Obama’s Flame Wars

At least two major computer worms have attacked Iran’s nuclear program: Stuxnet and Flame. It’s now clear the United States played a major role in both.

Earlier this month, a White House leak to the New York Times’ David Sanger confirmed that the Obama Administration was behind Stuxnet, perhaps with some help from Israel. It initially seemed possible that Flame was mainly Israel’s work, but researchers at a Russian computer-security firm found shared code indicating that whoever created it had worked closely with whoever created Stuxnet. (And that, though its existence was publicized only last month, Flame in fact preceded Stuxnet,.)

Today the Washington Post connected the dots, citing unnamed “Western officials with knowledge of the effort” who confirmed that Flame was a joint project. “The U.S.-Israeli collaboration was intended to slow Iran’s nuclear program, reduce the pressure for a conventional military attack and extend the timetable for diplomacy and sanctions,” the Post reported.

Stuxnet sabotaged Iran’s nuclear facilities directly, while Flame focused on stealing Iranian officials’ information. It came to light in May when, according to the Post’s sources, Israel deployed the code without U.S. permission in an attack on Iran’s oil industry. U.S. officials have previously denied that Flame was part of its cyberwar program, code-named Olympic Games, but the Post story says it was.

Taken together, the revelations make it clear that the United States considers cyberwar an increasingly central tool in its foreign policy arsenal. We knew that Stuxnet started under Bush, and if Flame is even older, it reinforces the notion that this is a policy that spans the Bush and Obama presidencies.

That said, this Flame revelation meshes perfectly with Obama’s broader foreign policy strategy of using high-tech weapons to harass and kill enemies on the cheap, and without resorting to conventional war (see: drones in Yemen and Somalia). Is this what U.S. foreign policy will look like in an age of austerity?

If the answer is yes, the picture is a little different from the one sketched by foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum in 2010’s The Frugal Superpower. In that book, Mandelbaum argued that the United States’ long-term budget straits would limit its range of global operations. But if Obama and his successors find a way to keep the United States two steps ahead of the rest of the world in drone and cyberwar capabilities, smaller defense budgets won’t necessarily mean retrenchment. For better or worse, the country will be able to meddle in others’ affairs as much as ever.

Further reading: Evgeny Morozov on how cyberweapons could promote peace, Fred Kaplan on why the U.S. can’t win a cyberwar, and Jeffrey Carr on why ‘cyberwar’ is so hard to define.