Cyber-Terrorism: How the US and Israel Attacked Iran - And Failed
by Maximilian C. Forte - ZeroAnthropology
June 25, 2019
Sabotaging another nation’s power grids, or blowing up industrial plants, are actual acts of war under international law. The term “cyber-terrorism” as used in the title, almost softens the impact of that fact. In recent months and weeks, the US has been active—either by its own account, or according to target nations—in new acts of war that use the digital realm in order to produce concrete effects on the ground.
Venezuela, which suffered debilitating power outages in March, laid at least some of the blame on alleged cyber attacks by the US. The US certainly possesses the means to engage in such cyber-warfare, and has actually done so.
Iran is a case in point. Not only has Iran allegedly been targeted in recent days, it was also targeted by Obama with the aid of Israel. This requires that we review the case of the Stuxnet Worm.
Zero Days (2016)
Why does it matter that we should be aware and informed about the Stuxnet Worm? What is Stuxnet, and what can it do? Who has actually used it, and to what effect? What are the consequences for all of us, now that Stuxnet has been unleashed worldwide?
Americans live under a state which tells them that their country is “the target” of nefarious foreign attackers that engage in cyber-terrorism or other cyber-crimes against the US. They will rarely, if ever, be aware of the fact that it is their own country which has committed the most dangerous and widespread cyber-terrorism—and that as a result, Americans are now vulnerable to the very same computer technologies that their country first deployed against others. This is yet another instance of what others have critiqued as “American innocence”.
Written and directed by Alex Gibney, Zero Days (2016) is a documentary film that runs for just over 113 minutes. The film is briefly described on IMDB as follows: “A documentary focused on Stuxnet, a piece of self-replicating computer malware that the U.S. and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target”.
Alex Gibney has made several important and well received documentaries, a number of which will be reviewed on this site. He certainly is a prolific filmmaker, focusing on topics that have generated the biggest headlines, or focusing on major personalities. The fact that he is able to churn out such large documentaries in relatively short order (showing that he must be working on another film even before finishing the latest work), is a fact that has attracted some critical commentary, especially when some see work such as Zero Days being little more than a film version of the Wikipedia entry on Stuxnet.
For my part, I am quite sceptical of Gibney’s political aims—at the very least, he is guilty of some hypocrisy.
While Gibney is proud to showcase the fact that he sought out leakers for his Zero Days film, in order to tell us the secrets about Stuxnet, he nonetheless smeared Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for doing the same thing, only better, and on a wider range of topics. We Steal Secrets—a damning title by itself—was one of Gibney’s previous films, which of course won high praise by the media in the US. The fact that NPR has come out and positively publicized Zero Days should be a warning that we view this film with some caution. Otherwise, I will continue to view and review other films by Gibney, just as I do with other filmmakers whose productions deserved criticism.
You can view a trailer for Zero Days below:
The Sheriff is the Outlaw
The film begins with an extract from an Iranian state TV documentary that reenacts the Israeli terrorist assassination of two nuclear scientists in Iran on November 29, 2010. Voice-overs from the mainstream US media refer to the terrorism as “major strategic sabotage”. The film accompanies the Iranian documentary’s action with an Israeli speaker—an anonymous Mossad senior operative—silhouette only, voice distorted electronically, speaking to us from the shadows about the “nature of life” as being one where “evil” and “good” live “side by side”.
He continues by “explaining” that there is an “unbalanced” and “unequivalent” (i.e., asymmetric) conflict between “democracies” that “play by the rules”—the rules shown include the targeted murder of scientists—versus “entities” that “think democracy is a joke”. Presumably terrorism is about making enemies take democracy a little more seriously? In other words, the opening of the film is appropriately sinister, cynical, and menacing.
There is also a certain candour to the film as presented in the words of the Israeli Mossad speaker. There is indeed an asymmetric battle. Had Iran attacked nuclear scientists on the streets of Israel, the Western media would call it a terrorist attack, and Iran would likely be bombed. Instead, Iran is just supposed to absorb Western terrorism, like Americans tolerate rain or a windy afternoon. It is somehow Iran’s natural duty to suffer us.
There is also a candidly twisted interpretation of “the rules”: Western powers get to invent their own special rules, ones that are in direct violation of international law. This is what is actually meant by the “rules-based international order” slogan one hears from the mouths of Western leaders today. The sheriff is the outlaw. The punishment is the crime.
What the anonymous Mossad operative refuses to answer is whether the murder of the Iranian scientists was related to the Stuxnet computer attacks—which are the central focus of this documentary. He is followed by a whole array of experts (one of whom is Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA director), each refusing to speak about the Stuxnet Worm, and they all seem visibly uncomfortable just for having been asked. Some explain that it is because it is “classified”. Whomever was behind the Stuxnet attack, they have refused to take official responsibility. However, what is interesting is that these individuals even refuse to simply comment on the press reports of an event that actually happened.
The narrator adds: “Even after the cyber-weapon had penetrated computers all over the world, no one was willing to admit that it was loose, or talk about the dangers it posed”. This film is an attempt to counteract the silence that has been imposed, so that it can be debated publicly.
The question posed by the filmmaker is this: “What was it about the Stuxnet operation that was hiding in plain sight?” And they suggest that maybe there was a way that the computer code could speak for itself.
How Does Stuxnet Work? Who Made It? Who was the Target?
The Stuxnet Worm, which can be delivered by a USB memory stick, is not meant to steal information. It is instead meant to cause industrial systems to malfunction dangerously, while impeding the ability to electronically monitor such systems and to shut them down before a catastrophic event occurs. Stuxnet was used against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
The films seeks the insight of experts at Symantec Research Labs in Santa Monica, California (Eric Chien, emergency security response), and at Kaspersky Lab in Moscow, where the filmmaker speaks with Eugene Kaspersky himself. Also at Kaspersky, Vitaly Kamluk explains that there are three principal types of cyber-attackers:
1) “traditional cyber-criminals interested only in illegal profit” looking for “quick and dirty money”;
2) activists, or “hacktivists,” hacking either for the sport of it or to promote a particular political idea; and,
3) nation-states, “interested in high-quality intelligence or sabotage activity”.
Much of the commentary from cyber-security analysts is about the size and nature of the Stuxnet code, and how they collaborated across companies to share the code and their analyses of it. We learn some interesting details here.
Stuxnet first surfaced in Belarus. Sergey Ulasen is interviewed in the film; he was the anti-virus expert who first discovered Stuxnet. Ulasen discovered it when his clients in Iran began to call him in a panic over an epidemic of mysterious computer shutdowns. The malware was first identified on June 17, 2010. What stood out about this code was its “zero days” components.
A “zero day exploit,” as explained by Eric Chien, is simply a piece of computer code that allows it to spread without having to be activated by anyone. One does not need to download an infected file and run it. A zero day exploit is also defined as an exploit that nobody knows about except those who created it—and therefore no patch has been released to counteract it. There are thus “zero days [worth of] protection” against the code.
Stuxnet itself contained four zero days exploits, all by itself, when typically cyber-security might find 12 zero days in an entire year, among millions of viruses. Stuxnet, with so many zero days in it, would probably fetch half a million dollars—and therefore it was unlikely to have been the product of some ordinary criminal gang, but a much more powerful entity. Eugene Kaspersky also discounts the possibility that it was produced by cyber-activists or hacktivists. A consultant in Hamburg came to the conclusion that, given the sophistication of Stuxnet, it had to be the product of at least one nation-state.
Stuxnet’s creators stole its digital certificates from two companies, both in Taipei, and both in extremely close physical proximity to each other, as Eric Chien of Symantec explains. “Human assets” had to be involved—spies—in order to extract the digital certificates, which are guarded behind multiple layers of physical security and not resting on a machine connected to the Internet.
The other significant aspect of the Stuxnet code is that it was designed to specifically target Siemens machinery, but the code analysts were not sure which kind of machinery. Then they discovered that Siemens PLCs (programmable logic controllers) were the intended target. A PLC is typically attached to large pieces of industrial equipment, like valves, pumps, or motors. PLCs are also used to control electrical power plants and power grids.
The next big discovery made by cyber-security analysts was that Stuxnet actively surveyed the systems with which it came into contact, and would run a series of checks to determine whether or not the target PLC has been reached. If it had instead come into contact with some other equipment, it would not activate. The amount of effort put into targeting one specific target, suggested to the analysts that the target had to be mightily significant.
Symantec detected Stuxnet infections across the globe, since it would infect any Windows computers anywhere in the world. Industrial installations across the US itself were/are infected with Stuxnet. Cyber-security specialists were immediately alarmed about the dangerous consequences, where any power system, any industrial production, could be shut down without warning anywhere in the world. However, they soon discovered that Iran was the one country in the world that was most infected with Stuxnet, and this immediately suggested that Iran was the prime target.
To make sense of their findings, the code analysts had to turn to what was making the news, geopolitically. They learned that a number of sensitive oil and gas pipelines coming into and out of Iran were mysteriously exploding. There had also been assassinations of nuclear scientists.
The next advance came in identifying the exact industrial control systems that were being targeted, since the PLC identifier numbers were embedded within Stuxnet’s code. That is when they discovered that the targets were frequency converters from two specific manufacturers, one of which was in Iran. Since the frequency converters were export-controlled by the US nuclear regulatory commission, this told the analysts that the target in Iran was a nuclear facility.
One of the distinctive features of Stuxnet was that it lacked a “call back” component that would enable direct instructions to be given by an operator to the infecting program. Stuxnet was thus fully autonomous. Stuxnet was fashioned to unfold in a facility such as Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, which is entirely unconnected to the Internet—it is an “air-gapped” facility. However, as no computer system is ever truly and fully air-gapped, as long as new code and new equipment is being introduced, vulnerabilities remain. NSA sources in this film state that the CIA and/or Mossad used “human assets” to infiltrate Natanz. The way that was done was to infect various industrial plants that serviced Natanz, so that contractors would unknowingly carry Stuxnet on a USB key into the facility at some point, to either conduct a software update or introduce new code.
Iranian Nuclear Development
Leaving aside the cyber-security world, the film turns to David Sanger of The New York Times, who was investigating the intersections of cyber-crime, espionage, and nuclear weapons. The emergence of the code alerted Sanger to the fact that an attack was underway. Sanger found Israelis and Americans who were involved in either building a piece of Stuxnet, or who had witnessed its construction—the first big cyber-weapon to be used for offensive purposes. Sanger investigated the history of Iran’s nuclear program, noting that Iran obtained its first nuclear reactor from the US itself, during the reign of the Shah.
For more on the history of Iran’s nuclear development, see:
Sabrina M. Guerrieri, “A War of Words: U.S.-Iran Relations in the Nuclear Debate,” in Maximilian C. Forte (Ed.), Interventionism, Information Warfare, and the Military-Academic Complex (pp. 45-66), Montreal: Alert Press, 2011.
The film then detours into a retelling of the history of Iran’s nuclear development, and its alleged interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. This was a troubling part of the film: given that this film is aimed at Western, primarily American audiences, speaking to them through a language and set of narratives that are familiar to them, Gibney seemed to be framing Iran as a valid target deserving of US aggression. Iran is shown as the potential “danger,” ironic given the history of US interventions and invasions in that part of the world.
Note also that virtually all of Gibney’s “expert” sources on Iran consist of former US intelligence operatives and military officials—we thus hear from Gary Samore, WMD “czar” from 2009 to 2013, and Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a CIA officer from 1982 to 2005, among others, including Israeli officials. Totally absent from the discussion is anyone in the Iranian government, or anyone in Iran.
The president of the American Iranian Council is interviewed, somewhat mitigating the otherwise complete voicelessness of Iranians. Interestingly, he explains how stringent the International Atomic Energy Agency’s monitoring regime has been, clearly suggesting that Iran was not in violation of its international agreements since it was being thoroughly supervised. He also explained that, under international treaties, Iran has a right to develop nuclear energy. Thus the president of the American Iranian Council ends up being the one moderating voice that offers a little balance in the film, and he is a particularly articulate and intelligent speaker.
However, the problem is not with who supervises the weak, but the fact that no one supervises the strong. The film sometimes seems to miss this basic point, especially by framing Iran as a dangerous nuclear threat.
A Scandinavian former IAEA inspector—who in the film says that he has been to Iran both very few times, and very many times (just one sentence apart)—claims that the agency found residues of weapons-grade uranium (isotope 236), which suggested that Iran had imported it from Pakistan, possibly through the black market.
The one significant observation that arises is that if Iran sought to build nuclear weapons, it was in response to the US invasion of Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. This demonstrated to Iran the extent of the threat posed by the US to even the most formidable militaries of the region, and thus the need for an extra layer of defense.
Iranian fears were further amplified with the direct threats made by George W. Bush from 2002 onward, when he labelled Iran as part of an “axis of evil”. If this argument is correct—the film tends to present speculation from US officials as incontestable fact—then Iran was certainly justified and its response was both reasonable and wise. Indeed, the real mystery is why Iran would not pursue, or is not pursuing nuclear weapons development.
The Cyber Option and Israel’s Role
What led to the deployment of Stuxnet? By 2007/2008, the Bush administration was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after the WMD fiasco, the film narrative suggests, Bush was not confident about openly challenging Iran over its nuclear program. According to one of the film’s sources, Condoleeza Rice essentially told Bush, “you know, Mr. President, I think you’ve invaded your last Muslim country, even for the best of reasons”.
Bush also did not want to let the Israelis attack Iran, since that would have immediately drawn the US into war with Iran. In fact, as Gen. Michael Hayden attests in the film, Israel lacks the independent capacity to launch and sustain a military attack on Iran without US assistance. General Hayden then adds an astute observation: “there would be many of us in government thinking that the purpose of the raid wasn’t to destroy the Iranian nuclear system, but the purpose of the raid was to put us at war with Iran”.
Another key point made by Hayden in the film is that the Bush administration wanted to avoid a situation where a future president was reduced to one of only two options: either bomb Iran, or Iran developed a nuclear bomb. This seems to be the corner into which Trump is painting himself.
Since the US, under Bush, was not willing to engage Iran in a direct military confrontation, it was the Israeli government under Netanyahu that proposed an alternative means to attacking Iran. A joint group of Israeli and US intelligence officials then advanced the idea to Bush of devising and deploying what came to be known as the Stuxnet worm.
One of the mistakes made by Iran was the publication of a large number of photographs showing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touring the Natanz nuclear facility, in the company of numerous key scientists—thus inadvertently aiding Israel in its targeting. One of the scientists appearing in a photo, standing behind Ahmadinejad was assassinated a few months later.
Another thing shown by the photos were computer screens displaying arrays of centrifuges that were being monitored. The array of centrifuges showed six groups, each group with 164 items—numbers that perfectly matched what was found in the Stuxnet code. Thus the photos seem likely to have aided the process of devising the attack code.
Centrifuges for enriching uranium contain rotors spinning at the speed of sound, with some parts of the centrifuge made of carbon fibres (which shrink with heat), and other parts made of metal (which expand with heat). Maintaining the integrity of a centrifuge is thus delicate and sensitive. Iran’s centrifuges are proudly featured every April for “National Nuclear Day”. The IAEA inspector in the film is particularly impressed with the complexity, professionalism, and sophistication of Iranian facilities. Iran’s centrifuges were specifically targeted by Stuxnet.
How Stuxnet actually operates is graphically demonstrated in the film—and for me, this was the most memorable feature of the documentary. See the extracted clip for a complete demonstration:
The demonstration aside, what Stuxnet was designed to do was sit and wait within the Natanz nuclear facility, and to record and save all operations. Once the required amount of time had passed for the full cascade of centrifuges to be filled with uranium being enriched, Stuxnet would then activate. Its first step was to vastly increase the revolutions of centrifuge rotors to the point that uncontrollable revolutions would rupture the centrifuge. The second step was to block any communication of an emergency to the controllers, by reproducing the old data that it had recorded. The third step was to prevent the controllers from shutting down the centrifuges, by disabling all the kill switches.
The only cyber-security specialists who appears resistant to attributing Stuxnet to the US, is the US-based analyst at Symantec, Eric Chien. He does make the valuable point—one deliberately sidestepped by the US media and US politicians—that attribution is very difficult to make, and the traces that lead back to a supposed origin can be faked. (The assertion made by US intelligence agencies about having evidence suggesting Russian hacking was thus always, at best, highly dubious from the outset.)
The Voice of the Leakers
To ascertain the facts of US and Israeli collaboration in the production and use of Stuxnet, Gibney avails himself of leaks and whistle-blowers in Washington, DC. (It’s only permissible to do so when Gibney does it, unlike his treatment of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange who did the same.) Gibney comments: “while D.C. is a city of secrets, it is also a city of leaks. They’re as regular as a heartbeat and just as hard to stop”—which again underscores the opportunism of his critique of WikiLeaks in another of his films.
Gibney’s anonymous sources, compiled into one fictionalized character speaking in the film as if she were a hologram, testify that “we” created Stuxnet (“we” was undefined at that point). At the same time—and this strained credulity—these intelligence operatives somehow felt remorse because “we came so fucking close to disaster,” and for some reason, on this subject alone, it is necessary that the intelligence agencies “get the story right” for the public interest. It seemed a like a charming idea: democratic accountability—all of a sudden. It’s possible, but also suggests we interpret their statements with due caution.
Gibney’s sources claim that Stuxnet was the product of a huge “multinational, interagency operation”. The agencies were the CIA, NSA, the Pentagon’s Cyber-Command; in the UK, the GCHQ; “but the main partner” was the Israeli Mossad. The technical work was done by Mossad’s Unit 8200. Now the narrative shifts: “Israel is really the key to the story”. Another source claims that “much of the coding work was done by the [US] National Security Agency and Unit 8200”.
Further bolstering the case against the so-called “Libya model”—ending a nuclear weapons program, disarming, and transferring all materials to the US—this film’s anonymous NSA sources testify to Libya’s centrifuges (P1s) having been studied at Oak Ridge National Laboratory because they were the same kind in use in Iran. Having Libya’s equipment allowed the US to use the items to help engineer Stuxnet, or what the NSA and Cyber-Command called “Olympic Games” or OG. The Israelis aslo did tests using the Libyan P1 centrifuges.
The US: Against International Law
Through espionage, the US also obtained the plans for Iran’s newer centrifuges, the IR2s. In the tests run by the US, they were able to explode the centrifuges by manipulating the rotors. After inviting President Bush to examine shards of the destroyed centrifuges, he reportedly approved the use of Stuxnet. There were no reported concerns expressed by anyone in Bush’s cabinet about the fact that using Stuxnet would constitute an undeclared act of war.
To avoid any legal troubles with the incoming Obama administration, operatives under Bush installed a kill date in the Stuxnet code (January 11, 2009). This was just days before Obama’s inauguration. The desire to bring the operation to a close before Obama’s team took over, is at least tacit recognition of the illegality of the program. Of course, Obama reauthorized the program within his first year in office.
Obama was devoted to cyber-“defense” to protect critical infrastructure in the US—which actually meant he was committed to offensive operations aimed at paralyzing other countries’ critical infrastructure. One can never escape the American international modus operandi of inversion and projection. In fact, the overwhelming majority of cyber-spending under Obama’s budget was devoted to the development of cyber-weapons for offensive purposes.
Under Obama, a whole range of new and powerful cyber-weapons were to be developed. Stuxnet was just the opening shot.
Coming Home to Roost
“the United States government has never acknowledged conducting any offensive cyber attack anywhere in the world. But thanks to Mr. Snowden, we know that in 2012 president Obama issued an executive order [Presidential Policy Directive 20] that laid out some of the conditions under which cyber weapons can be used. And interestingly, every use of a cyber weapon requires presidential sign-off”.