Will Stuxnet Start Another Arms Race?

David Sanger of the New York Times is often rebuked for operating under the assumption that Iran is determined to developed nuclear weapons when the evidence suggests otherwise. But when he sticks to straight reporting, as with the excerpt from his new book in the Times on June 1 about the cyberattacks against Iran, we owe him a debt of thanks. He’s opened our eyes to the extent to which the United States and President Obama were involved with Stuxnet. Stanger also brings to light a critical reason that the United States worked with Israel.

The unusually tight collaboration with Israel was driven by two imperatives. Israel’s Unit 8200, a part of its military, had technical expertise that rivaled the N.S.A.’s, and the Israelis had deep intelligence about operations at Natanz that would be vital to making the cyberattack a success. But American officials had another interest…

Wait for it …

… to dissuade the Israelis from carrying out their own pre-emptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. To do that, the Israelis would have to be convinced that the new line of attack was working. The only way to convince them, several officials said in interviews, was to have them deeply involved in every aspect of the program.

Inviting Israel to participate as a diversionary tactic to prevent it from attacking Iran may be clever. But one can’t help suspect it’s yet another attempt to placate Israel. Or — to turn the tables on those who accuse President Obama of this on various fronts — to appease them.

Meanwhile, at the New Yorker, Steve Coll strikes a precautionary note.

“Olympic Games” [Stuxnet] seems to be, so far as is known, the first formal offensive act of pure cyber sabotage by the United States against another country. … “Olympic Games” will invite imitation and retaliation in kind, and it has established new and disturbing norms for state aggression on the Internet and in its side-channels. American and Israeli official action now stands available as a justification for others. … [Richard] Clarke and Sanger both compare the chaotic, poorly considered state of cyber warfare today to the wild early days of nuclear arms. … During the nineteen-fifties, a shocking number of American generals believed that a nuclear war could be won. “Olympic Games” suggests a comparably self-aggrandizing strain among our new class of digital fighters.

In other words, like the subdivision of the arms race — proliferation — it’s meant to help derail, cyberwarfare could start a new arms race.