Flame and Stuxnet show Obama's commitment to Chinese cyberwar
Computer viruses are just the tip of the iceberg as the US goes all out to combat threat from China
LAST WEEK, the US administration claimed to have killed the charismatic al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi in a drone strike in north Pakistan. He was probably the most significant leader of the terrorist group targeted this way in the region.
It must be remembered that the US has claimed to have killed al-Libi in a similar attack before. So far there has been no confirmation from al-Qaeda on the ground or its affiliates.
Al-Libi has been seen as a particularly effective political and spiritual leader, as well as field commander, and of far greater importance to his followers than Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over the political leadership after Osama bin Laden was killed by US Seals in his Pakistan compound last year and is seen mainly as a figurehead.
But the attack on al-Libi is significant for another reason: it coincides with revelations about how much President Obama is committed to this style of operation – and that his use of drone strikes has been far more profligate than had been suspected up to now.
Obama inherited the drone campaign – used extensively in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands and in Yemen – from his predecessor, George W Bush. He also inherited another covert campaign – cyber attacks against known enemies, principally Iran.
This has been revealed in a book Confront and Conceal and a series of articles in the New York Times by David E Sanger. The author appears to have enjoyed the status of court chronicler to the Obama circle, much as Bob Woodward did in writing his series of articles and books about the regime of George W Bush.
Obama expanded the Bush drone campaigns, but it is the revelation about his commitment to cyber operations that is most startling.
According to Sanger's account - now available as an ebook, though bizarrely not arriving in print for another month - the new president Obama immediately signed up to a series of cyber initiatives and plans under the codename 'Olympic Games'.
The main target was the nuclear fuel refining programme of Iran, specifically the centrifuges at Natanz. The Stuxnet malicious software - malware - was developed with Israel and inserted physically by human agents on the ground.
At first, the Iranians were baffled. They then realised the centrifuges at Natanz were acting up, but didn’t quite know why. They started dismantling the plant – but the news revealing Stuxnet only got out by accident. A scientist plugged his laptop into the computers controlling the plant at Natanz, which allowed the Stuxnet worm a bridge into the internet, and it soon spread across the world.
There have been other worms, too. Just this spring the Iranians have reported another piece of malware called 'Flame' which has been extracting information from their scientists' computers and exporting it, presumably to eager recipients in the US, Europe and Israel.
According to Sanger, Obama was alerted to the full extent of cyber warfare when he was briefed about an attack from China on his 2008 election campaign's computers. Over the past three years he has endorsed covert exercises to determine the effect of a massive computer breakdown in providing domestic services in cities like New York.
Attacks on computers are now daily events in the US, Europe and the UK. "Cyber warfare is already with us and most of it is coming from China," a senior officer recently retired from the UK Ministry of Defence told me last week.
There was hardly a hint of this threat in the discussions at the British Army’s major annual Land Warfare conference in London last week. Most minds were focused on the huge cuts on the way – reducing the Army’s ranks by a fifth to 80,000 in the next two years, with every possibility that there will need to be further cuts after that.
Much of the reluctance to discuss the current cyber skirmishes in public is that, as David Sanger and senior British officials admit, so far there is no adequate deterrent - in theory or practice - comparable to the balance achieved in the nuclear weapons standoff during the Cold War. Today, for the cyber warriors, the dice are loaded towards offence and not defence.