Document Reveals Growth of Cyberwarfare Between the U.S. and Iran

disclosed National Security
Agency document illustrates
the striking acceleration of
the use of cyberweapons by
the United States and Iran
against each other, both for
spying and sabotage, even as
Secretary of State John Kerry
and his Iranian counterpart
met in Geneva to try to break
a stalemate in the talks over
Iran’s disputed nuclear
The document, which was
written in April 2013 for Gen.
Keith B. Alexander, then the
director of the National
Security Agency, described
how Iranian officials had
discovered new evidence the
year before that the United
States was preparing
computer surveillance or
cyberattacks on their
It detailed how the United
States and Britain had
worked together to contain
the damage from “Iran’s
discovery of computer
network exploitation tools” —
the building blocks of
cyberweapons. That was
more than two years after
the Stuxnet worm attack by
the United States and Israel
severely damaged the
computer networks at
Tehran’s nuclear enrichment
The document, which was
first reported this month by
The Intercept, an online
publication that grew out of
the disclosures by Edward J.
Snowden, the former N.S.A.
contractor, did not describe
the targets. But for the first
time, the surveillance agency
acknowledged that its attacks
on Iran’s nuclear
infrastructure, a George W.
Bush administration
program, kicked off the cycle
of retaliation and escalation
that has come to mark the
computer competition
between the United States
and Iran.
The document suggested that
even while the high-stakes
nuclear negotiations played
out in Europe, day-to-day
hostilities between the United
States and Iran had moved
decisively into cyberspace.
“The potential cost of using
nuclear weapons was so high
that no one felt they could
afford to use them,” said
David J. Rothkopf, the author
of “National Insecurity,” a
new study of strategic
decisions made by several
American administrations.
But the cost of using
cyberweapons is seemingly
so low, Mr. Rothkopf said,
that “we seem to feel we can’t
afford not to use them” and
that “many may feel they
can’t afford ever to stop.”
The N.S.A.’s new director,
Adm. Michael S. Rogers, has
declared that his first task is
to deter attacks by making it
costly for countries like
Russia, China and Iran to
wage cyberwar. But a former
senior intelligence official
who looked at the two-page
document prepared for
General Alexander after it
was published 10 days ago
said it provided “more
evidence of how far behind
we are in figuring out how to
deter attacks, and how to
retaliate when we figured out
who was behind them.”
The document declares that
American intercepts of voice
or computer communications
showed that three waves of
attacks against American
banks that began in August
2012 were launched by Iran
“in retaliation to Western
activities against Iran’s
nuclear sector,” and added
that “senior officials in the
Iranian government are
aware of these attacks.”
The main targets were the
websites of Bank of America
and JPMorgan Chase. By 2015
standards, those were
relatively unsophisticated
“denial of service” strikes
that flooded the banks with
data, so overloading them it
was impossible for a time for
customers to access their
accounts. American officials
— with the exception of then-
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
of Connecticut, who was the
chairman of the Senate
Homeland Security
committee — never publicly
identified Iran as the culprit,
though it was widely
reported as the prime
More recently, the Obama
administration, in an effort to
deter attacks, has grown less
reticent about naming
countries that the
administration believes are
responsible for such attacks.
In May, five members of the
Chinese People’s Liberation
Army were indicted on a
charge of stealing intellectual
property from American
companies. And in December,
President Obama said he had
evidence that North Korea’s
leadership was behind an
attack on Sony Pictures
Entertainment, though he did
not provide details. The New
York Times later reported
that the N.S.A. had gathered
the evidence from implants
that it had placed in North
Korean computers beginning
in 2010.
But just as American officials
woke up to North Korea’s
abilities last year, the newly
disclosed document makes
clear that by early 2012,
American officials were
increasingly alarmed by the
successes of Iran’s new
The background briefing for
General Alexander, who is
now running his own
cyberdefense firm, said flatly
that Iran was responsible for
the “destructive cyberattack
against Saudi Aramco in
August 2012, during which
data was destroyed on tens of
thousands of computers,” an
attack that appeared to pave
the way for a technically
similar strike on Sony last
year. The N.S.A. document
suggests that the attack on
Saudi Aramco was in
response to “a similar
cyberattack” against Iran’s oil
industry earlier that year; it
did not indicate who
launched that attack.
The document refers to a
major program at the N.S.A.
to prepare for traditional or
cyberwar “contingencies”
with Iran, including a
“planned battle rhythm” that
would allow it to feed data to
the White House and the
military’s commands. That is
fairly standard planning, but
the document underscored
that the plans depended on
“both our access and Iran’s
capabilities,” meaning that
there is a constant
reassessment of how deeply
the N.S.A. and its military
partner, United States Cyber
Command, have penetrated
Iranian systems.
The core of the document
urges General Alexander to
tell his counterpart at the
Government Communications
Headquarters that the two
organizations have “worked
multiple high-priority
surges” against Tehran.
GCHQ, as it is known, is the
British intelligence agency
that is famous for breaking
Germany’s Enigma codes,
recently portrayed in the
movie “The Imitation Game.”
But it hints at discord. GCHQ
wanted to set up “a trilateral
arrangement to prosecute
the Iranian target,” the
memo said. But the United
States “has been opposed to
such a blanket arrangement,”
the document said, and hints
that both the N.S.A. and
GCHQ “have agreed to
continue to share
information gleaned from the
respective bilateral
relationships” with Israel’s
Unit 8200, also known as the
Israeli Sigint National Unit.
“Sigint” stands for “signals
The relationship between the
N.S.A. and its Israeli
counterpart has always been
testy. Both American and
Israeli intelligence agencies
spy on each other, even while
working together. The joint
development of Olympic
Games was their proudest
moment of collaboration, but
it was also marked by
disagreements about how,
and how vigorously, to press
cyberattacks on Iran.