Last Updated:November 26 @ 07:46 am

Obama admin fears cyberattack from Iran

By Lolita C. Baldor

WASHINGTON (AP) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's pointed warning that the U.S. will strike back against a cyberattack underscores the Obama administration's growing concern that Iran could be the first country to unleash cyberterrorism on America.

Panetta's unusually strong comments Thursday came as former U.S. government officials andcybersecurity experts said the U.S. believes Iranian-based hackers were responsible for cyberattacksthat devastated computer systems of Persian Gulf oil and gas companies.

Unencumbered by diplomatic or economic ties that restrain other nations from direct conflict with the U.S., Iran is an unpredictable foe that national security experts contend is not only capable but willing to use a sophisticated computer-based attack.

Panetta made it clear that the military is ready to retaliate — though he didn't say how — if it believes the nation is threatened by a cyberattack, and he made it evident that the U.S. would consider a preemptive strike.

"Iran is a country for whom terror has simply been another tool in their foreign policy toolbox, and they are a country that feels it has less and less to lose by breaking the norms of the rest of the world," said Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and now in private law practice. "If anybody is going to release irresponsible unlimited attacks, you'd expect it to be Iran."

National security experts have long complained that the administration needs to be much more open about what the military could and would do if the U.S. were to be the victim of cyberattacks. They argue that such deterrence worked in the Cold War with Russia and would help convince would-be attackers that an assault on America would have dire results.

Panetta took the first steps toward answering those critics in a speech analysts said was a thinly veiled warning to Iran, and the opening salvo in the campaign to convince Tehran that any cyberattack against America would trigger a swift and deadly response.

"Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and hold them accountable for actions that harm America or its interests," Panetta said in a speech in New York City to the Business Executives for National Security.

And while he did not directly connect Iran to the Gulf cyberattacks, he warned that Iran's abilities were growing.

Security analysts agree.

The presumed Iranian cyberattacks hit the Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas using a virus, known as Shamoon, which can spread through networked computers and ultimately wipes out files by overwriting them.

In his speech, Panetta said the Shamoon virus replaced crucial system files at Aramco with the image of a burning U.S. flag, and also overwrote all data, rendering more than 30,000 computers useless and forcing them to be replaced. He said the Qatar attack was similar.

"This one worries me," said Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer for the Virginia-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant. "I'm not an alarmist, but when I saw that 30,000 computers at Saudi Aramco got just deleted, that was a big deal. You don't see the Chinese government, you don't see the Russian government, or even their patriotic hackers go out and delete anything for the most part."

From the Iranians' point of view, however, attacks against the U.S. may be justified because American sanctions leveled on the country for refusing to cooperate with international norms on its nuclear program have hit Iran hard. Tehran also believes that the U.S. and Israel were behind the Stuxnet cyberattack that forced the temporary shutdown of thousands of centrifuges at a nuclear facility there in 2010.

As a result, said Bejtlich, Iran already believes it is at war with the U.S.

Frank Cilluffo, , a former special assistant for homeland security to President George W. Bush, said U.S. authorities have suspected Iran of trying to plot cyberattacks against American targets, including nuclear plants. And he said that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps appears to now be trying to bring some of the patriotic hacker groups under its control, so it can draw on their abilities.

"Iran has been doing a lot of cyber saber-rattling," said Cilluffo, now director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. "What they lack in capabilities, they more than make up for in intent."

Tehran has not made any public comment on Panetta's comments, but the Iranians routinely report the discovery of viruses and other malicious programs in government, nuclear, oil and industrial networks, blaming Israel and the United States.

While Panetta's warnings received high marks from security experts, those people also were quick to say that much more needs to be done.

The U.S., said former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, must lay out the rules of the road and figure out what kind of proof authorities would need before taking action.

"We still have work to do," said Chertoff, who is now chairman of the Chertoff Group, a global security firm. "Will we take action to preempt something rather than simply retaliate, and how early and how much warning will we need before we take that action?"

He noted that most conflicts arise over misunderstandings, when one side doesn't realize what the other will do if provoked.

The administration has repeatedly warned of the cybersecurity threats, particularly against critical infrastructure such as financial networks, transportation systems and utility companies. More recently, the White House has been considering using the president's executive power to encourage critical industries to better protect their networks because legislation to do so stalled in Congress.

"While the message has been sent over and over again it doesn't seem to have acquired urgency across the board," said Chertoff. "We need to make it clear that this is not just background noise you have to deal with, but that it really strikes at the fundamentals of our national security."

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15 Comments

  1. Mary SComment by Mary S
    October 13, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    I have to admit, I am confused. Do we face terrorist activity from middle eastern countries or not? One day, it’s terrorism, the next day, it’s something else. I am SICK, SICK, SICK of this administration and their manipulation of information. All of them are complicit in the attempt to destroy, or at least severely wound, the United States of America, and should be tried for treason. Where have all the real Americans gone?

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    • capricorn1Comment by capricorn1
      October 13, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

      excuse me,but i thought we were america,we fear no one and yet our current fake in charge fears a cyber attack from iran,well you better throw china in with that mr.faker in charge because you and your minions are weak,apologetic aholes.and that spells disaster,and death.

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      Rating: 4.5/5 (10 votes cast)
  2. mrsgunnut10Comment by mrsgunnut10
    October 13, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    Obama does not like to use the word TERRORISM, yet he and his Minions constantly are in fear or at least give us that impression of fear. If they are so afraid of Iran and a sneak attack then they should drop a well placed MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs) on this Country. Remember when President Reagan sent a Cruse Missile to Kadafi when he refused to stop shooting down Unarmed aircraft. All it took was one Missile to let the Dictator know that America would not stand for any more of their Aggression. The United States Government has given these Iranian Leaders more than enough TIME and WORDS to straighten up their Acts and get REAL. Maybe now, before THEY strike, the United States should show some Back Bone or Guts, and hit them before they strike The U. S. with a Cyber Attack or some sort of Dirty Bomb. Any Military Leader knows – You do not wait when you know it is going to happen. What has happened to all of our Active Duty Generals and other Military Leaders – Do they have their heads buried in the Sand of the Middle East?? Thank you for your time. TSgt., USAF Retired.

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    • noveldogComment by noveldog
      October 13, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

      They are either too yellow, or they are traitors. Take your pick!

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      Rating: 5.0/5 (3 votes cast)
  3. Jeff TowleComment by Jeff Towle
    October 13, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    Where’s the detail – Okay, so the sky is falling, or may fall, or could fall, but none of this is actionable information.

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    Rating: 3.7/5 (7 votes cast)
  4. tpatriotComment by tpatriot
    October 13, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    TERRORISM – what this administration has done to the USA for the past three plus years!

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    Rating: 5.0/5 (13 votes cast)
  5. Jeff TowleComment by Jeff Towle
    October 13, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    If we have people employed by US companies that could implement an attack, profile them and restrict their access. I think it’s pretty obvious where to begin.

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    Rating: 4.1/5 (7 votes cast)
  6. goodguynyComment by goodguyny
    October 13, 2012 @ 11:59 am

    IF this is the case, what in hell is this administration doing to protect itself from it? This administration likes the drama but does nothing to stop anything from happening. I would blame the successful attack on our Embassy in Libya directly on the malfeasance of out state department and the White House for just being plain STUPID and POMPOUS!I do not know about any one else but with this administration, I do not feel safe in my own home. Just who are they afraid of pissing off??

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  7. David NicholsComment by David Nichols
    October 13, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    How is this possible ?
    They are a bass ackward third world country ?
    Perhaps we need to remind them this is an
    act of war, should it occur !

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    Rating: 3.8/5 (5 votes cast)
  8. noveldogComment by noveldog
    October 13, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    What have they to fear? For years now hackers and scam artist have been operating with near impunity. I get scores of scam letters daily and my computer is under constant attack. I have had to buy more and more virus, and hacker protection in order to stay on line. I have had worms, cyber sitters and the works thrown at me and the government has done little to nothing about it. You see when the government becomes corrupt they tend to turn a blind eyed to all the rest of the crooks.

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  9. longscoutComment by longscout
    October 13, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    The White House, you may recall, broke security protocols and told the world that the United States (in cooperation with Israel) struck Iranian nuclear laboratories with Stuxnet. This article appears to suggest that whether the United States released Stuxnet is yet up in the air. I am neither friend to the maddened Iranian leadership nor especially an admirer of the current Administration; but it seems to me no surprise that the Iranians would attempt to “get back” at the US for the _White House_-_betrayal_ of the Stuxnet adventure. Next time when the United States intelligence agents release a cyber attack on Iran, it should be ruthless and complete to not only take down the nuclear misadventure upon which that government is diligently at work, but to cripple the laboratories forever by seeding replicants that would forever reproduce within their systems. Likewise, the next time American citizens go to the polls they should release their pent up doubts about the Administration and bring to office the two men thought most likely to turn the Obama disasters around — he who threatens to release replicant agents within every bureaucratic agency of the US government — and bring into office the two men most likely to release the creative energies of this People and to bring to renewed light an understanding of the good done by and in a free market economy.

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  10. johnnyonenoteComment by johnnyonenote
    October 13, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

    Would someone, anyone, please get this man a laxative! He appears to be chronically constipated. I’m sure if he took a good dump he would look more relaxed and at ease.

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  11. cdrcodyComment by cdrcody
    October 13, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

    This is totally off the subject , but it’s an interesting observation. I was surfing around to the various 2nd Amendment sites and came across the Concealed carry Association. This is a website for people who have or want a permit for carrying a weapon under their coat. They have a map that shows the reciprocity as to which states will honor your permit. If you take a western state, let’s say Montana, and work the map, it looks surprisingly like a current voting preferences map. That is the states that would honor the permit are mostly the ones that are going for Romney. And those that will not seem to be going toward Obama. This is a telling indictment about which areas of the country are filled with freedom loving people and which are not.

    Think about it.

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  12. smthnsmllsnthewhthowsmstbobaaaamaComment by smthnsmllsnthewhthowsmstbobaaaama
    October 13, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    In the good old days, that’s before computers were used by all people everywhere, they did not have the troubles that we do today. There was less of a chance of someone outside this Nation accessing our systems. It’s kind of funny that we seem to take one step forward but because of the way we are doing things, we are risking being thrown into the dark ages before electricity was even thought of. If any hacker is able to get in, I hope they do not go for our grids, dams or anything of real importance. I wonder if it is time to get stocked up on candles, vegetable oil and wicks, lamps, wood stoves and off-grid type survival supplies.

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  13. Eagle OneComment by Eagle One
    October 13, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

    What’s this BS about Iran might be the first cyber terrorism attack on the US? Hasn’t China and North Korea already been doing that for years? Hasn’t Iran already made inroads to our internet security.
    Tell us something we don’t know then what you intend to do about it.
    Where’s the BEEF!

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