The Stuxnet computer worm used to sabotage Iran's nuclear program was planted by a double agent working for Israel. The agent used a booby-trapped memory stick to infect machines deep inside the Natanz nuclear facility, according to a report published on Wednesday.
These sources, who requested anonymity because of their close proximity to investigations, said a saboteur at the Natanz nuclear facility, probably a member of an Iranian dissident group, used a memory stick to infect the machines there. They said using a person on the ground would greatly increase the probability of computer infection, as opposed to passively waiting for the software to spread through the computer facility. “Iranian double agents” would have helped to target the most vulnerable spots in the system,” one source said. In October 2010, Iran’s intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi said an unspecified number of “nuclear spies” were arrested in connection with Stuxnet.33 virus.
Former and senior U.S. officials believe nuclear spies belonged to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which Israel uses to do targeted killings of Iranian nationals, they said. “The MEK is being used as the assassination arm of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service,” said Vince Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism. He said the MEK is in charge of executing “the motor attacks on Iranian targets chosen by Israel. They go to Israel for training, and Israel pays them.” Other former agency officials confirmed this.
As ISSSource reported, Stuxnet was a comprehensive U.S.-Israeli program designed to disrupt Iran’s nuclear technology. This joint program first surfaced in 2009 and worked in concert with an earlier U.S. effort that consistently sabotaged Iran’s purchasing network abroad.
But the United States never indulged in targeting killings of Iran scientists, and former senior U.S. officials said the U.S. public remained unaware of a separate Israeli program, independent of the United States, that has for ten years been assassinating key Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotaging key Iranian facilities using a proxy group of Iranian dissidents. These dissidents have a functioning, effective network inside Iran and they have access to officials in the nuclear program.
The MEK has a shadowy and unsavory history. Founded in the 1970s, the group was stridently anti-shah and allied itself with the dictatorship of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from which it received most of its supplies. Performing security for Saddam, the MEK assisted Saddam in the slaughter of his domestic opponents and the massacre of Iraqi Shias and Kurds in the 1991 uprising.
As the military wing of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the MEK targeted Iranian officials and government facilities in Iran and abroad. In the 1970s, the group also attacked and killed Americans. According to one former senior CIA official who spoke on background to ISSSource, the MEK is particularly violent. In France, they conducted killings in Paris, including six or seven U.S. Army sergeants.” He added the French “were terrified of them.”
In 2003, the United States listed the NCRI as a terrorist organization and closed its Washington office. U.S. forces in Iraq captured the MEK’s weapons and turned the MEK over for investigation of terrorist acts. Since then, the group has been picking off Iranian nuclear scientists one by one.
When ISSSource asked Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran whether Israel was killing secondary or tertiary scientists instead of its major ones, he replied, “Israel kills any Iranians it can.” Since 2007, five Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in Iranian territory, many victims dying from magnetic bombs that terrorists had attached to the exterior of their cars.
The damage caused by the MEK is not confined to killing individuals. On Oct. 12, 2011, just before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to arrive in Lebanon, a huge blast destroyed an underground site near the town of Khorramabad in western Iran that housed most of Iran’s Shehab-3 medium-range missiles capable of reaching Israel and Iraq. A far right wing Israeli website, Debka, reported Iran suffered a “devastating blow” to its nuclear program. The blast killed 18 and wounded several more.
Former and serving U.S. officials both fingered the MEK as the killers. One such official said “computer manipulations,” caused the blast. They said the spies inside Iran had the access, the contacts, the positions and technical skill to do the job. “Given the seriousness of the impact on Iran’s (nuclear) program, we believe it took a human agent to spread the virus,” said one former U.S. intelligence source.
Meanwhile, going back to Stuxnet, once the memory stick was infected, the virus was able to infiltrate the network and take over the system. U.S. officials said they believe the infection commenced when the user simply clicked on the associated icon in Windows. Several reports pointed out this was a direct application of one of the zero-day vulnerabilities Stuxnet leveraged.
Building and deploying Stuxnet required extremely detailed intelligence about the systems it was supposed to compromise, and has made reprogramming highly specific installations on legacy systems more complex, not less. According to reports, the Stuxnet mystery was unveiled in June 2010, when a small company called VirusBlokAda in Minsk, the capital of Belarus was emailed by a dealer in Tehran about an irritating problem some of his clients were having with their computers.
The company analyst saw the computers were constantly turning off and restarting. At first the analyst thought it was just a problem with the hardware. But when they said several computers were affected, not just one, VirusBlokAda understood it was a problem with the software the computers were running.
U.S. officials confirmed Stuxnet takes advantage of zero-day vulnerabilities. This type of virus had been previously undetected, and remained unidentified by anti-virus software. According to public reports, early versions of Stuxnet used certificates by Realtek Semiconductor systems – later versions used certificates from JMicron Technology Corp. The use of these certificates gives the worm the appearance of legitimate software to Microsoft Windows.
In a report, Symantec said yes, Stuxnet was “splattered” far and wide, but it only executed its damaging payload where it was supposed to. The virus was so efficient that it could deliver its payload only to the designated target, and would not damage adjacent machines. Another expert, a former CIA official, likened it to a flu virus that only makes one family sick. Stuxnet was designed for sabotage, not crime.
It is interesting to note Stuxnet was not the first virus used by the U.S. military intelligence to try and disable opponents. In the 1980s, the United States had considerable success at planting viruses inside Soviet military-industrial structure that could be activated in time of war, a process still continuing with China. “We put in bugs inside the Soviet computers to feed back satellite information that had been ‘leeched’ off hard drives, in the Soviet Defense Ministry and others,” said a former U.S. intelligence official.
In December 1991, just before Desert Storm, the CIA and the British Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) had experimented with all sorts of viruses to inject into Iraq’s computers. In December, CIA operatives, working in Jordan, infiltrated bugs into hardware smuggled across the border and into Baghdad.
Once in place, NSA and GCHQ believed the virus would spread like a virulent cancer through the Iraqi Command and Control system, infecting every computer system it came across. But before the virus had reached its target, the air war began. U.S. planes destroyed Saddam’s command and control network, including the buildings where the infected computer hardware had been so successfully inserted. As a result, one of the most successful intelligence operations of the war was buried beneath the rubble. “The intelligence people were very pissed — all that work for nothing,” said a former senior DoD official.
Richard Sale was United Press International’s Intelligence Correspondent for 10 years and more recently has been intelligence correspondent for the Middle East Times, a publication of UPI.