Israel spy chief: Cyberwar not as ugly as the real thing

Still no confirmation of any role in Stuxnet attack on Iran

Cyberwar is not a good thing, but it's a lot better than the alternative, according to the Israeli cabinet minister who is responsible for both the country's intelligence and nuclear-energy programs.

Israeli Deputy PM Dan Meridor avoided questions about any possible Israeli role in distribution of the Stuxnet worm, which Iranian officials charge was a purposeful effort by Israel and the West to sabotage its nuclear development efforts.

He did say cyber-war tactics, or even efforts to wage all-out cyberwar using tools like the Stuxnet worm is less "ugly" than real war, especially when that ugliness shows up online and in the news every day.

"People see this and can't take it," he said during a talk at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank dedicated to promoting Israel's strategic positions in global media and politics.

"Because it is difficult, one looks for other ways. One of those other ways is the intelligence community of all the world trying to do things that don't look that ugly, don't kill people."

Meridor was appointed by right-of-center Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but has run for the Israeli Knesset on policies much farther to the left than Netanyahu's tough-minded interpretation of "peace for peace, " the core principal of Netanyahu's Likud party that calls for a strong defense against aggression, but not for instigating a fight when it can be avoided.

Netanyahu's government, along with the U.S., Great Britain and most of the U.N. has opposed Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons as a specific threat to Israel and destabilizing factor for the whole Middle East.

Israeli officials have hinted at an extensive cyberwar development program and endorsed the idea that it could do enough damage to deter potential enemies or damage their weapons, military preparations or even cause major disasters with online attacks at sites such as Iran's Bushehr nuclear energy facility, which was damaged in the Stuxnet attack.

Attacks of any kind invite reprisals, which must be defended against, and the potential for even greater virtual violence, but so does real war, real deterrence and real reprisals.

Given the horror of real war and comparatively low number of people who die from online attacks, not to mention the potential for smaller countries such as Israel to hold their own on the world stage, cyberwar is not the worst option available, Meridor said.

Iran responded to the Stuxnet attack – and to the assassination of one of its top nuclear scientists – by pointing the finger at Israel and the U.S. and by expanding the portion of its youth militia movement dedicated to cyberwar.

Neither the U.S. nor Israel have confirmed any role in Stuxnet, though some have hinted off the record that both may have been involved.

Israeli officials admitted testing Stuxnet, even before the attack on Iran, but deny on the record having had anything to do with the attack itself.

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

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