June 05, 2012

Covert Wars, Waged Virally

Is the United States at war with Iran? If David Sanger’s account in his new book, “Confront and Conceal,” on President Obama’s foreign policy, is to be believed — and I find it very believable — we certainly are.


The stunning revelations by Mr. Sanger, The New York Times’s chief Washington correspondent, about the American role in using computer warfare to attack Iran’s nuclear program already have made headlines, and rightly so. He persuasively shows that under Mr. Obama, the United States government has been engaged in what one presidential adviser calls “a state of low-grade, daily conflict.”

The heart of this book is the chapter titled “Olympic Games,” which Mr. Sanger writes is the code name for a joint program of Israel and the United States to insert malicious software into the machinery of the Iranian military-industrial complex and so set back Iran’s ability to manufacture weapons-grade uranium. Specifically, in 2008 and 2009 the software threw off the balance of centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear enrichment center. It did so in a variety of unpredictable ways, making it at first seem like the problems were random or the result of Iranian incompetence. The key to getting inside the computers — which were not connected to the Internet — was to load the virus into thumb drives that Iranian nuclear technicians, perhaps unknowingly, would bring to work and plug into the computer systems there.

In one of the most impressive steps in the cybercampaign, the inserted software recorded the operation of the centrifuges. Then, as the computer worm took control of the machines and began destroying them, the software played back the signals of the normal operation of the centrifuges. “The plant operators were clueless,” Mr. Sanger writes. “There were no warning lights, no alarm bells, no dials gyrating wildly. But anyone down in the plant would have felt, and heard, that the centrifuges were suddenly going haywire. First came a rumble, then an explosion.” This is an account that long will be consulted by anyone trying to understand not just Iran but warfare in the 21st century. It alone is worth the price of the book.

And that is a good thing, because the rest of the book — overviews of Mr. Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab Spring, and China and North Korea — offers a solid but rather dutiful summary of this administration’s foreign policy. As I read it, I wondered if the author — in the course of working on a book to be titled something like “The Education of a President” — had come across the extraordinary material on the cyberwar against Iran.

Those other spinach-laden sections are not bad, but they are not as compelling as Mr. Sanger’s guided tour of the anti-Iranian operations. He offers a healthy meditation on Mr. Obama’s heavy use of drone strikes in Pakistan, asking how such strikes differ from a program of targeted assassination, if at all. And throughout, Mr. Sanger clearly has enjoyed great access to senior White House officials, most notably to Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser.

Mr. Donilon, in effect, is the hero of the book, as well as the commenter of record on events. He leads the team that goes to Israel and spends “five hours wading through the intelligence in the basement of the prime minister’s residence.” He is shown studying the nettlesome problems of foreign relations, working closely with the president, and fending off the villains of this story — which in Mr. Sanger’s account tend to be the government of Pakistan and, surprisingly, the generals of the American military. “We fought the Pentagon every step of the way on this,” a “senior American diplomat” tells Mr. Sanger. At another point, a “senior White House official” reports that, “There was incredible resistance inside the Pentagon.” And so on.

The virtue of this book — its foundation of White House sources who give the author insiders’ material like a transcript of Mr. Obama’s last telephone call with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak — is also its weakness. That is, Mr. Sanger shows us the world through the eyes of Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon and those around him. But he also tends to depict Washington and the world as they see it. The perceptions of White House officials, especially in the first year of the Obama presidency, which saw a steep learning curve for the president and those around him, are not always dispositive.

When, for example, the White House moved closer to the Pentagon’s hawkish view of North Korea, “We had people in the Pentagon telling us, ‘We told you so,’ ” a senior administration official informs Mr. Sanger. That official adds, rather snidely, that “perhaps they were making a case for not cutting the budget” of the Pentagon.

Mr. Sanger’s sure touch in discussing foreign policy falters when he addresses the Pentagon. He incorrectly states that “battlespace” is a term of cyberwar, when it actually is United States military jargon for any sort of battlefield, conventional or not. More important, Mr. Sanger seems unaware that a large number of military officers agreed with President Obama that Iraq was a “war of choice,” and a huge mistake.

Nor by the time Mr. Obama took office was “much of the military ... running on autopilot.” Rather, after five years of sweating and bleeding in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military was engaged in a good deal of soul-searching about those wars. The “surge” in Iraq was largely the product of military dissidents who believed that invading Iraq had been a mistake.

These are minor blemishes in an important book. I raise them mainly because of the warning signal they send about civil-military relations under President Obama. White House mistrust and suspicion of generals is not a recipe for an effective use of military force because it impedes the candid sort of discussion that consciously brings to the surface differences, examines assumptions and hammers out sustainable strategies.

Rather, it suggests that Mr. Obama and those around him are repeating some of the dysfunctionality that characterized the dealings of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson with the Pentagon during the descent into the Vietnam War. With Syria hanging fire, a nuclear-armed Pakistan on the brink and the Afghan war dragging on, that is not a reassuring state of affairs.