Once again, when it comes to President Donald Trump, I’ll call it “Genius!” And in this case, as in others, while the President’s critics were deciding how to criticize the Commander-in-Chief for either being a dove or a hawk, the U.S. military just prior to the now deceptive feint of an airstrike, led with and launched a massive cyberattack, which at this point appears to have rendered Iran’s missile and radar systems inoperable.
As I mentioned in my article Sunday in America Out Loud, I noted, once the President did order a strike, he called it back approximately ten minutes prior to launch, due to critical and timely intelligence that indicated the intended critical targets were no longer accessible and the likelihood of a high number of civilian casualties was not worth the cost of the loss of a single unmanned aerial drone. A separate highly classified pre-strike op against select elements of Iran’s command and control infrastructure may have also had a definitive impact on the President’s decision to terminate the overall operation and stand down the strike package before it launched.
And yes, in fact, it did. It rendered Iran’s missile systems and command and control systems inoperable.
Everything else was deception and PSYOP (psychological operation) in order to deceive the Iranians as the U.S. launched the sweeping cyberattack against the Iranian military, in what was now the direct response to Iran’s downing of an American surveillance drone, U.S. officials responded over the weekend to the media, confirming that President Trump personally approved the retaliatory measures.
The overall strategic effort of the operational response was aimed at Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the nation’s military that conducts special operations and asymmetric warfare. The U.S. State Department has officially listed the unit a terrorist organization earlier this year. The powerful cyberattack targeted computer systems that control the IRGC’s rocket, missile, launchers, and associated radars systems. At this time, it is still undetermined if the feint of a airstrike or the cyberattack caused the Iranians to respond accordingly. We are awaiting further confirmation from the Pentagon.
Nevertheless, during the highly classified decision briefing in the White House Situation Room, the concept, strategy, and the objective of the cyberattack was presented to the President Trump as one of several options following last week’s incident in which Iran shot down a U.S. Global Hawk drone over the Strait of Hormuz. While the drone was unmanned, the shoot-down still added more fuel to growing military tensions between the two sides following the previous mining of several oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Iran’s reactions brought Mr. Trump to the brink of ordering airstrikes against Iranian targets. Together, the parallel cyberattack which was to precede the airstrikes was design to cripple Iran’s air defense and early warning detection systems to allow our strike package to get through essentially unopposed in order to take-out the selected targets.
Understand that the ‘deception’ aspect of the operation was the announced plan to launch airstrikes, the President then said he called off (the air strikes) after being briefed by military leaders that at least 150 people would be killed – more deception, and that the killing of that many Iranians was not worth the trade-off having lost the drone. That was part of the ‘PSYOP.’ As a warning though, President Trump reiterated again over the weekend that the White House will keep the pressure on Tehran. He stressed that the U.S. will not allow Iran to ever acquire nuclear weapons.
Of course, as usual the President went to one of his key StratComms platform – Twitter saying; “Iran cannot have Nuclear Weapons! Under the terrible Obama plan, they would have been on their way to Nuclear in a short number of years, and existing verification is not acceptable,” the president tweeted Saturday.
“We are putting major additional Sanctions on Iran on Monday. I look forward to the day that … Sanctions come off Iran, and they become a productive and prosperous nation again — the sooner the better!”
Remember and understand that President Trump last year withdrew the U.S. from a multinational deal in 2018 to limit Iran’s nuclear program, arguing the pact was too lax. The administration then quickly imposed a crushing set of economic sanctions, and earlier this year put in place a global embargo on imports of Iranian oil. The U.S. exit has obviously put strain on the U.S.-Iran relationship; this pressure was intensified when the Trump administration placed new sanctions and trade restrictions on Iran this year which is causing serious internal economic problems for the country.
With regard to any details of last week’s massive military and intelligence community cyberattack against Iran, because of the highly classified nature of cyber operations, nearly all of the details remained unknown throughout the weekend. Likewise, both military and intelligence officials did not immediately comment on the attack, though some officials in recent days have noted, saying that the U.S. would fight back against increasing Iranian aggression in cyberspace. However let me note that the cyberattack were part of a strategic plan and a necessary contingency plan created in the weeks leading up to the strike, following more than a year of mounting tensions between the two countries.
Similarly, the National Security Agency told the AP in a statement on Friday noted; “In these times of heightened tensions, it is appropriate for everyone to be alert to signs of Iranian aggression in cyberspace and ensure appropriate defenses are in place.” Further, while the extent of the cyberattack is still not clear, it certainly isn’t the first time the U.S. has targeted Iranian infrastructure through a cyber assault. That said, the U.S. has moved roughly 1,000 new troops to the Middle East. The forces were mostly made up of and consisted of systems, intelligence and communications specialists and experts which most certainly would be the type of elements to necessary to implement and back-up such operations.
If you recall, back between 2005-2010, the Stuxnet computer virus — which most observers believe was a joint U.S.-Israeli project — design to be targeted toward Iranian centrifuges as part of a broader effort to slow the nation’s nuclear program. Since, there have been other efforts and measures used to test, challenge and determine effectiveness that have been implemented and launched.
As would be expected, Iranian officials over the weekend did not address the cyberattack, but mostly likely in response to the attacks, the Iranians only response was to continue to threaten to shoot down more aircraft that violate its airspace. While Iran officially claims the U.S. drone entered its airspace, the U.S. and the Trump administrations deny that claim. Regardless, as I noted in my previous article, it matters not as to whether the drone entered Iran’s airspace, the likelihood of the U.S. going to war over the shoot done, which in and of itself are risk adverse, does matter – we are not going to war over the downing of a drone designed to spy on our adversaries.
Nevertheless, the Tehran regime stated; “Our response to anything trespassing Iranian territory is like this, and if such acts of aggression are repeated, our response will also be the same,” said Revolutionary Guard Aerospace Force Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, and put out by Iran’s official Fars News Agency.
So at some time, last week, in what appears to have been Thursday, President did allow the cyberattack to go forward, however, perhaps because there would be no casualties. Personnel from U.S. Cyber Command assisted by the Pentagon and other subordinated elements and entities launched the offensive on Iranian military command and control systems. As a series of target that were identified with both command and control and missile forces, an Iranian spy group with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was also targeted in the operation. According to information, the group target has over the past several years digitally tracked and targeted military and civilian ships passing through the economically important Strait of Hormuz — through which pass 17.4 million barrels of oil per day. Those capabilities, which have advanced over time, enabled attacks on vessels in the region for several years.
Important to remember, the U.S. Cyber Command was granted new powers by Congress this May and by the President last year, becoming a full combatant command with the ability to launch offensive action without explicit presidential approval, in order to react immediately to deter, defend and defeat foreign aggressive attacks against the U.S. publican and private interests.
Last week’s cyberattack against Iran is one of the command’s first attacks under these new powers; it also is reported to have used its new abilities to conduct operations in Russia’s power grid.
Obviously, it will be unlikely for the Pentagon and intelligence community to report on any details of the impact of the cyberattack, most will remain unknown regarding the extent and scope of the attacks, including how much damage the Iranian systems incurred. An indicator of the magnitude of the success of the attack on the control systems could only be gauged if the U.S. were able to observe Iran try and fail to launch a missile.
At the same time, understand, that even if the attacks were successful, they likely would not represent a critical blow to Iranian cyber capabilities. Assessing a similar attack that was launched against the Internet Research Agency to gauge effectiveness, an actor in Russia responsible for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. That attack took the Internet Research Agency offline for a time, but the group has resumed its operations.
As of this writing, Tehran has yet to officially respond to the attacks, but the nation’s Fars News Agency called U.S. news reports about the strike a “bluff meant to affect public opinion and regain lost reputation for the White House.”
Also as a side note, as of this article going to publish, neither has the U.S. officially commented on the cyberattack either; the president has not mentioned it in any of his tweets about Iran, and all of the officials who spoke with reporters did so anonymously. As of Sunday evening, the Pentagon had yet to be forthcoming and essentially declined to comment on the operation. As a former staff member on both the JCS Joint Staff and the White House National Security Council staff, it is a matter of both policy and for operational security that the U.S. government and military will not discuss cyberspace planning operations, or intelligence efforts related to such. Note also that the Trump administration has warned U.S. industry leaders to be vigilant for retaliatory cyberattacks emanating from Iran:
In a related situation, on Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to U.S. industry that Iran has stepped up its cyber-targeting of critical industries — to include oil, gas and other energy sectors — and government agencies, and has the potential to disrupt or destroy systems. It is well known that Iran has increased its capability” in the digital space, following attacks on an uranium enrichment plant that were revealed in 2010 to be caused by a computer worm (Stuxnet) developed by the U.S. and Israel.
It should also be noted, since late last week, parallel throughout the ongoing escalation, there have been suggested hints in back-channel comms with Iran that they are willing to hold further talks. However, Tehran said Washington must first alter its behavior meaning remove sanctions.
In recent days, an Iranian senior advisor to Iran’s President tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the nuclear deal, saying; if they (Washington) wanted something beyond the JCPOA [The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, i.e.; the nuclear deal] they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.” President Trump and the U.S. through third party, back-channel communiques, in this case the country of Oman, has told Iran, the U.S. is serious.
Understand that while the U.S. may have in the end elected to use a cyberattacks against Iran this time, and while it will likely need to remain on guard against cyber and digital attacks from Iran and other bad actors — the Pentagon, USCENTCOM, with the authority of the President maintains the capability making it clear that military strikes are still not off the table. President Trump suggested in a tweet that strikes could still come, specifically noting that he stopped physical military action “at this time.” Implying that planned operations could still be executed if necessary. The President in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” said he is “not looking for war” with Iran, but warned of “obliteration like you’ve never seen before” if Iran resumes its efforts to build nuclear weapons.