Loose Canons

Obama’s Stuttering Covert War

As Iran happily knows, covert operations are worthless if their substance and sponsor are made public.

By 6.18.12

Send to Kindle

President Obama's piecemeal approach to war reminds us of nothing at all. The Iraq withdrawal, the ongoing pullout from Afghanistan, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and his now-publicized "kill list" program using drones to bomb individual terrorists appear disconnected from any overall strategy to end the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Obama's approach to Iran is consistent with his overall incoherence. On one hand, he is doing everything possible to block an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear weapons program. On the other, as we learned seventeen days ago from the New York Times, Obama has engaged in a covert cyberwar against that same objective.

The president would argue that under our outdated laws, a cyber attack isn't even an act of war. But Carl von Clausewitz's "On War" defines war as "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." The cyber attacks on Iran are clearly an act of force to compel Iran to stop enriching uranium, imposing our will and Israel's. They were acts of war by any logical measure.

The problem that results from Obama's lack of cohesion is twofold. First, a covert war is most effective when it is covert, not advertised on the Times' front page. Second, if the covert war is to compel a result that doesn't disappear in a few weeks or months, it has to be carried out until the desired goal is achieved.

Covert operations such as the cyber attacks on Iran are authorized by "Presidential Determinations," which are supposed to be shared with the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in recognition of Congress's constitutional power over the conduct of wars. Presumably the Determination authorizing the covert cyber attack stated the objective of blocking Iran from achieving nuclear weapons.

But the cyber attacks, while they apparently delayed Iran's progress for several months, didn't achieve more than that.

Few nations have earned our wrath more convincingly than Iran. From the hostages taken at our Tehran embassy in 1979 to Iran's complicity in the 9/11 attacks (determined last December by a federal judge) to its direct support (with the innovative "explosively-formed penetrator" weapon) of Iraqi insurgents which killed many U.S. troops, Iran has taken little care in even disguising its military actions against us.

If Obama means to end our covert war with the cyber attacks, he is intending to end or limit a conflict that cannot be ended or limited because Iran will not let it. If we are unwilling to do more, we could at least undertake a wider covert war.

Some Iran experts, including my friend Michael Ledeen, argue that we need not conduct a conventional war with Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program. They argue that support for the Iranian opposition is a better option and would have the necessary effects in time to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

I have never believed that the Iranian opposition could be strong enough to topple the Tehran regime, and that military power would have to be employed to prevent the regime from producing nuclear weapons and the means of deploying them. Diplomacy won't work. No negotiation has produced any change in the Tehran regime's behavior since it came to power. The only questions remaining are whether covert operations can delay Iran's nuclear weapons program indefinitely and whether we can obtain enough accurate intelligence on that program to determine when the clock has run out and prompt, decisive military action has to be taken.

Our intelligence community still lacks the detailed information that could enable us to determine when Iran will achieve the nuclear capability it is pursuing. Though our ability to launch more covert operations against Iran is limited only by technology and imagination, the persistent lack of actionable intelligence -- which is not likely to be remedied in the coming months or years -- raises the risk of indefinite delay of military action to an intolerably high level. If we -- and the Israelis -- limit ourselves to covert action indefinitely, Iran will eventually achieve its nuclear ambitions.

The mullahs likely knew where the Stuxnet worm cyber attack came from, but having our authorship of the attacks published effectively dared the Iranian regime to counterattack. We don't know what form that response will take or how or when it will be made or if it will succeed. We do know that the leak to the Times makes it harder and more dangerous to do what is needed in Iran.

Though Obama has dipped his toe into the covert war waters, he or his successor next year face the same dilemma. Some combination of covert actions could have the effect of delaying Iran's nuclear program substantially, but what should they be and how long can we rely on them?

The limitations on our covert operations are only three: technology, our willingness to engage in more and different kinds of such operations, and our politics. The Obama White House leaks on the cyber attacks on Iran, and the Obama "kill list" program of drone attacks, are evidence of a reckless political strategy that, if continued, could prevent any future covert operations from succeeding. No covert agent or special operations soldier should have to bear that burden.

We had a significant opportunity to support the Iranian opposition in 2009 when opposition protests shook the Tehran regime. Obama declined to support the opposition and what could have been a revolution fizzled. We have refused to even talk to the opposition, a position that should be reversed immediately. If there is a substantial revolutionary movement in Iran, we should provide it covert aid in terms of financing, communications equipment, training and arms. CIA paramilitary groups should be inserted into Iran to perform these tasks and to improve our intelligence-gathering there. Sabotage against Iranian nuclear facilities should become a commonplace occurrence.

Expanding our cyberwar operations against Iran is one of the best options. Offensive cyberwar is far cheaper, and easier, than the defensive. We can, and should, disrupt Iranian government and military functions as often as we can. Iran is reportedly developing a new computer language to make such attacks more difficult. Our cyber warriors should be tasked to infiltrate that project and plant malicious software -- "malware" in cyber jargon -- to gather information from and at our command disrupt or destroy the computer networks the new system runs on.

A future president -- let's hope one will take office next year -- should consider the "bad luck" option. Covert operations need not be conducted only by special operations forces, CIA agents, or computer warriors. We have a significant variety of stealthy weapons and weapon platforms. That president would have the option of making an equally large variety of Presidential Determinations authorizing the use of those weapons against Iran's nuclear facilities and its intelligence and military centers.

When a target such as those blew up in the dark of night, who is to say that it's the fault of the Great Satan or just a bad luck accident? The Iranian regime could become the most unlucky in the world. Let's make it so.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.