ASPEN, Colorado — There have been assassinations, explosions, acts of sabotage, and cyberattack. But the increasingly violent shadow war between the U.S., Israel, Iran, and its allies haven’t hit targets on American soil — yet. That could change before too long, the administration’s current and former top analysts of terror threats warned.
“We’re seeing a general uptick in the level of activity around the world. Both Hezbollah and the [Iranian] Quods Force have demonstrated an ability to operate essentially globally,” Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told an audience of more than a hundred security professionals gathered here on Thursday.
“There are times when we are briefing the White House [on terror threats that] at the top of the list are Hezbollah or Iran,” Olsen added. The al-Qaeda network of Sunni extremists is still America’s undisputed Public Enemy #1. But for the first time in a long time, there’s competition, at least week-to-week.
The signs of escalating tension with Iran are everywhere: the sizable American armada building off of Iran’s shores; the American accusation that Iran tried to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.; the deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists, widely blamed on the Israelis; and, of course, last week’s bombing in Bulgaria, which U.S. and Israeli officials have pinned on Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militant group backed by Iran.
“This is a hot war that has gotten hotter,” Michael Leiter, Olsen’s predecessor at the NCTC, told the Aspen Security Forum. “The Iranians have considered this a shooting war for some time.”
And with no agreement is sight over Iran’s nuclear program, those skirmishes will undoubtedly continue. For now, though, America is safe from any direct attack from Tehran or its allies. Even the expected blowback from the U.S.-Israeli campaign of online sabotage against Iran hasn’t arrived.
When Stuxnet — the Washington-directed worm that took out more than a thousand centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility — was discovered in June of 2010, there was widespread speculation that elements of the cyberweapon would be pointed back at U.S. infrastructure. That speculation only increased last month when American officials admitted that Stuxnet had been part of a White House-led cyberespionage campaign.
So far, however, there’s been no blowback, according to National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander. “I don’t see the correlation there at all,” he said. “I don’t see anything that goes to Stuxnet or anything like that.”
Yes, critical infrastructure companies have reported a 17-fold increase in attacks on their networks. But while Stuxnet used several first-of-their-kind exploits to access the industrial controls at Natanz, these are attacks or much simpler: denial-of-service strikes or exploits against known weaknesses in an operating system. Alexander said that the attackers are more-or-less evenly divided between nation-states and criminal hackers.
Alexander was preceded at the forum (where, full disclosure, I’m serving as a panel moderator) by former Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair. He caused a stir at last year’s even when he essentially called for the Obama administration to put a halt to the drone war in places like Pakistan.
On Thursday, Blair was arguably even more incendiary. First, he called for tearing up the laws that govern America’s deniable, so-called “covert actions” like the attack on Osama’s bin Laden’s compound.
“There are ungoverned areas of the world in which the United States needs to take action. And this action should be secret but it should not be deniable. The raid that we heard about for Osama bin Laden was done under covert action authorities. If there was any action in the history of the United States that was not going to be denied, that was it,” he said. “The entire concept for covert action should be revisited and we should have new legislation to authorize it.”
Then Blair called into question whether these covert actions were really amounting to much.
“We don’t have a strategy” for fighting terror or for defeating al-Qaeda, the nation’s former top intelligence official said. The Obama administration has carried out all kinds of raids and robotic attacks on suspected terrorists. But it’s a global game of whack-a-mole — something to “keep you busy,” in Blair’s words — with no attempt to reinforce societies that make al-Qaeda an unattractive ideology.
“Our long-term goal of getting out this business of flinging away at terrorists around the world is very clear in front of us. That is a strategic thought,” added Blair. “Not how did you do against Abu-bin-so-and-so.”
Blair was a lonely voice when he served in the Obama administration. And on Thursday, he didn’t get much support here in Aspen. Instead, the government officials, defense contractors, and policy-makers gathered here were more interested in looking for new threats — rather than evaluating our whole system for considering dangers.