Make Worms, Not War?


Published January 19, 2011, issue of January 28, 2011.
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Two points struck us as we read the fascinating story in the January 16 edition of The New York Times detailing the reputedly intricate arrangement between America and Israel to test and unleash a computer worm that appears to have seriously undermined Iran’s efforts at making a nuclear bomb.

The story quotes military and intelligence sources in making its claim that the secretive operation at Israel’s Dimona comlex “tested the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive program that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms.”

Our first reaction was to marvel at the ingenuity and chutzpah of this operation, the way it built upon cutting-edge, sophisticated technology, rather than the traditional tools of diplomacy or military action, to achieve a geopolitical gain. Joint economic sanctions against Iran’s dangerous regime seem to be doing their job, and credible military action must remain as a last, but viable, resort.

Nonetheless — if the story turns out to be accurate — there is something satisfying about recognizing the astonishing power of intelligence, rather than brute force, at work in this arena. The elaborate Stuxnet scheme may not have unfolded in the way the Times describes, and it may have untold future implications. But for now it appears that Iran’s nuclear development was dealt a blow without a blow being dealt, the onerous, unpredictable and entirely frightening prospect of war temporarily avoided.

The story also underscores a second point: Despite the public drama of statements and snubs, disagreements and delays, the relationship between America and Israel has been extraordinarily tight and trusting for this operation to have succeeded as the Times describes. While begun in the waning days of the Bush administration, the collaboration accelerated when President Obama took office, a pattern seen in other forms of military and defense cooperation between Jerusalem and Washington.

Yes, yes, yes. Iran is still a serious threat to America, Israel and any other nation that its autocratic regime deems a mortal enemy. But this tale of 21st-century subterfuge reminds us that the technological advances that give birth to modern-day weaponry also can unleash piercingly clever defenses — especially when developed between friends.

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