With an OK from the US president, the Pentagon this week launched cyberstrikes that took down Iranian computer networks used to control missile launches, says a report in The Washington Post, which cites unnamed people familiar with the matter. The news comes after Iran shot down a US surveillance drone it said was violating Iranian airspace. In response to the drone attack, the president had approved then pulled back from conventional military attacks on radar facilities, missile batteries and other targets in Iran.
But the Thursday night cyberstrikes against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been in preparation for some time, the Post reported, saying the Pentagon proposed them after Iran allegedly attacked two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman earlier in June.
"This operation imposes costs on the growing Iranian cyberthreat, but also serves to defend the United States Navy and shipping operations in the Strait of Hormuz," Thomas Bossert, a former senior White House cyberofficial in the Trump administration, told the Post.
"Our US military has long known that we could sink every IRGC vessel in the strait within 24 hours if necessary," Bossert told the Post. "And this is the modern version of what the US Navy has to do to defend itself at sea and keep international shipping lanes free."
Referring to the Iranians, an anonymous source told the paper that "this is not something they can put back together so easily."
Cyberwarfare and cyberespionage aren't new, but moves in these areas have grabbed headlines following Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and amid worries about Russian interference in the 2020 campaign. Other red flags have included Russia's shutdown of part of Ukraine's power grid in 2015, as well as reports that a Russian government-sponsored group had been able to gain access to the control rooms of US electric utilities in 2017.
In February, a former US Air Force intelligence officer was charged with espionage for allegedly working with Iranian hackers who used Facebook to try to trick her former colleagues into downloading malware that would track their computer activity.
Last Saturday, The New York Times reported that US Cyber Command had moved from a defensive to offensive posture, apparently under a military authorization bill Congress passed in 2018 that gives the go-ahead for "clandestine military activity" in cyberspace to "deter, safeguard or defend against attacks or malicious cyberactivities against the United States."
Cyber Command also received new authority last year from the US president under a still-classified document called National Security Presidential Memoranda 13, the Times said.
Asked to comment on the Post report, Department of Defense spokeswoman Heather Babb said that "as a matter of policy and for operational security, we do not discuss cyberspace operations, intelligence or planning." The White House didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Originally published June 22, 1:26 p.m. PT
Update, 5:34 p.m.: Adds mention of spying charge against former US Air Force intelligence officer.