The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the classified effort code-named Olympic Games, said it was first developed during the George W. Bush administration and was geared toward damaging Iran’s nuclear capability gradually while sowing confusion among Iranian scientists about the cause of mishaps at a nuclear plant.
The use of the cyberweapon — malware designed to infiltrate and damage systems run by computers — was supposed to make the Iranians think that their engineers were incapable of running an enrichment facility.
“The idea was to string it out as long as possible,” said one participant in the operation. “If you had wholesale destruction right away, then they generally can figure out what happened, and it doesn’t look like incompetence.”
Even after software security companies discovered Stuxnet loose on the Internet in 2010, causing concern among U.S. officials, Obama secretly ordered the operation continued and authorized the use of several variations of the computer virus.
Overall, the attack destroyed nearly 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 centrifuges — fast-spinning machines that enrich uranium, an essential step toward building an atomic bomb. The National Security Agency developed the cyberweapon with help of Israel.
Several senior Iranian officials on Friday referred obliquely to the cyberattack in reaffirming Iran’s intention to expand its nuclear program.
“Despite all plots and mischievous behavior of the Western countries . . . Iran did not withdrawal one iota from its rights,” Kazem Seddiqi, a senior Iranian cleric, said during services at a Tehran University mosque, according to news reports from Iran.
Iran previously has blamed U.S. and Israeli officials and has said its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, such as generating electricity.
White House officials declined to comment on the new details about Stuxnet, and an administration spokesman denied that the material had been leaked for political advantage.
“It’s our view, as it is the view of everybody who handles classified information, that information is classified for a reason: that it is kept secret,” deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “It is intended not to be publicized because publicizing it would pose a threat to our national security.”
The revelations come at a particularly sensitive time, as the United States and five other world powers are engaged in talks with Iran on proposed cuts to its nuclear program. Iran has refused to agree to concessions on what it says is its rightful pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy. The next round of negotiations is scheduled for this month in Moscow.