“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,”
Obama Ordered Devastating Cyberattacks Against Iran

In June of 2010, a security firm in Belarus called VirusBlokAda reported the first known citing of what we know now as Stuxnet. It was, simply put, the most advanced malware of all time. Its target? Iran. Its origin? Unknown. Until now.

The New York Times is reporting today that the source of the worm (so advanced some thought it was alien weapon) was us. And it wasn’t the first.

Let the Games Begin

There are wars that we know about, like the one in Afghanistan. And there are the ones we suspect, like the special forces operations taking part throughout the world. But it turns out there’s another war, an invisible one, with programmers wielding code as vigorously as soldiers do their M16s. It’s called operation Olympic Games, and it’s been waged against Iran for nearly a decade.

Olympic Games began under the Bush administration, in 2006, reports the NYT. That’s when a widely reported tour of Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant made White House officials anxious enough to consider military action. Stop uranium enrichment at all cost, was the part line. But bombs are messy, and lead to more and bigger bombs; not ideal for a region that’s already unstable.

An alternative presented itself:

The goal was to gain access to the Natanz plant’s industrial computer controls. That required leaping the electronic moat that cut the Natanz plant off from the Internet - called the air gap, because it physically separates the facility from the outside world. The computer code would invade the specialized computers that command the centrifuges.

A blockade, then, not of supplies but of information. Lines of code infiltrating high command positions. This is how we fight now.

A Human Element

The new weapon took time and resources to develop. US called on help from Israel (see the NYT for the full, fascinating story of the collaboration). It resurrected some old P-1 centrifuges it had confiscated when Qaddafi gave up his nuclear ambitions, testing the delicate Stuxnet worm on its outdated technology to make sure that it worked. And then it headed straight for the real thing.

While Stuxnet may not have been discovered until 2010, but it was first deployed in 2008, when Iran found that its centrifuges began “spinning out of control.” But how did it get there in the first place? Good old fashioned spies.

It’s long been known that the US has people on the ground, undercover, in Iran; a dozen weresadly captured last year. Armed with thumb drives, they pumped Natanz’s belly full of Stuxnet. It would wreak havoc with Iran’s nuclear ambition for years.

Blown Cover

Throughout the last several years, the Obama administration has accelerated the attacks, ordering both more frequency and efficacy. As the NYT reports, it could be argued that what gave Stuxnet away is that it was too effective. Like King Kong throwing off its shackles in the theater and rampaging through Manhattan, Stuxnet escaped Natanz and began replicating itself. It seems that someone got a little overzealous:

"We think there was a modification done by the Israelis," one of the briefers told the president, "and we don’t know if we were part of that activity."

Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” he said. “They went too far.”

And so the plug was pulled.

The Battle Is Not the War

According to the NYT, while Stuxnet may be over, Olympic Games proceeds apace. We’ve used cyberweapons in other countries, and will continue to do so. Even now, massive spyware called Flame is hitting Iran—although it appears to predate the Bush initiative, and can’t be traced back to the US.

It’s not a one-sided fight, either. China has been notorious for engaging in cyber warfare with the US and others. And even before this report, it’s been widely assumed that Stuxnet was America’s baby. Iran will surely attempt to respond in kind. And the barrier to entry is so low—anyone can attack anyone, from anywhere, at any time—that we could well face threats from areas we’d never bothered to consider harmful.

Go read the full story at the NYT. It’s a thrilling, in-depth look at our invisible war. And a blueprint, perhaps, for how we’ll fight—and be fought—for decades to come. [NYT]

Photo credit: AP



North Korea’s Big Bad Missile Launch Begins (Updated)

North Korea is being extra naughty this week: the piss-broke dictatorship is about to launch a giant rocket for scientific purposes. Translation: a giant F U to the rest of the world, and a thermonuclear threat.

The country announced last month that it’d break its promise not to launch any large rockets by, well, launching a large rocket. And its five-day launch window opens right now.

We probably won’t have long to wait, though. The North is reportedly already fueling up its three-stage Unha-3 rocket. Which means showtime could be very soon. What does this mean? And how scared should you be?

Read Article Here:

China, between a rocket and a hard place on North Korea

BEIJING (Reuters) - A joke circulating among officials in Beijingpretty much underlines the bind China is in over North Korea's plans to send a satellite into space.

North Korea’s young ruler Kim Jong-un phones a Chinese leader to tell him about timing of the planned rocket launch. “When will it be?” asks the Chinese leader.

Kim replies: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four…”

Beijing has received more notice than that - the launch is likely later this week - but a source close to China’s top leadership and a Western diplomat have both said it nevertheless has little influence over Pyongyang and is in no position to block the event.

The United States, which has said the launch will give the unpredictable state an opportunity to test ballistic missile technology, wants Beijing to use its influence to halt the lift-off.

"China has pressured North Korea to abandon (the launch) because it adds new variables and gives the United States an excuse to return to Asia," the source with ties to the leadership told Reuters, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions.

"China does not want to see this because Beijing and Shanghai are within range" of North Korean ballistic missiles, he said, referring to China’s political and financial capitals and providing further evidence that Beijing does not have fully warm and friendly ties with its unpredictable neighbor.

Critics however are convinced China, the main provider of food and energy aid to its isolated neighbor, could do more to force North Korea to scrap the launch.

Last month U.S. President Barack Obama urged China to use its influence over North Korea instead of “turning a blind eye”, and warned of tighter sanctions if the reclusive state presses ahead with the launch.

On Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there were signs that North Korea may also be preparing for a nuclear test, its third.

"We believe in particular that China joins us in its interest in seeing a denuclearized Korean peninsula, and we are continuing to encourage China in particular to act more effectively in that interest" she said.

Nuland told reporters a third North Korean nuclear test “would be equally bad if not worse” than the rocket launch.

It would be in the interests of both China and North Korea at this juncture to say Beijing has little influence over Pyongyang.

But the countries have maintained warm relations despite tensions in recent years. Before his death last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited China four times between May 2010 and August 2011. His son Kim Jong-un, who is now leader of the autocratic state, is believed to have accompanied him on at least one of this trips.

The rocket that North Korea has readied for launch from a forested valley in its remote northwest will showcase its ability to fire a missile capable of hitting the continental United States.

Pyongyang insists the weather satellite launch will be a milestone to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, and backing down now would be seen as sign of weakness at home. Nonetheless, Washington and Seoul suspect it is a ballistic missiletest.

"They can’t launch the thing without using ballistic missile technology which is precluded by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874," said Nuland, the U.S. spokeswoman. "So regardless of what they say about it, it’s still a violation."

But sending rockets skyward to mark momentous events is a tradition shared by the Communist leaders of both China and North Korea. Having launched satellites in 1982 and 1987 to mark the death anniversary of Mao Zedong and in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007 to coincide with Communist Party congresses, China is finding it difficult to convince North Korea to back down.


Flights rerouted to avoid N Korea rocket

Tokyo - Asian airlines said they will divert planes from the intended flight path of North Korea’s rocket as shipping in the area was warned on Tuesday to beware of falling debris.

Japan’s two largest carriers, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways said they will alter the route of flights between Tokyo and Southeast Asian cities including Manila, Jakarta and Singapore during the planned rocket launch window.

Philippine Airlines said it “plans to reroute some of its flights in view of the possible effects on a portion of Philippine territory of the satellite launch of North Korea within the month.”

The moves came as Philippine air control authorities declared a no fly zone in airspace where North Korea’s rocket was projected to pass, a Japanese transport ministry official told AFP.

"The Japanese side are also preparing to issue a ‘notice to airmen’ that warns them not to enter a no fly zone set by the Philippine authorities," he said.

"These no fly zone-related notices should apply to all international carriers," he added.

The re-routing comes as North Korea ramps up its preparations for what it says is a peaceful satellite launch, but what Japan and its Western allies claim is a disguised missile test.

Pyongyang insists the launch, which is planned for some time between April 12 and 16 to mark the centenary of the birth of late founding president Kim Il-Sung, is its right.

The first stage 

But countries around the globe have condemned the plan, which they say will contravene the UN resolutions.

South Korea has vowed to shoot down the rocket if it strays into its territory. Japan has said it may do likewise.

The South’s military plans to deploy destroyers armed with missiles to the Yellow Sea to track the rocket.

The transport ministry in Seoul said it would provide up-to-date information to shipping on the rocket launch.

All 15 maritime traffic control centres will be placed on alert from Wednesday, issuing navigation warnings every two hours to protect vessels operating in the Yellow Sea, it said.

The first stage of the rocket is expected to fall in waters 170km west of Gunsan in the southwest of South Korea, it said.

Japan’s coast guard on Tuesday began issuing warnings to ships in the area to be on the lookout for falling debris from the rocket.

"We are announcing by radio the expected time and places where falling objects could appear," coast guard spokesman Yoshiyuki Terakado said.

Coast guard officials will issue the warning every day in Japanese and English until the launch is confirmed, he said.

Naval forces 

In the Philippines, commercial fishing vessels have been told to remain in port during the launch window.

Office of Civil Defence chief Benito Ramos said evacuation plans had also been put in place in case debris fell on the Philippines’ island of Luzon.

"Our concern is that in a worst case scenario the trajectory [of the rocket] deviates by even a few degrees, it could jettison its booster over mainland Luzon and there could be a lot of people affected," he said.

The Philippine navy has deployed ships northeast of Luzon.

Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said: “I don’t think there is anyone who can exactly say where the rocket [debris] will land, so we are working in the context of estimates. Our naval forces have already been given heads up to be on alert.”

"As we speak now, plans are being put in place relative to contingencies that could happen. The ships are going to be there in case there is a need for assistance just in case vessels get hit," he said.

Nuclear reactors approved for U.S. construction for the first time since 1978

Fukushima may still be reeling from last year’s nuclear disaster, but a global interest in nuclear power looks to be on the up and up — even here in the U.S.

Yesterday, for the first time in over 30 years, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the nod on the construction of two brand new nuclear reactors at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle. The approval has been dubbed “the strongest signal yet" that the thirty-year hiatus on nuclear plant construction may finally be coming to an end. Could this be the beginning of a renaissance in nuclear energy production?

Probably not… at least not for now (or, rather, at least not here in the States). In fact, the reactors that were approved yesterday — which, if all goes according to plan, should both be finished by 2017 — are liable to be the last ones built in the U.S. until some time after 2020.Scott Peterson, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, prefers not to call it a “nuclear renaissance,” but rather a “first wave” for new reactors; in other words: it will be a while before it becomes clear whether or not the NRC’s approval signals a true revival to the nuclear industry.

The new reactor designs are the first to incorporate passive safety features (i.e. features that require little-to-no human intervention, and do not depend on electricity to operate). Many of these features have been implemented in direct response to “lessons learned” from Fukushima, like water that is automatically released to cool the reactor core in the event of a meltdown.

While there’s definitely a strong anti-nuclear voice (at least nine national, state and regional groups intend to challenge the approval in federal court), only one out of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who voted to give the go ahead on the reactors’ construction was concerned enough over safety to vote against the approval.

Truth be told, nuclear’s biggest challenges may be economic ones. Demand for electricity in the U.S. has leveled out in recent years, and prices on natural gas — which is also used to generate electricity — are currently low, making natural gas-burning turbines a more affordable option than nuclear power plants.

Read more on Scientific American and NPR.

Top image shows one of the new reactor vessel bottom heads being assembled. Photo by Southern Co.