President Barack Obama secretly ordered a sophisticated wave of cyberattacks against Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities, according to the New York Times.
Obama decided to accelerate the program -- started under President George W. Bush in 2006 and codenamed "Olympic Games" -- which included the Stuxnet virus that wrecked Iranian centrifuges at its Natanz plant, setting the country's nuclear program back.
American officials revealed for the first time that Stuxnet was developed by the United States and Israel.
When Stuxnet became public in 2010 after a programming error allowed it to "escape" Natanz, Obama and his team gathered to consider whether the project had become fatally compromised:
“Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked, according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.
Told it was unclear how much the Iranians knew about the code, and offered evidence that it was still causing havoc, Mr. Obama decided that the cyberattacks should proceed. In the following weeks, the Natanz plant was hit by a newer version of the computer worm, and then another after that. The last of that series of attacks, a few weeks after Stuxnet was detected around the world, temporarily took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time to purify uranium.
The revelations come amid reports of a new computer virus deployed against Iran, dubbed "Flame." Flame appears to be at least five years old, and officials said was not part of Olympic Games, though declined to say whether the U.S. was responsible for the attack.
According to the Times, Obama was "acutely aware" that Olympic Games was pushing the U.S. into new territory and "repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons...could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks."
“We discussed the irony, more than once,” one of his aides said. Another said that the administration was resistant to developing a “grand theory for a weapon whose possibilities they were still discovering.” Yet Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.
If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work. Israel could carry out a conventional military attack, prompting a conflict that could spread throughout the region.
Still, Obama reportedly impressed upon aides the risks in using cyberweapons:
In fact, no country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.
The Times piece was adapted from correspondent David Sanger's book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power," to be published Tuesday. Read the full article here.