• The Wall Street Journal
    • JANUARY 18, 2011

    A neat computer trick won’t stop Iran from getting the bomb.


    Long before there was the Stuxnet computer worm there was the “Farewell” spy dossier.

    In 1980, a KGB officer named Vladimir Vetrov began passing secrets to French intelligence. Vetrov was in a position to know the names of a network of Soviet agents (known as Line X) involved in pilfering capitalist technologies, which is how Moscow managed to stay nearly competitive with the West.

    Col. Vetrov’s Farewell dossier, as the French code-named it, eventually arrived at the desk of an American National Security Council official named Gus Weiss. It was Weiss who suggested to then-CIA director Bill Casey that the West not roll up the spy network right away, but rather that it be played for greater stakes.

    “I proposed using the Farewell material to feed or play back the products sought by Line X,” he later wrote in an unclassified CIA history, “but these would come from our own sources and would have been ‘improved’. . . . Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline. . . . The Pentagon introduced misleading information pertinent to stealth aircraft, space defense, and tactical aircraft. The Soviet Space Shuttle was a rejected NASA design.”

    How well did the plan work? In June 1982, one of Casey’s “improved” computer control systems, containing a Trojan horse in its software, caused the trans-Siberian gas pipeline to explode. U.S. spy satellites captured images of what was described by former Air Force Secretary Thomas Reed as “the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.”

    Thus did the Soviet Union end up on the ash-heap of history.

    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at an Iranian nuclear plant. Stuxnet is watching.


    Well, not really. But the story of the Farewell dossier is worth recalling amid the hoopla connected to Stuxnet, the ingenious computer worm, likely of U.S.-Israeli design, that seems to have hobbled the Iranian nuclear program. Meir Dagan, the outgoing head of Israel’s Mossad, said recently that Iran would not be able to produce a bomb until 2015, a date much further off than the 12 to 18 month timeframe Israeli officials were offering as recently as last year. U.N. nuclear inspectors confirm that Iran has been forced to de-activate 984 uranium-spinning centrifuges. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Stuxnet has caused “minor problems”—a major admission.

    All of this is terrific news and a credit to Stuxnet’s authors. It seems to have stopped the further expansion of Iran’s enrichment activities. It will also likely require Iran to replace its Western-made computer control systems even as the international sanctions regime makes them increasingly difficult to acquire.

    And yet the Iranian nuclear program carries on. Stuxnet appears to have hit Iran sometime in 2009. As of last November, U.N. inspectors reported that Iran continued to enrich uranium in as many as 4,816 centrifuges, and that it had produced more than three tons of reactor-grade uranium. That stockpile already suffices, with further enrichment, for two or possibly three bombs worth of fissile material.

    Nor can it be much comfort that even as Stuxnet hit Iran, North Korea began enriching uranium in a state-of-the-art facility, likely with Chinese help. Pyongyang has already demonstrated its willingness to build a secret reactor for Syria. So why not export enriched uranium to Iran, a country with which it already does a thriving trade in WMD-related technologies and to which it is deeply in debt? Merely stamp the words “Handle With Care” on the crate, and the flight from Pyongyang to Tehran takes maybe 10 hours.

    Iran is also not likely to be fooled again this way, making Stuxnet, or some variant of it, its own kind of one-hit wonder. Qualified nuclear engineers may be hard to come by, but computer forensics experts aren’t, even for a country like Iran. The next time Israel or the U.S. tries to stop Iran’s nuclear advances, the means aren’t likely to be as targeted, or as bloodless.

    Which brings us back to the Farewell dossier. Despite the CIA’s sabotage, the trans-Siberian pipeline was commissioned just two years later. A bigger hit to Moscow was the expulsion of 200 Line X officers from the West, which the Soviets avenged by executing Vetrov in 1983.

    But as Weiss noted in his history, the real hammer blows came in the form of Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and the SDI initiative, which caused the Soviet military to demand budgets the system couldn’t afford. Paul Volcker’s tight money policies, which “led to a fall in gold and primary product prices, sources of Soviet foreign exchange,” also played a key role.

    And so Iran has fallen for a neat computer trick. That may be a source of satisfaction in Jerusalem, Washington and even Riyadh. But it cannot be a cause for complacency. Wars are never won by covert means alone. That’s as true for Iran today as it was in Cold War days of yore.

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