In 2006, senior Bush administration officials developed the idea of using a computer worm, with Israeli assistance, to damage Iranian centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant in Natanz. The concept originated with Gen. James E. Cartwright, who was then head of U.S. Strategic Command, which handles nuclear deterrence, and had a reputation as a cyber-strategist.
“Cartwright’s role was describing the art of the possible, having a view or vision,” said a former senior official familiar with the program. But “the heavy lifting” was done by NSA Director Keith Alexander, who had “the technical know-how and carried out the actual activity,” said the former official.
Olympic Games became a collaborative effort among NSA, the CIA and Israel, current and former officials said. The CIA, under then-Director Michael V. Hayden, lent its covert operation authority to the program.
The CIA and Israelis oversaw the development of plans to gain physical access to the plant. Installing the worm in plant equipment not connected to the Internet depended on spies and unwitting accomplices — engineers, plant technicians — who might connect an infected device to one of the systems, officials said.
The cyberweapon took months of testing and development. It began to show effects in 2008, when centrifuges began spinning at faster-than-normal speeds until sensitive components began to warp and break, participants said.
U.S. officials were concerned when security companies began reporting on the existence of the worm in June 2010.
“It took us a little while to figure out” that the virus had spread, although it was not damaging machines other than those at Natanz, an official said.
Iran replaced the damaged machines and has continued to enrich uranium. Officials said the country’s leadership has always assumed that any action destabilizing its government or nuclear program is the work of the United States, Israel or Britain, or some combination, officials said.
“This will certainly play into their fears about what else is out there,” said one former intelligence official. “It certainly won’t make them eager to get back to the negotiating table.”