Cyberwarfare has been defined as politically-motivated hacking to conduct sabotage and espionage. It is a kind of information warfare that some pundits compare to conventional warfare, although this analogy is controversial and has dangerous implications meriting closer examination. Richard A. Clarke, US government security expert, in his book Cyber War (May 2010), defines: “Cyberwarfare“ as “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.” The Economist describes cyberspace as “the fifth domain of warfare”, while William J. Lynn, US Deputy Secretary of Defence, states that “as a doctrinal matter, the Pentagon has formally recognised cyberspace as a new domain in warfare…….[which] has become just as critical to military operations as land, sea, air and space.”
For years, the CIA 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. Under “Olympic Games”, the US-Israeli nexus developed a complex worm that necessitated testing.
Sanger divulges that the US began building replicas of Iran’s P-1 centrifuges, an aging, unreliable design. The US already owned some P-1s, which the Libyan strongman, Colonel Moammar Al-Qaddafi, had reportedly acquired from Pakistan and then surrendered to the US in 2003, which were placed in storage at a weapons laboratory in Tennessee. The military and intelligence officials overseeing “Olympic Games” borrowed some for what they termed “destructive testing”, essentially building a virtual replica of Natanz, but spreading the test over several of the Energy Department’s national laboratories to keep even the most trusted nuclear workers from figuring out what was afoot.
Sanger reveals that President Barack Obama authorised the cyber attacks on Natanz and despite a 2010 hiccup, destroyed more than 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time to purify uranium, setting back the Iranian nuclear programme by 18 months. The US government only recently acknowledged developing cyber weapons, but has never admitted using them. There have been reports of one-time attacks against personal computers used by members of Al-Qaeda, and of contemplated attacks against the computers that run air defence systems, including during the Nato-led air attack on Libya last year. But “Olympic Games” was of an entirely different type and sophistication.
Apparently, for the first time, the US has repeatedly used cyber weapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure, achieving with computer code what until then could be accomplished only by bombing a country or sending in agents to plant explosives. In executing these attacks, the US has unleashed a new weapon, which can have lethal consequences. Imagine disrupting air traffic operations or the power sources of a hostile nation, which could cripple hospitals and banks. The demon unleashed through cyberwarfare can well target the US too and would know no bounds. To rein in this latest arms race, the rules of engagement must be redrawn to avoid an apocalypse.
n The writer is a political and defence analyst.