The Complex

Forget China: Iran's Hackers Are America's Newest Cyber Threat

In March 2012, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, publicly announced the creation a new Supreme Council of Cyberspace to oversee the defense of the Islamic republic's computer networks and develop news ways of infiltrating or attacking the computer networks of its enemies. Less than two years later, security experts and U.S. intelligence officials are alarmed by how quickly Iran has managed to develop its cyber warfare capabilities -- and by how much it's willing to use them.

For several years, Iran was believed to possess the ambition to launch disruptive attacks on Western, Israeli or Arab computer networks, but not necessarily the technological capability of actually doing so. Those doubts have largely evaporated. In late 2012, U.S. intelligence officials believe hackers in Iran launched a series of debilitating assaults on the Web sites of major U.S. banks. The hackers used a well-honed technique called a denial of service attack, in which massive amounts of traffic are directed at a site's servers until they crash. But the traffic flow in the bank attack was orders of magnitude greater than anything U.S. security officials had seen up to that point, indicating a remarkable degree of technical sophistication.

Last year, U.S. officials say that Iranian hackers infiltrated a large unclassified computer network used by the Navy and Marine Corps. Officials now say it took the Navy four months to fully clear its systems and recover from the breach, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

"Iran should be considered a first-tier cyber power," Gabi Siboni, a cyber security expert with Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said during a speech in Washington last December.

Western analysts see Iran's embrace of cyber attacks as a strategic attempt to counter the conventional military forces of the United States and Iran's regional rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia. Some analysts have blamed Iran for an attack on the computers of Saudi Aramco, the national energy company that supplies about 10 percent of the world's oil. The attack erased data from 30,000 computers, but it didn't affect oil and gas production and distribution facilities.

Analysts debate whether Iran should yet be included in the same league as the United States, Israel, or China, which each possess extensive capabilities to launch attacks on computer networks and the critical infrastructure connected to them, including electrical power facilities. But U.S. intelligence agencies now judge that Iran is well on the path to becoming a formidable cyber force. James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, recently warned that Iran's "development of cyber espionage or attack capabilities might be used in an attempt to either provoke or destabilize the United States or its partners.

The heart of Iran's national cyber efforts is the cyberspace council set up in 2012. It's chaired by the Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani and its members include senior government officials, including the head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, which controls military units believed to conduct offensive cyber operations and electronic warfare, such as jamming communications systems. Iran was motivated to ramp up its cyber security efforts, particularly the defense of its internal networks and vital infrastructure facilities, after a cyber attack on an Iranian nuclear facility by the United States and Israel that disabled 1,000 centrifuges used to enrich uranium, a key component of a nuclear weapon. Iran's defensive capabilities today are devoted to preventing another such attack, as well as monitoring and suppressing domestic political opponents who threaten the regime, Siboni wrote in a recent analysis of Iran's capabilities.

The Revolutionary Guard now owns and controls the biggest communications company in Iran, Siboni said. The government restricts access to the public Internet and monitors computers in Internet cafes. A domestic police force, known as FETA is charged with monitoring online activity and speech, as well as combating fraud and theft.

But it's the offensive side of the ledger that worries U.S. officials the most. In the past week, Iranian leaders have threatened to use cyber warfare against Tehran's enemies. "One of the options on the table of the U.S. and its allies is a cyber war against Iran. But we are fully prepared to fight cyber warfare," said Gen. Mohammad Aqakishi, the commander of the information technology and communication department of the armed forces' general staff, according to Iran's Tasnim news agency.

"[Aqakishi] said the U.S. has been making ‘empty threats' against Iran for several years, noting that Washington itself is mindful of the Islamic Republic's military might in the arena of information technology and communication," Tasnim reported.

Last week, Khameini, Iran's supreme leader, reportedly exhorted Iranian students, whom he called "cyber war agents," to prepare to fight Iran's enemies in cyberspace. "Get yourselves ready for such war wholeheartedly," Khameini said.

"If any war is launched against Iran, we won't give any ground to the enemy and they themselves know this very well," Iran's military chief of staff, Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, said last week, declaring that Iran was prepared for a "decisive battle" with the United States and Israel.

Such provocations haven't gone unnoticed. And U.S. military officials have acknowledged that if the United States uses cyber weapons against Iran, Americans should expect some retaliation. "That's a valid assumption," Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview in January 2013. "There are reports that destructive cyber tools have been used against Iran. I'm not-I'm neither confirming nor denying any-any part in that. What that should tell you is that that capability exists. And if it exists...whoever's using those can't assume that they're the only smart people in the world."

A few days before Dempsey's remarks, Gen. William Shelton, the commander of Air Force Space Command, warned that Iran was a growing offensive threat in cyberspace. "They're going to be a force to be reckoned with, with the potential capabilities that they'll develop over the years and the potential threat that they'll represent to the United States," Shelton said. In other words, Chinese hackers aren't the only ones Washington needs to worry about.


John MacDougall / AFP

The Complex

Empty Chair? Top Officer Seen As Slow to Respond To Ethics Issues Roiling Military

The Pentagon's response to the recent spate of ethical lapses rocking the entire U.S. military has been devoid of the kind of dramatic moves that Washington craves: there have been no high-profile firings, no generals publicly rebuked, and no announcements of far-reaching punishments that would indicate that the top officials are taking it all seriously.

Those types of measures would typically be carried out by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took a small step last week when he announced he would assign a senior officer to his own front office to investigate exactly what has gone wrong recently and to help suggest ways of fixing those issues. Hagel's top military adviser, Army Gen. Marty Dempsey, meanwhile, has been largely invisible. That's raised questions about why the Chairman hasn't been more heavily involved in addressing the cheating scandals rocking the Department, including the Air Force and Navy's nuclear forces and the embarrassing recent release of emails in which top Army commanders crudely discussed the sexual attractiveness of a female congresswoman.

Dempsey's defenders say he has been finding ways to reinstill ethical behavior across the armed forces for more than a year and that there are no easy fixes. Still, there are growing concerns inside and outside of the Pentagon that as the nation's senior military officer, Dempsey has yet to own the issue -- or taken the kinds of steps to show that he is seriously addressing it.

"It's obvious to me that Hagel wants greater results and he's sending a message to the system: I'm going to change this," said a former senior defense official who has been critical of Hagel in the past but was struck by the Secretary's decision. "Does it send a message to Marty Dempsey? Absolutely."

Hagel, who typically appears alongside Dempsey in the Pentagon's briefing room, emerged alone last week to announce that he wanted to assign his own senior officer to deal with the issue.

"Competence and character are not mutually exclusive," Hagel said. "An uncompromising culture of accountability must exist at every level of command.  That must be practiced and emphasized by leadership at every level."

Senior officials said assigning the as-yet-unidentified officer to Hagel's office was not aimed to be a knock on Dempsey, who was out of the building that day, but that Hagel nonetheless wanted to send a message that the issue needed to be treated with more urgency by all of his generals -- including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Part of the concern about Dempsey's low profile on the ethics issues has to do with his public demeanor. Dempsey, who is known as the "singing general" for his penchant for breaking out into song, has not embraced the public aspects of the job in the way others have. His immediate predecessor, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, appeared on "The Daily Show" and seemed very much at ease with the press. Dempsey seems to tolerate reporters, though just barely, but prefers to perform his duties unmolested by the whims of the media. That has not helped him to be seen in and outside of the Pentagon as being strong on the ethical issues confronting the Department.

"He's eloquent, but [Dempsey] has not demonstrated an ability to keep the spotlight on the reforms that he has developed, and that's been a concern," according to one administration official.

Dempsey hasn't ignored the current crisis. Critics of the way the Pentagon has responded to the ethics scandals fault both men for failing to relieve any high-ranking commanders, a move former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates took whenever he wanted to send a clear message that the military was serious about policing itself.  Brigadier General Martin Schweitzer is the only officer who has been disciplined for the current miscues, and it was done quietly by Dempsey.

Schweitzer was punished for writing a series of e-mails to a fellow officer that described Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican from North Carolina with whom he had just met, as "smoking hot." Schweitzer then suggested he had masturbated after a meeting with her in his office. While comparably low on the wrongdoing scale -- Schweitzer isn't accused of more serious offenses like financial misdeeds -- it reflected the kind of sloppy conduct by senior officers that has been at the heart of the military's current problems.

Schweitzer, who is and now assigned to the Pentagon's Joint Staff, has not been relieved. But officials tell Foreign Policy that Dempsey recommended that Schweitzer, who was assigned to brief Hagel on a regular basis, lose that high-profile role because of the allegations against him.
Dempsey's defenders also note that the chairman has pushed for a number of changes to the ways the military promotes its officers and offers them advanced training as they ascend its hierarchy. Dempsey has been attempting to reshape education and training where appropriate, re-instilling it with the kinds of principles of leadership and professional conduct that have long been the hallmark of military service, say officials. He's also moved to reform the archaic promotion system, including making changes to officer evaluation reports so they include a "360-degree" assessment from their subordinates that could help identify problems before they manifest themselves. Dempsey has also assigned Marine Lt. Gen. Tom Waldhauser, a well-respected officer, to be his point man on ethics issues on the Joint Staff.

Dempsey's office sent reporters a statement from the chairman after Hagel's appearance last week. "The Joint Chiefs and I are concerned and committed to ensuring that our military leaders of all ranks uphold the trust that we've established with the American people," Dempsey's statement said. "This has my full attention."

Defense officials are quick to point out that problems among the senior officer corps do not represent the military in general. But that has contributed to the notion held by some, and Dempsey is thought to be among them, that overreacting to a problem among "a few bad apples" within the officer corps could be detrimental to the military as an institution. That has fed a sense that the Pentagon has been too cautious when it comes to addressing ethical lapses.

At the same time, critics note that the misbehavior doesn't simply involve senior generals. The ongoing Air Force cheating scandal involves nearly 100 nuclear personnel. The Navy recently uncovered a cheating ring within its own nuclear force that so far has cost about 30 senior enlisted sailors their jobs. And earlier this month, the Army revealed a wide-ranging kickback ring in which hundreds of soldiers may have gamed a recruiting program to unlawfully take $29 million from the government. The scandals are giving the military a black eye as it tries to protect its budget from significant cuts now that the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down.

There's one other major challenge facing Dempsey and Hagel: the distinctly different cultures that exist across the services when it comes to accountability and transparency. The Navy is known for firing officers - publicly - at any hint of wrongdoing, while the other services, most notably the Army and Marine Corps, discipline their officers more privately. The effort underway now could stumble over the difficulties of how to shore up ethical standards across all of the services while respecting the cultures of each. Dempsey will play a key role in determining whether that new push succeeds or fails. So far at least, it looks as if Hagel believes Dempsey needs a nudge or two.


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