When the Times’ John Markoff wrote about the Stuxnet worm and the impact that it was having on Iran, he sent me on a chase after an interesting article, The Hunt for the Kill-Switch, that described the method by which Israel may’ve “wormed” its way into Syria’s radar defense system, which allowed its aircraft to penetrate undetected and destroy the alleged reactor site.
This article in turn sent me to an even more interesting article, Israel Shows Electronic Prowess, a puff-piece for Israel’s electronic warfare industry, which described U.S. collaboration in the Israeli attack. Further, it quotes John Bolton, not a reliable source by any means but one worth paying attention to because like a clock he’s right twice a day (if that), as saying that the Syria attack might serve as a template for an attack on Iran. With the reports about Stuxnet and the damage it’s allegedly had on Iran’s nuclear reactors, this is an even more important subject than it was a week ago before much of the world knew about the worm.
The first article posits that Israel’s intelligence apparatus may’ve inserted an electronic “kill-switch” into a chip contained within the electronics of Syria’s radar defense system. The altered chip, which could’ve been added either through a component supplied by an Israeli supplier or through a component to which Israeli intelligence had access, could’ve been activated as Israeli jets streaked toward Syria, thus turning off the radars so that they would have failed to detect the intrusion of Israeli jets into Syrian airspace:
Last September, Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear installation in northeastern Syria. Among the many mysteries still surrounding that strike was the failure of a Syrian radar–supposedly state-of-the-art–to warn the Syrian military of the incoming assault. It wasn’t long before military and technology bloggers concluded that this was an incident of electronic warfare–and not just any kind.
Post after post speculated that the commercial off-the-shelf microprocessors in the Syrian radar might have been purposely fabricated with a hidden ”backdoor” inside. By sending a preprogrammed code to those chips, an unknown antagonist had disrupted the chips’ function and temporarily blocked the radar.
The writer further describes precisely how the errant chip might find its way into a computer system and it’s derring-do worthy of a Hollywood spy thriller:
To create a controlled kill switch, you’d need to add extra logic to a microprocessor, which you could do either during manufacturing or during the chip’s design phase. A saboteur could substitute one of the masks used to imprint the pattern of wires and transistors onto the semiconductor wafer, Adler suggests, so that the pattern for just one microchip is different from the rest. ”You’re printing pictures from a negative,” he says. ”If you change the mask, you can add extra transistors.”
Or the extra circuits could be added to the design itself. Chip circuitry these days tends to be created in software modules, which can come from anywhere, notes Dean Collins, deputy director of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office and program manager for the Trust in IC initiative. Programmers ”browse many sources on the Internet for a component,” he says. ”They’ll find a good one made by somebody in Romania, and they’ll put that in their design.” Up to two dozen different software tools may be used to design the chip, and the origin of that software is not always clear, he adds. ”That creates two dozen entry points for malicious code.”
The Aviation Week article is a more straightforward portrayal of the Israeli attack on the Syrian reactor, also serving as a bit of puffery for the entire Israeli electronic warfare industry. It begins with the rather startling claim that U.S. military intelligence cooperated with the Israelis:
The U.S. was monitoring the electronic emissions coming from Syria during Israel’s September attack; and—although there was no direct American help in destroying a nuclear reactor—there was some advice provided beforehand, military and aerospace industry officials tell Aviation Week & Space Technology.
…There was “no U.S. active engagement other than consulting on potential target vulnerabilities,” says a U.S. electronic warfare specialist.
Which is “military speak” for: “We didn’t send our jets or pilots but we did just about everything else we could to help.”
It describes the attack on Syria’s air defense system in quite comprehensive fashion:
The main attack was preceded by an engagement with a single Syrian radar site at Tall al-Abuad near the Turkish border. It was assaulted with what appears to be a combination of electronic attack and precision bombs to enable the Israeli force to enter and exit Syrian airspace. Almost immediately, the entire Syrian radar system went off the air for a period of time that included the raid, say U.S. intelligence analysts.
…U.S. analysts contend that network penetration involved both remote air-to-ground electronic attack and penetration through computer-to-computer links.
…So far, the most sophisticated example of nonkinetic warfare is the penetration of Syrian air defenses by Israeli aircraft on Sept. 6 to bomb a site—analyzed as a nascent nuclear facility—without being engaged or even detected.
…That ability of nonstealthy Israeli aircraft to penetrate without interference rests in part on technology, carried on board modified aircraft, that allowed specialists to hack into Syria’s networked air defense system, said U.S. military and industry officials in the attack’s aftermath. Network raiders can conduct their invasion from an aircraft into a network and then jump from network to network until they are into the target’s communications loop.
To a certain extent, I think we can discount some of this flattering picture as the product of a promotional article in an international aviation trade journal. But nevertheless, it has to give the Iranians pause in light of the possible damage that may’ve been caused to Iran through Stuxnet. Not to mention the rather lax cyber-security there which allowed such an infection to penetrate in the first place. One has to wonder whether Iran’s air defenses could be as easily sabotaged as Syria’s were in 2007.
That this article is a bit of puffery is confirmed by the following passage:
…Secrecy is causing Israel problems. Compartmentalization means that those who know about the new capabilities aren’t allowed to tout their usefulness. Yet at least low-key publicity is needed to ensure government funding for additional development and acceptance of their operational use.
“Now I have to find a way to explain these capabilities to other people so that they understand,” Buchris says.
I think the flacks who wrote this article just did that for you.
This article, written all the way back in 2007, provides an early glimpse of the neocon anti-Iran meme claiming that Iran financed the Syrian reactor, a claim by the way which Israelis in this article deny:
Israeli officials reject any suggestion that the Syrian and Iranian nuclear programs were or are linked in any way.
“I don’t think Iran knew anything about what Syria was doing,” says a long-serving member of the Israeli parliament with insight into military affairs. “I don’t think they would have told the Iranians. They didn’t need Iranian assistance because they had help from the North Koreans.”
However, John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, disagrees. “I’d be very surprised if the Syrians were to engage at least without Iranian acquiescence,” he says. And, “it may be beyond that,” he tells Aviation Week. Since Syria alone lacks both the funding and expertise for a nuclear weapons program, it would logically turn to Pyongyang for technology and oil-rich Tehran for funding, he says.
Notice how Bolton inserts his own opinion and converts it into a ‘logical’ certainty, which has then been picked up by anti-Iran hawks.
But here’s the money quote as far as relevance to Iran:
Bolton says the use of network attack is a clever move by the Israelis. He contends that it will serve as a deterrent for Iran. Or, at the very least, it sends a message that even the advanced, Russian-built air defense systems won’t protect Iran’s nuclear activities.
“I think it is very telling, obviously, in its potential impact on Iran since they’ve been supplied by the Russians with air defense equipment as well,” Bolton says.
If what’s been written about Stuxnet is accurate, then Israel, or whoever created the worm, seems to have done an excellent job of infiltrating Russian computers systems in order to plant the infection with the Russian contractor building Bushehr. One wonders whether Israel could have devised ways of penetrating these Russian built air defense systems as well.
Of course, an attack on Iran will be far different from one on a single unfinished Syrian nuclear reactor. Iran has hardened sites which might withstand Israeli attack even if its air defenses are knocked out. Further, Iran has capabilities of carrying the attack back against the Israelis which Syria does not have, or at least wasn’t willing to exercise. This will not be a cakewalk if it happens.
In a sidebar, one of Aviation Week’s Israeli government informants reveals a typically racist attitude toward that country’s Palestinian citizens. He notes the vulnerabilities of Israel’s own telecommunication systems which were penetrated during the 2006 Lebanon war by Hezbollah, possibly with Syrian aid:
…The government official says. “There’s also the issue that in the north of Israel you have very large Arab communities. Most wouldn’t be involved, but you’re talking about a half-million people up on the border. That means there are people with the ability to watch and pass on information.”
Ah yes, the old calumny about Israel’s Palestinian citizens being a Fifth Column supporting Hezbollah. When this jackass should know that the only Israeli governmental body ever to attempt to assert this claim, the Shabak, can’t even make it stick when the secret police accuses Israeli Palestinian leaders of espionage (cf. Makhoul, Said, etc.). If it reminds you of the 1950s Red Scare here in the U.S. it should. The motives of instilling fear, driving a wedge between (in Israel’s case) Jews and Arabs, and seeking scapegoats is alive and well in 2010 Israel.