Except for one established fact — that it’s been done before — I wouldn’t touch the Iranian cyberwar story with a barge pole. Lies, half-truths and misinformation surround live intelligence operations like nested hedge-rows, and to ask anyone truly in the know about such things is the equivalent of saying, “Lie to me.” The Israeli spook site Debka (entirely unreliable) reports that the damage to Iranian industrial controls from the “Stuxnet” worm is serious, citing Iranian media threats that Iran will wage a “long-term war” on Israel and the United States—the presumed malefactors—in retaliation.
Iran admitted Monday, Sept. 27 it was under full-scale cyber terror attack. The official IRNA news agency quoted Hamid Alipour, deputy head of Iran’s government Information Technology Company, as saying that the Stuxnet computer worm “is mutating and wreaking further havoc on computerized industrial equipment.”
Stuxnet was no normal worm, he said: “The attack is still ongoing and new versions of this virus are spreading.”
Revolutionary Guards deputy commander Hossein Salami declared his force had all the defensive structures for fighting a long-term war against “the biggest and most powerful enemies” and was ready to defend the revolution with more advanced weapons than the past. He stressed that defense systems have been designed for all points of the country, and a special plan devised for the Bushehr nuclear power plant. DEBKAfile’s military sources report that this indicates that the plant - and probably other nuclear facilities too - had been infected, although Iranian officials have insisted it has not, only the personal computers of its staff.
The first documented large-scale cyber attack produced one of America’s most stunning covert victories of the Cold War. In mid-1982, a Siberian natural gas pumping station exploded with the force of three kilotons of TNT. My old boss, Norman A. Bailey, was then head of plans at the Reagan National Security Council, and deeply involved in the operation:
The pipeline, as planned, would have a level of complexity that would require advanced automated control software (SCADA). The pipeline utilized plans for a sophisticated control system and its software that had been stolen from a Canadian firm by the KGB. The CIA allegedly had the company insert a logic bomb in the program for sabotage purposes, eventually resulting in an explosion with the power of three kilotons of TNT .
The CIA was tipped off to the Soviet intentions to steal the control system plans in documents in the Farewell Dossier and, seeking to derail their efforts, CIA directorWilliam J. Casey followed the counsel of economist Gus Weiss and a disinformation strategy was initiated to sell the Soviets deliberately flawed designs for stealth technology and space defense. The operation proceeded to deny the Soviets the technology they desired to purchase to automate the pipeline management, then, a KGB operation to steal the software from a Canadian company was anticipated, and, in June 1982, flaws in the stolen software led to a massive explosion of part of the pipeline.
At the time, I wasn’t near the loop, let alone in it; I was scampering around Germany with a business card from Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review (which had just fired me as economics editor for disagreeing with LaRouche but kept me on as a stringer), sounding German politicians and business leaders for defeatist sympathies. Bailey told me about the affair a decade later; most of the published accounts credit Dr. Gus Weiss, an economist on NSC staff, for the scheme.
The story sounds plausible, and it’s been done before. The US allowed the Russians to “steal” a number of pieces of technology, including a satellite camera that the technicians at Zeiss in East Germany couldn’t quite get to work properly.
No doubt there is an element of psy-ops. Computer controls are finicky at best, and if the Iranian systems are compromised in some way, they cannot know how many “logic bombs” will go off in the future, or which of their IT people might be wandering about with a USB drive containing additional worms. I have no way of sorting truth from psywar. How cool would it be if the story checked out?
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?