US targeted Iran in secret cyber operation

WASHINGTON • The US carried out a secret cyber operation against Iran in the wake of the Sept 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh blame on Teheran, two US officials have told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

They said the operation took place in late September and took aim at Teheran's ability to spread "propaganda". One of the officials said the strike affected physical hardware, but did not provide further details.

It highlights how US President Donald Trump's administration has been trying to counter what it sees as Iranian aggression without having it spiral into a broader conflict.

The strike appears more limited than other such operations against Iran this year after the downing of an American drone in June and an alleged attack by Iran's Revolutionary Guards on oil tankers in the Gulf in May.

The United States, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Germany have publicly blamed the Sept 14 attack on Iran, which has denied involvement in the strike. The Iran-aligned Houthi militant group in Yemen claimed responsibility.

Publicly, the Pentagon has responded by sending thousands of additional troops and equipment to bolster Saudi defences - the latest US deployment to the region this year.

"As a matter of policy and for operational security, we do not discuss cyberspace operations, intelligence, or planning," said Pentagon spokesman Elissa Smith.

The impact of the attack, if any, could take months to determine, but cyberstrikes are seen as a less-provocative option below the threshold of war.

"You can do damage without killing people or blowing things up; it adds an option to the toolkit that we didn't have before and our willingness to use it is important," said Mr James Lewis, a cyber expert with the Washington-based Centre For Strategic And International Studies.

 
 
 

Tensions in the Gulf have escalated sharply since May last year, when Mr Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran that put limits on its nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions. It was unclear whether there have been other US cyber attacks since the one in late September.

Iran has used such tactics against the US.

This month, a hacking group that appears linked to the Iranian government tried to infiltrate e-mail accounts related to Mr Trump's re-election campaign. Teheran is also thought to be a major player in spreading disinformation.

Last year, a Reuters investigation found more than 70 websites that push Iranian propaganda to 15 countries, in an operation that cyber-security experts, social media firms and journalists are only starting to uncover.

REUTERS

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2019, with the headline 'US targeted Iran in secret cyber operation'. Print Edition | Subscribe