The Obama administration is deliberately leaking information on US cyber-attacks against Iran in order to portray itself in a favourable light to voters, Senator John McCain has alleged.
In a Senate speech and media interviews, McCain referred to sensational claims made by journalist David Sanger last week that the Stuxnet worm attack uncovered in 2010 was part of a longer-term, organised software campaign to undermine Iran’s nuclear and military capability.
"With the leaks that these articles were based on, our enemies now know much more than they even did the day before they came out about important aspects of the nation's unconventional offensive capability and how we use them,” McCain told the Senate.
“Such disclosures can only undermine similar ongoing or future operations and, in this sense, compromise national security. For this reason, regardless of how politically useful these leaks may be to the president, they have to stop."
Stuxnet has long been assumed to be part of a US-Israeli campaign against the country but the detail revealed by Sanger still surprised a lot of people acclimatised to an era of ‘plausible deniability’.
Far from being an embarrassment, McCain alleged that drip-feeding information on cyber-operations was politically useful.
"They're intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections. That is unconscionable," McCain later said in interviews.
The leaks were part of a wider tendency to “boast” about operations, including attacks on anti-Western militants in Afghanistan and elsewhere, which removed the mystique of such actions.
The FBI has apparently opened an investigation into the alleged leaks, which are both detailed and yet, paradoxically, still unconfirmed. How details of the Stuxnet ‘Olympic Games’ programme were leaked, by whom and with what purpose is perhaps the last unsolved mystery.
Some see an investigation as absurd. If McCain’s characterisation of the leak as being deliverate is correct, Sanger’s Stuxnet story must have had some level of approval from senior officials so what is there to investigate? The White House has not responded to McCain's allegations.
The affair contrasts markedly with the UK’s modus operandi where special forces operations and cyber-warfare are rarely referred to and as a matter of official policy otherwise neither confirmed nor denied.
Normally the Stuxnet revelations would be just another interesting security story but they arrived in the week a new and previously unknown piece of apparent cyber-malware called 'Flame' attracted huge attention. That too is now being widely blamed on the US as part of its anti-iran activities. Some now worry that the US's actions - not to mention the appearance of gloating - might set a bad precedent for other states undoubtedly wielding cyber-weapons of their own.