In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned as the anti-war candidate. But as President, he has opened a new phase in the history of warfare: Cyberwar.
In Confront and Conceal, David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times, details how President Obama secretly ordered a cyberattack on Iran's nuclear facilities, "the first time the U.S. has repeatedly used cyber weapons to cripple another country's infrastructure."
At issue is the so-called Stuxnet program, designed by U.S. and Israeli intelligence to infiltrate and damage Iran's centrifuges. Codenamed "Olympic Games", the program began in 2006 as George W. Bush sought a way to attack Iran's program without launching a conventional attack, Sanger explains.
In the past year, cyberattacks have been launched against the computer systems of a number of institutions, including Lockheed Martin (LMT), Northrop-Grumman (NOC), Sony (SNE), Google (GOOG), Visa (V) and Mastercard (MA), among others. (See: Cyberattacks: A National Security Threat Largely Being Ignored)
"This is completely different," Sanger says of the attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. First, Stuxnet was an attack by a nation state on another sovereign entity and, second, it caused physical damage: by making the Iranian centrifuges speed up or slowdown, Stuxnet caused them to break apart.
"Most of the cyberattacks we're accustomed to are computer on computer - my laptop attacks your ATM system," Sanger explains. "This is going through the computer to accomplish something that could previously only accomplished by dropping bombs on something or by sneaking in agents and blowing it up."
Because "Olympic Games" is one of the most classified programs operating today, President Obama can't talk about the Stuxnet attack, Sanger notes. That's a problem from a campaign standpoint -- I suspect most Americans will be filled with a sense of pride when they hear about the program -- but also with the international community.
As with any other new kind of warfare, there are moral implications to the use of cyberattacks and no clear ground rules.
"We want rest of world to know the U.S. has certain rules under which it does and doesn't use this kind of weapon," Sanger says. "But until you begin to talk about it you can't get the rest of the world to talk about what the common rules should be."
In the interim, and by launching the Stuxnet virus, the U.S. may have legitimized a new form of attack, against which our computer systems are far from immune.
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