest from War says:

    As usual, this is about the Israel-first crowd trying to get the US to fight their wars for them. And their threat: if you don’t do it, we will. Let’s make sure there is a high cost for them starting Middle East War III. We can do this nonviolently by pledging to boycott Israel if it carries out a preemptive strike against Iran:

    Let’s PREVENT the next war, instead of protesting it after the fact!

  21. P J Evans says:

    Even taken it for granted that the Israelis changed the code, why would Obama allow them to do that in the first place – this is just a convenient excuse while denying us oversight.

    How could he have stopped them from making those changes? Israel isn’t bound by US laws.

  22. Ronald says:

    What if it’s the case that there was never any question, nor will there EVER be any question, in the White House or in Tel Aviv that the Israelis would attack Iran without explicit US permission?
    Would that change any of the analysis?

  23. Z says:

    Our foreign policy serves the interests of Israel much more so than it serves the best interests of the American people.


  24. Z says:

    I don’t think that we will go to war with Iran either … this U.S. war talk has been a lot of “you don’t know how crazy I am” bluster in the hopes of gaining more leverage in any agreement that’s made in regards to Iran’s nuclear program. Israel may also be blustering, but I’m less sure of them.

    Obama and co. can’t be that stupid to go to war with Iran. The military can’t be that stupid either. As much as we acquiesce to Israel’s desires on foreign policy, I think this is one that we won’t follow Israel over a cliff on. There are limits to everything.


  25. Z says:

    If Obama wins a 2nd term, I think that he is going to get more assertive in dealing with Netanyahu on the next go around. Things are going too far and, again, there are limits to everything. Listen to Biden: “They’ve gone too far this time”. They don’t trust Netanyahu and at least part of the administration is getting pissed off with Israel’s controlling ways.

    As negative as I am on Obama, I think there is going to start being more pushback against Netanyahu and co. if Obama wins in November. It’s sorely needed. They’re trying to push us into an abyss and they have plenty of U.S. Congressional allies helping them. If some president would start pushing back against Israel, Israel’s Congressional representatives, and the pro-Israeli lobby that would be a welcome change.


  26. Kathleen says:

    @Z: @Z:

    Don’t bank on it. But what other choice do we have? Obama and team know this. With Romney and his radical right wing foreign policy team it would be much much worse. The problem for Obama and team is how are they going to get people to get off their asses this time around…the “hope and change” motto is on the wood pile. Going to be tough going this time around

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