The cyberattacks augmented conventional sabotage efforts by both countries, including inserting flawed centrifuge parts and other components into Iran’s nuclear supply chain.
The best-known cyberweapon let loose on Iran was Stuxnet, a name coined by researchers in the antivirus industry who discovered it two years ago. It infected a specific type of industrial controller at Iran’s uranium-
enrichment plant in Natanz, causing almost 1,000 centrifuges to spin out of control. The damage occurred gradually, over months, and Iranian officials initially thought it was the result of incompetence.
The scale of the espionage and sabotage effort “is proportionate to the problem that’s trying to be resolved,” the former intelligence official said, referring to the Iranian nuclear program. Although Stuxnet and Flame infections can be countered, “it doesn’t mean that other tools aren’t in play or performing effectively,” he said.
To develop these tools, the United States relies on two of its elite spy agencies. The NSA, known mainly for its electronic eavesdropping and code-breaking capabilities, has extensive expertise in developing malicious code that can be aimed at U.S. adversaries, including Iran. The CIA lacks the NSA’s sophistication in building malware but is deeply involved in the cyber-campaign.
The CIA’s Information Operations Center is second only to the agency’s Counterterrorism Center in size. The IOC, as it is known, performs an array of espionage functions, including extracting data from laptops seized in counterterrorism raids. But the center specializes in computer penetrations that require closer contact with the target, such as using spies or unwitting contractors to spread a contagion via a thumb drive.
Both agencies analyze the intelligence obtained through malware such as Flame and have continued to develop new weapons even as recent attacks have been exposed.
Flame’s discovery shows the importance of mapping networks and collecting intelligence on targets as the prelude to an attack, especially in closed computer networks. Officials say gaining and keeping access to a network is 99 percent of the challenge.
“It is far more difficult to penetrate a network, learn about it, reside on it forever and extract information from it without being detected than it is to go in and stomp around inside the network causing damage,” said Michael V. Hayden, a former NSA director and CIA director who left office in 2009. He declined to discuss any operations he was involved with during his time in government.
Years in the making
The effort to delay Iran’s nuclear program using cyber-techniques began in the mid-2000s, during President George W. Bush’s second term. At that point it consisted mainly of gathering intelligence to identify potential targets and create tools to disrupt them. In 2008, the program went operational and shifted from military to CIA control, former officials said.
Despite their collaboration on developing the malicious code, the United States and Israel have not always coordinated their attacks. Israel’s April assaults on Iran’s Oil Ministry and oil-export facilities caused only minor disruptions. The episode led Iran to investigate and ultimately discover Flame.
“The virus penetrated some fields — one of them was the oil sector,” Gholam Reza Jalali, an Iranian military cyber official, told Iranian state radio in May. “Fortunately, we detected and controlled this single incident.”
Some U.S. intelligence officials were dismayed that Israel’s unilateral incursion led to the discovery of the virus, prompting countermeasures.
The disruptions led Iran to ask a Russian security firm and a Hungarian cyber-lab for help, according to U.S. and international officials familiar with the incident.
Last week, researchers with Kaspersky Lab, the Russian security firm, reported their conclusion that Flame — a name they came up with — was created by the same group or groups that built Stuxnet. Kaspersky declined to comment on whether it was approached by Iran.
“We are now 100 percent sure that the Stuxnet and Flame groups worked together,” said Roel Schouwenberg, a Boston-based senior researcher with Kaspersky Lab.
The firm also determined that the Flame malware predates Stuxnet. “It looks like the Flame platform was used as a kickstarter of sorts to get the Stuxnet project going,” Schouwenberg said.
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.