All at once, top Israeli officials have found their tongues about cyber warfare for the first time – in sharp contrast to their total silence over the Stuxnet malworm assault on Iran two years ago.
The first article of its kind to appear on the official Israel Defense Forces website on June 3 stated clearly: “ …the essence of cyber warfare is putting together instructions that define the military’s operational methods in cyber space and clarify its goals in facing potential enemies.
“Cyber space is to be handled like other battlefields… The IDF has been engaged in cyber activity consistently and relentlessly, gathering intelligence and defending its own cyber space. Additionally if necessary, cyber space will be used to execute attacks and intelligence operations.
“There are many diverse, operational cyber warfare goals, including thwarting and disrupting enemy projects that attempt to limit operational freedom of both the IDF and the State of Israel, as well as incorporating cyber warfare activity in completing objectives at all fronts and in every kind of conflict. Moreover, it will be used to maintain Israel’s quality and advantage over its enemies and prevent their growth and military capabilities, while limiting their operation in this field.”
Barak: Israel has defensive and offensive cyber capabilities
Four days later on Wednesday, June 6, Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly acknowledged that Israel is developing both offensive and defense cyber capabilities, in a rare admission at a cyber security conference in Tel Aviv.
“We need to switch to a proactive system in which we don’t just react to attacks.” He said adding that “both defensive and offensive aspects are existent” in Israeli efforts, although the former was “the more difficult and more important one”.
Israel is working to become a “world leader in cyber capabilities – both in the military sense and the civil sector.”
The defense minister said that, just as the enemy developed its rocket capabilities, “cyber warfare brings asymmetrical conflict to previously unknown levels. A lone hacker can cause tremendous damage to financial or national systems. Cyber warfare can trigger the Butterfly Effect – i.e., knock out a leading stock market database.” The free world is under threat from terror organizations, rogue countries and criminal organizations, but system-wide response tools have yet to be developed both nationally and through global cooperation.”
Israel tires of its image as cyber bully
This sudden spurt of Israeli garrulity on its cyber capabilities was prompted by the disclosure of a malworm called Flame, automatically linked to Israel and said to penetrate computer systems for extracting intelligence data.
Ever since Stuxnet attacked Iran’s uranium enrichment computers, every cyber attack has been attributed to Israel. Until now, Israel avoided responding to such claims because the attendant publicity served as a useful deterrent to its enemies. But the harm of its spreading image as cyber bully on the Middle East block has begun to outweigh any tactical benefits.
The unfounded Flame aspersion was a case in point; Israel is getting tired of being blamed for turning the world into a cyber battlefield for digital worms and viruses.
Its leaders were finally spurred to level on Israel’s cyber warfare capabilities, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report, by the New York Times report of June 1 on US-Israeli collaboration in running a cyber campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, and a book claiming President Barack Obama personally ordered the Stuxnet computer virus attack in 2010.
The report broke no new ground. In 2011, the US media carried stories in greater detail about Stuxnet experiments carried out by US and Israel cyber experts at Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona to assess its ability to damage centrifuge laboratories.
Disinformation campaign suspected to wrong-foot Israel
But Israel was made suspicious by the way the latest report presented Obama as a sort of cyber hero. Although it was admitted that the war was first launched by his predecessor the Bush administration, the new report was a transparent White House bid to polish the US president’s image. Republican Senator John McCain leveled this very accusation against Obama.
But there was more: Vice President Joe Biden’s remark in 2010 that the Israelis “went too far” on Stuxnet came to mind and caused Israel officials to scent another disinformation campaign at their expense. Then as now, the White House claimed the successes of the cyber war campaign, while presenting Israel as indiscreet and reckless. Today, Obama is depicted as holding a hell-bent Israel back from attacking Iran while, at the same time, claiming the credit for a successful clandestine cyber war on Iran by means of close US-Israeli collaboration.
It is further suspected in some Israeli circles that the article was designed to bolster former Mossad chief Meir Dagan in his campaign at the head of a group of disaffected Israeli retired officials against an Israeli attack on Iran and his demand to rely on the US for reining in Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
The anger this campaign aroused among Israel’s current powers-that-be was glimpsed in the briefing Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Col. Benny Gantz gave Tuesday, June 5 to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense committee.
The endless arguments among former security insiders over whether or not Israel should attack Iran were beside the point, the general said. The Iran situation and where it was heading were fast-moving and dynamic [processes] and very few people knew what was there [to be dealt with] and what wasn’t, and what it was possible and what impossible to do…. Some people used to know what was going on [in Iran’s nuclear program and IDF plans of operation], but now they are out of it,” Gantz stressed.
Iran’s cyber capabilities have also moved on
Israel’s defense leaders suggest the cyber issue too has moved on since the Stuxnet attack. They suggest it is a mistake to present the malworm today as having held up Iran’s nuclear program for eighteen months and destroyed a thousand centrifuges.
“The Iranians – and the Chinese and North Korean cyber warfare experts working with them – know exactly how much damage the virus caused and how many centrifuges exploded and went up in flames as a result of the computer worm attack,” a senior Israeli cyber warfare official told DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
“It is unnecessary to overstate the Stuxnet effect,” he said. The damage was real but not enough to halt Iran’s nuclear program or even stunt its development.
Israeli cyber experts advise more caution and less bluster when discussing cyber warfare against Iran. Neither the US nor Israeli intelligence services command a complete picture of the state of cyber play in Iran or the expertise Iran has achieved with the help of Chinese cyber warfare specialists.
It is certain that the Iranians have made important advances in this field of warfare, although their competence can be determined only when they operate on their own without their Chinese mentors.