U.S., Israel appear to confirm role in Stuxnet: NYT

Anonymous sources, coy non-denials, smugness all around

The militaries of the U.S. and Israel have spent almost two years working in secret labs in the Negev desert looking for ways to slow or derail Iran's effort to develop nuclear weapons, according to a story published Saturday in the New York Times.

One part of that effort, the Times story said, was the dissection and test the Stuxnet worm, which Iranian government officials charge was modified and weaponized by the U.S. and Israel in an effort to destroy Iran's growing nuclear capabilities.

If either the U.S. or Israel had worked on Stuxnet, it would have been in labs like those in the Dimona complex, which houses Israel's own nuclear-weapons program, the story said.

Part of the intelligence effort is the operation of centrifuges almost identical to those run at Iran's primary nuclear facility, which Iran's government has acknowledged took some real damage from Stuxnet.

The worm is designed to identify and attack the type of SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) industrial-control software that runs the centrifuges used to separate and concentrate nuclear materials, but also run dams, electrical facilities, factories and other industrial systems.

More than 60,000 Windows-based systems were reportedly compromised by Stuxnet, but the damage to its nuclear-development systems wasn't irreparable.

Stuxnet managed to spoil some of the process by changing the speed at which the centrifuges rotate but didn't destroy the control systems or the centrifuges themselves.

Following the worm, a bomb attack killed one Iranian nuclear scientist and wounded another, the second such incident in two years.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said during a recent trip to Israel that she believed the Iranian effort had been set back by several years.

Neither Americans nor Israelis would address any role in developing or using the worm.

...But Israeli officials grin widely when asked about its effects. Mr. Obama’s chief strategist for combating weapons of mass destruction, Gary Samore, sidestepped a Stuxnet question at a recent conference about Iran, but added with a smile: “I’m glad to hear they are having troubles with their centrifuge machines, and the U.S. and its allies are doing everything we can to make it more complicated.”

In recent days, American officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity have said in interviews that they believe Iran’s setbacks have been underreported. That may explain why Mrs. Clinton provided her public assessment while traveling in the Middle East last week.

By the accounts of a number of computer scientists, nuclear enrichment experts and former officials, the covert race to create Stuxnet was a joint project between the Americans and the Israelis, with some help, knowing or unknowing, from the Germans and the British.

All the confirming information in the story was anonymous, so it's still not possible to confirm independently.

This may be as close to an overt admission we'll get until long after the whole issue of Iran and nukes is moot, one way or the other.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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