The New York Times revealed today in a major news article that the well-known Stuxnet malware attack on the Iranian nuclear program was, in fact, an American operation. Most experts had felt that was the most logical conclusion, but it had never been confirmed. The Times report is based on interviews with anonymous sources “because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day,” reporter David Sanger wrote. While this is an acknowledgement of U.S. prowess in cyberwarfare, the revelation is an inexcusable breach of security that seems to be a part of a disturbing trend.
One has to ask: Why is the Obama Administration choosing to continue revealing operational information that is normally not released? This includes the specific units that conducted the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, information from the bin Laden compound, classified information on the bin Laden raid, details of drone operations, and now secrets about cyberwarfare. There is NO good operational reason for doing this. The only “logical” reason is a tight race for presidency. Does this mean that the closer that we get to the election, the more operational secrets will be given away?
The larger reality is that these leaks, designed to highlight the President’s credentials as a tough leader, are trying to mask the fact that Obama has virtually nothing to show on key national security issues. Progress in the big and important issues, such as relations with China and Russia, broadly fending off Iranian nuclear development, and keeping the rogue regime in North Korea inside its box, have all proven elusive for this Administration.
When progress is absent, a desperate Administration may use leaks, even if it harms national security. The Times reports that Obama “repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons…could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.” So either the Administration completely disregarded its prior national security concerns, or it has no control over sensitive information. Either way, it doesn’t look good.
It is difficult to assess how damaging the release of this kind of operational information can really be. At the very least, letting your enemies know what you know is unwise and makes their decision making simpler. Though it may be difficult to assess how enemies can exploit these revelations, lives may be on the line, which underscores the importance of placing national interests above electoral politics.
All of this is occurring while the U.S. military is facing a mandated $500 billion in cuts through the Budget Control Act sequestration process. The President and the Senate majority leader have been comfortable with letting the cuts go into effect. So it is deeply troubling at a time when huge cuts to national security are on the table that the Administration seems content to give away security advantages.
It is great news that the U.S. cyber forces can develop, deploy, and control as sophisticated a product as Stuxnet. It was, overall, a superb operation that had its intended effect. It is so unfortunate that officials felt compelled to boast about it in the media. It was an unprofessional political decision that has compromised the highly professional accomplishments of our security forces.