We may never know the entire fascinating story of Stuxnet, the first cyberwarfare worm used for both sabotage and espionage on Iran’s nuclear program. But every once in a while another snippet of intriguing info seeps out to add details to spy story that would excite even Robert Ludlum.
The story actually begins in 2003, when Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi under great international pressure agreed to surrender his nuclear weapons development program in return for a promise to leave him alone.
His equipment happened to be the same as Iran’s religious regime that was pursuing its own threatening weapons of mass destruction development. Someone — the CIA and Israel’s Mossad have nothing to say about it — reverse-engineered the equipment.
They developed ingenious malware that could infect Iran’s nuclear computer systems without being detected. It could copy files, even from active computer screens, and store them for later transmission. It could also burrow silently through the entire system’s inner electronic workings.
The targets were the thousands of coordinated centrifuges at Natanz used in the delicate, intricate process of spinning uranium gas to separate isotopes for use in nuclear fuel and weapons.
The virus, later named Stuxnet (a combination of letters from key software words), sought out controls for the centrifuges, which spin at precise supersonic speeds. One by one, it opened their valves and let internal pressures rise sending the centrifuges spinning out of control and destroying themselves.
Here’s a clever part: Stuxnet was also built to silence the system’s alarms and to hide its own electronic tracks.
So, technicians in their little white coats sat in control rooms and conscientiously monitored gauges, all the dials reading Normal were lying to their faces.
Centrifuges were flying out of control and destroying themselves for more than a year and no one could figure out what was happening.
Stuxnet was not designed to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program, just delay it, allowing more time for sanctions and diplomacy to work. Which hasn’t happened yet, but back to the Stuxnet story.
The key question though was how to get Stuxnet into Iran’s nuclear computer system, which was isolated from outside connections. Now, we think we know.
According to Kim Zetter and Huib Modderkolk on Yahoo News, it was thanks to Dutch intelligence at the CIA’s request in 2004. It took three years of careful work, but its agents somehow recruited an engineer.
(This speaks to the need for allies who trust us, a core belief of James Mattis, who resigned as Defense Secretary when he felt President Trump was betraying allies with his sudden Syrian troop pullout last year.)
Working for a front company allegedly doing contract work for Iran, the Dutch mole smuggled an infected thumb drive into the Natanz facility, popped it into a USB port. Et voila!
Back for a minute to Gaddafi and the promise to leave him alone if he gave up dreams of a nuclear weapon. Eight years after that promise, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama joined with European allies to bomb him out of power. A mob executed Gaddafi.
This blatant betrayal by Western diplomats might be on the mind of North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un, when Trump says the U.S. just wants him to give up his nuclear program and is not seeking regime change in Pyongyang.