Remembering Stuxnet and Operation Olympic Games – The New Reality of Cyberwar

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Stuxnet was the cyber weapon that sent the Iranian centrifuges crashing at the Natanz nuclear facility – a highly coordinated effort between the United States and Israeli known by the code name Olympic Games. Operation Olympic games began in earnest in 2007 as a way to deter, and ultimately destroy, Iran’s uranium enrichment measures.  The depth and sophistication of Olympic Games was astounding, requiring massive resources that even included building a replica Natanz plant at American laboratories.

The Atomic Cyber weapon Arrives

The timeline of America’ s highly targeted cyber-attack against Iran is as follows:

  • 2006: Iran resumes nuclear activities at the Natanz facility that consists of uranium enrichment, this, after talks with the international community stall. The U.S. decides to embark upon a top-secret cyber program to possibly use against Iran.
  • 2007: The program, given the name “Olympic Games”, kicks into high-gear with Israel joining to help develop a new and sophisticated computer worm to use against Iran.
  • 2008: With Olympic Games underway, Iran’s centrifuges begin spinning out of control and crashing. Iran’s engineers are clueless as to why, blaming it on various technical issues and constraints. Engineers are fired at random for supposed incompetence.
  • 2009: Just as President Bush is leaving office – accounts of the secret cyber program begin to surface. Bush strongly urges incoming President-elect Barack Obama to continue the program, telling him the importance of it.
  • Spring, 2010: The National Security Agency (NSA), along with Unit 8200, Israel’s super-secret organization, get aggressive on the Iranians. They target a specific set of centrifuges comprised of almost 1,000 machines, that if they failed, would be a huge setback to Iran. A special version of the computer worm is developed, with the Israelis putting the finishing touches on the program.
  • Summer, 2010: The developers of Stuxnet determine that copies of the worm have escaped Natanz and have become available online, where they are replicating very quickly. Within weeks, stories appear regarding a new computer worm carried on USB keys that exploits a hole in the Windows operating system. This is Stuxnet. President Obama ultimately decides against stopping the program, and a subsequent attack takes out nearly 1,000 Iranian centrifuges in Iran.
  • 2011 – 2012: While Olympic Games was successful in knocking out Iran’s centrifuges – it set them back 1 to 2 years – Iran nevertheless becomes more determined to continue its weapons development as a result of the attacks. The attacks embolden Iran as they begin to push towards more aggressive development of their nuclear capabilities. [1]

Soon after the successful attacks, it become very clear that the United States was the main driver behind the cyber assault on Iran’s centrifuges. While President Bush may have been the impetus for Olympic Games, President Obama took us 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.” [2]

References:

[1] Guilbert Gates, How a Secret Cyberwar Program Worked, https://nyti.ms/2BMh7if, Accessed on October 28, 2019.

[1] David Sanger, Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Attacks Against Iran, https://nyti.ms/2pDeFHX, Accessed on October 25, 2019.

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