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Obama ordered Stuxnet cyberattack, reports say. Did it leave US vulnerable?

A New York Times report claims that President Obama used the Stuxnet cyberweapon to set back Iran's nuclear program. But experts caution that the worm could be reverse-engineered. 

By Staff writer / June 1, 2012

A worker stands at the entrance of the reactor of Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in this file photo. The facility was hit by the Stuxnet cyberweapon.

Ebrahim Norouzi/IIPA/AP/File

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Stuxnet, the world's first publicly identified cyber superweapon, was unleashed against Iran's nuclear fuel-enrichment facility as part of a joint US-Israel cybersabotage operation, according to press reports Friday citing anonymous administration officials.

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While it had long been assumed that the US and Israel were the most likely states to have organized such an attack, the implications of pinning responsibility squarely on the two states could be considerable.

The news reports, which seem to remove any fig leaf of plausible deniability, could in the near term undermine ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. It could even provide Iran with internal justification for a cyber counterstrike against the US.

In the longer run, however, it also raises questions about how a US national policy of using powerful digital weapons could impact American security. Of particular concern is the possibility that such attacks could provide a digital copy of the cyberweapon to rogue nations or that hacktivists could reverse-engineer the weapon for use against the power grid or other key US infrastructure.

"Certainly we have thought Stuxnet was very likely to be a US-Israel operation – and that assumption has now turned out to be the case," says Stewart Baker, a lawyer and former senior official at the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. "In some ways, I do feel as though we've been living in a glass house for years and now we've decided we're going to invent rocks."

In the New York Times account, the cyberweapon was developed under a program initiated by President George W. BushPresident Obama then gave the go-ahead for a cyberweapon dubbed "the bug" to be unleashed in an attempt to derail Iran's bid to make nuclear-weapons fuel. The thrust of the account was separately confirmed by administration officials in a Washington Post report Friday.

But in summer 2010, after it became clear to the White House that "the bug" had inadvertently escaped the isolated network of Iran's Natanz uranium-enrichment plant and spread to computers worldwide, top administration officials held a "tense meeting" in the White House Situation Room, the Times said.

“Should we shut this thing down?” Obama asked, according to sources. It was unclear how much the Iranians knew about the code, and there was evidence that it was still vexing the Iranians, he was told. "Mr. Obama decided that the cyberattacks should proceed," the Times reported.

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