Stuxnet, WikiLeaks, and the Cold War

by A. Jay Adler on January 17, 2011
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Everyone’s talking about an extraordinarily well report article in The New York Times this weekend that finally begins to put together the story behind the Stuxnet worm and its attack on the Iranian nuclear program. Apparently, to no one’s surprise, it was an American-Israeli coup accomplished with the probable help of Britain and Germany, including Siemens, maker of the computer controllers used in the Iranian program. According to the report, the worm hit in mid 2009, after the U.S. and Israel began working at least as early as the beginning of 2008 on methods to attack the P-1 uranium enrichment machines used by the Iranians. This clandestine American-Israeli program probably includes, more sweepingly, perhaps on the Israeli end, targeted murders so far of at least two Iranian nuclear scientists.

The consideration here is the secrecy of the clandestine program and its extraordinary success. Israelis and Americans, including Secretary of State Clinton are now speaking of the Iranian program having been set back as many as five years from the time the worm began to hit. This is longer than the best case predictions Israel had made for the very perilous armed attack so many have feared. This outcome is a good to be appreciated outside of Iran by all but the most ideologically obtuse foes of Israel and Far Left apologists for Arab autocracy and Islamic theocracy. No doubt, many Iranian opponents of the ruling regime in that country, if they have any idea of this event, are happy for it too. For all its flaws, one of the world’s leading democratic nations, and allied with it, the only democratic nation in the Mid-East, have worked together to thwart and delay the nuclear ambitions of a dangerous, terrorist supporting tyranny. And it was made possible by secrecy.

The operation was made possible by the kind of secrecy that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks would expose and undermine. One has to use some imagination – not too much – to conceive the kind of tense, clock-driven activity and espionage, including some very dangerous human spy work, that went into this operation. A book will undoubtedly be written about it – a pulse pounding film be made some day. WikiLeaks could have ruined it all had its own clock been faster.

Controllers, and the electrical regulators they run, became a focus of sanctions efforts. The trove of State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks describes urgent efforts in April 2009 to stop a shipment of Siemens controllers, contained in 111 boxes at the port of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. They were headed for Iran, one cable said, and were meant to control “uranium enrichment cascades” — the term for groups of spinning centrifuges.

Subsequent cables showed that the United Arab Emirates blocked the transfer of the Siemens computers across the Strait of Hormuz to Bandar Abbas, a major Iranian port.

Only months later, in June, Stuxnet began to pop up around the globe.

WikiLeaks supporters like to point out the numbers of “illegal” or otherwise questionable U.S. acts they claim have been exposed by the leaked cables. These U.S. critics are of a kind who are quick to call “illegal” what they choose to deem so, when there are counter-arguments to be made, sometimes far superior arguments. Nonetheless, there are processes – torturously slow, to be sure – by which such claims can be pursued. The solicitation of stolen secret government documents is not a democratic or legal process for which anyone can claim a coherent democratic defense.

Of course, secrecy can be a tool for hiding government misdeeds and illegal acts. The threats we face from Iran today are a direct consequence extended over time of the U.S. and British directed 1953 coup against Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The kind of mistrust and enmity so easily stoked against the U.S. in Latin America is the consequence of such secrecy, too. Just this past semester a student of mine from Guatemala, in a class focused on Indigenous issues around the world, wrote an exceptional undergraduate paper on the long terms effects on the Mayan population there of the thirty-six year civil war that was, again, a direct consequence of the 1954 CIA directed overthrow of the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Sometimes in war even the better side will commit atrocities, and in the geopolitical antagonism that was the Cold War such anti-democratic acts as were committed in Iran and Guatemala were forms of political atrocity that led to the real thing. They were enabled by secrecy, but so was victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Engima Machine

One truth is that some supporters of WikiLeaks are ambivalent supporters of that Western victory in the Cold War. Others are philosophically simplistic critics of U.S. wrongs seeking their correction not through intellectually coherent practice, but in an angry, puerile impulse to “tear the whole thing down.” The more complex truth – and secrecy is among the most complex of ideas – is that in political life secrecy in itself neither a good nor an ill, but only a tool, a method, a means. When the means are morally neutral, it is indeed the end that justifies them. Stuxnet tells us so.

AJA

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