Soon after the successful attacks, it becomes very clear that the United States was the main driver behind the attack on Iran’s centrifuges. While President Bush may have been the impetus for Olympic Games, President Obama took the United States full force into the new world of cyberwar as he approved a wave of attacks against Iran. In fact, within his first few months in office, Obama ordered a series of blistering cyberattacks against the Iranian regime, specifically, its nuclear enrichment facilities. While it’s hard to determine exactly what impact outgoing President Bush had on Obama when it came to Iran in terms of hitting the country with cyber attacks – both men had deep conversations about this very issue during the transition. Obama nevertheless moved forward with a series of attacks, quickly and aggressively.
According to national security expert David Sanger of the New York Times, “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 cyber weapons — even under the most careful and limited circumstances — could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.”[i]
Iran Hits Back
As the Iranian’s saw it, two could play this game. And the Iranians did just that. They hit back. The 2012 attack on Saudi Aramco showed the world that the Iranians could successfully develop their very own cyber offensive attack capabilities. It is now widely known in the inner circles of cyberwarfare that Iran was responsible for Shamoon, the extremely destructive malware that initially hit oil giant Saudi Aramco in 2012, effectively disabling and/or destroying more than 30,000 computers. Hard drives were wiped out. Email was inaccessible. Phone lines went down. The world’s most valuable company was reduced to antiquated technology of pen and paper in hopes of ensuring some form of business continuity.
According to Chris Kubecka, a former security advisor to Saudi Aramco, the resources needed to get the company back up and running was unprecedented. “It was a massive army of IT people. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life… Everyone who bought a computer or hard drive from September 2012 to January 2013 had to pay a slightly higher price for their hard drive.”[ii] Then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in a speech given later that year in October, 2012, cited the Aramco attacks as a “significant escalation of the cyber threat.”[iii]
Iran would retaliate yet again for Stuxnet, hitting America’s banking system in 2012 with a series of distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that were, according to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “…relentless…systematic, and they were widespread.”[iv]
Says former Clinton and Bush counter-terrorism expert, Richard Clarke, “Very quickly, Iran sent a message to the United States, very sophisticated message, and they did that with two attacks.”[v]
Says Emad Kiyaei, executive director of the American Iranian Council. “The Iranian nuclear program was a national issue for the Iranian people, and once the industrial sabotage happened, Iran developed a very proactive presence in cyber domain…When Iran’s nuclear program came under attack, specifically from a foreign source, it increased the number of people [in Iran] who wanted to be involved.”[vi]
In the movie, Zero Days, Kivaei questions the real success – if any – with Stuxnet. “If you are a youth [in Iran] and see an assassination of a nuclear scientist, your nuclear facilities are getting attacked, wouldn’t you join your national cyber army, well, many did [in Iran], and that’s why today Iran has one of the largest cyber armies in the world. So, whoever initiated this [Stuxnet], and was very proud of themselves to see that little dip in Iran’s centrifuge numbers, should look back now and acknowledge that it was a major mistake.”[vii]
Since the Stuxnet attacks, Iran has without question become a major force in terms of offensive cyber capabilities, and will continue to flex its digital muscles on the international arena. And as Iran and American continue to engage in a never-ending war of words in the age of Trump, experts agree that their cyber force will continue to grow in size and sophistication in the coming years. According to Corey Thomas, CEO of Rapid7, “Don’t think anyone’s going to pack up their bags and go home. This will embolden the Iranians to build arsenals for the future.”[viii]
Iranian Cyber Activities
A wide-range of offensive cyber operations targeting a variety of industries and organizations have been attributed, or allegedly attributed, to the Iranian government. According to a recent report from the U.S. State Department, “The Iranian government maintains a robust offensive cyber program and has sponsored cyber-attacks against foreign government and private sector entities.”[ix]
Recent examples of Iranians cybersecurity activities against the United States consist of the following:
Late 2011 to Mid-2013 – DDoS Targeting U.S. Financial Sector: In response to the attacks, in March, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted seven Iranian actors employed by companies performing work on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for conducting DDoS attacks aimed at various public-facing websites of U.S. banks. The attacks prevented customers from accessing their accounts.[x]
August/September 2013 – Unauthorized Access to Dam in New York State: In March 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted one Iranian actor employed by a company performing work on behalf of the IRGC for illegally accessing the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems of the Bowman Dam in Rye, New York. The access allowed the individual to obtain various information regarding the status and overall operation of the dam.[xi]
February 2014 – Sands Las Vegas Corporation Hacked: Hackers broke into the computers of Sands Las Vegas Corporation in Las Vegas, Nevada, stealing customer data, including credit card information, Social Security Numbers, and driver’s license numbers. According to a Bloomberg article from December 2014, the attack also resulted in Sands Las Vegas Corporation’s computer systems being wiped. In September 2015, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence identified the Iranian government as the perpetrator of the attack in a Statement for the Record to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.[xii]
2013 to 2017 – Cyber Theft Campaign Perpetrated by IRGC: In March 2018, the U.S. Justice Department indicted nine Iranian actors associated with the Mabna Institute for undertaking a massive cyber theft campaign containing dozens of individual incidents, including “many on behalf of the IRGC.” The cyberattacks targeted academic and intellectual property, along with email account credentials. According to the indictment, the campaign targeted “144 U.S. universities, 176 universities across 21 foreign countries, 47 domestic and foreign private sector companies, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the State of Hawaii, the State of Indiana, the United Nations, and the United Nations Children’s Fund.”[xiii]
Kissinger on Cyber
George P. Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn – some of the most well-recognized and respected political voices from the last 50 years – collaborated on a documented, titled ‘Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation’. In it, the Cold war warriors discussed a wide-range of nuclear issues, but were also quick to point out the growing seriousness of the emerging cyber world. They noted that “The first step is to recognize that there is a daunting new spectrum of global security threats. These threats include chemical, biological and radiological weapons, catastrophic terrorism and cyber warfare…For the United States and many other nations, existential threats relating to the very survival of the state have diminished, largely because of the end of the Cold War and the increasing realization that our common interests greatly exceed our differences.”[xiv]
In ‘World Order’, Henry Kissinger’s 2015 publication, he writes how “cyberspace challenges all historical experience…”, and how it is difficult to assess a country’s capabilities and vulnerabilities in the new age of cyberspace as there are no shared interpretations or understandings of cyber capabilities.[xv] And while he readily admits only to having a limited knowledge of the actual technical workings of cybersecurity, “essentially ignorant of their technical matters,” nevertheless, he has “reflected a great deal about the impact of new technology on policymaking…”, and understands the importance of it.”[xvi]
Other notable statesmen have weighed in on how technology – particularly, cybersecurity – is a game changer in terms of national security. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta years ago warned that the United States could one day face a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” whereby “An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches…They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”[xvii]
Panetta warned that “If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction in the United States or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action against those who would attack us, to defend this nation when directed by the president.”[xviii]
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[v] Zero Days, 2016 Documentary, 2016. Accessed on April 3, 2020
[vii] Zero Days, 2016 Documentary, 2016. Accessed on April 3, 2020
[x] Department of Justice Press Release, ‘Seven Iranians Working for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Affiliated Entities Charged for Conducting Coordinated Campaign of Cyber Attacks Against U.S. Financial Sector, https://bit.ly/30MjmhJ, Accessed on July 21, 2020.
[xi] Department of Justice Press Release, ‘Seven Iranians Working for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Affiliated Entities Charged for Conducting Coordinated Campaign of Cyber Attacks Against U.S. Financial Sector, https://bit.ly/30MjmhJ, Accessed on July 21, 2020.
[xiii] Department of Justice Press Release, “Nine Iranians Charged With Conducting Massive Cyber Theft Campaign on Behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,’ https://bit.ly/3hgmCZ4, Accessed on July 21, 2020.