Facing mounting concern about Iran's nuclear program, a top US and Israeli technical team has developed an improved computer "malworm" designed to take down all of Iran's computer software.
According to former and serving US intelligence officials, leaders of the three major software companies, Sergey Brin at Google, Steve Ballmer at Microsoft and Larry Ellison at Oracle have been working with Israel's top cyber warriors and have now come up with a new version of a Stuxnet-like worm that can bring down Iran's entire software networks if the Iranian regime gets too close to breakout, according to US intelligence sources.
The three companies had no comment on this story.
"Cyber warfare is a lot like biological warfare. It's hard to stop. It's uncontrollable. It can bite you in the ass," said one US official.
This new version of Stuxnet was, until recently, seen as a tool to derail any notions of an Israel military surgical strike on Iran with the United States in a supporting role. During his visit to Israel, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta carried a US message to Tel Aviv that President Barack Obama would not support a military strike on Iran, said a US official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. Israeli plans for an attack had alarmed the National Security Council and the Senate Foreign Policy Committee when briefed on the Israeli proposal.
"They were in shock afterwards," the US official said.
Since early June, US intelligence experts have warned of an Israeli attack on Iran before the UN meeting on the question of Palestinian statehood.
Those warnings came at the same time as when then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates left office in June and when Joint Chiefs of Staff head Adm. Mike Mullen was preparing for his September retirement.
Throughout the summer, US officials strenuously resisted the urgings of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a pre-emptive strike.
Several senior US intelligence officials confirmed large contingency planning drills for an intervention if Israel attacked Iran. Planning for such an intervention was seen as "pretty far advanced," a US official said in July.
These officials reported they were resisting such notions with all the force they could. But one cautioned, "This is no drill."
But matters became more complicated when the FBI uncovered an Iranian terrorist operation targeted in Washington, DC, that could have supported long-time American hard liners as well as Israeli supporters of some type of military attack on Iran.
A compounding factor is the Saudi position - telling President Obama the Saudis strongly support a military campaign against Iran. Saudi officials are now signaling the Israelis that Saudi King Abd'allah is in favor of a strike on Iran.
This new Stuxnet worm is being advanced by administration and intelligence officials as a more powerful tool with a stronger range and capability than the previous version. Officials want this new cyber capability to derail any military action that could result in a regional war.
The Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear plants in Bushehr and Natanz in 2010 was the result of a joint effort among the United States and the cyber warfare experts of Israel's Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces Unit 8200.
The attack wreaked havoc on Iran's nuclear program for 11 months, US officials confirmed.
These officials verified Israeli assertions that Iran never overcame the disruptions caused by Stuxnet nor did it manage to restore its old centrifuges to smooth and normal operation as was claimed.
US intelligence sources, current and former, said Iran finally was forced to scrap tainted machines and replace them with new ones.
Iran provided confirmation of this July 19 when a senior Iranian official said improved and faster centrifuge models were being installed.
Sources differ on the number of centrifuges replaced. One former US intelligence official said at least 1,000 machines had been replaced.
Israeli intelligence sources put the number as high as 5,000. US sources believe the actual estimate to be lower.
"Iran has an illegal procurement system for the machines and it makes the system vulnerable to attack," said one former US intelligence official with knowledge of the matter. The reason it is vulnerable to attack is that the CIA has penetrated Iran's dummy procurement companies in order to plant design and other flaws that will cause the system to malfunction if Iran tries to use it. As a former CIA official said, "When Tehran throws a switch, nothing will happen."
In spite of US intelligence operations to hamper or thwart any progress on Iran's nuclear program, Israel continues to claim in recent months that Iran has taken advantage of the West's fixation with the Arab Spring to forge ahead unnoticed with its weapons program.
US officials dismissed this claim by the Israelis, pointing out that it was hard to argue on one hand that a "malworm" had severely damaged Iran's system to the point where it has had to replace its machines, and then on the other hand boast of Iran's ongoing secret progress. "That nonsense is for Israeli hawks like (Israel's Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu," one source said.
"Anyone who argues about secret progress in Iran's program had better come up with hard evidence of it. We do not possess such evidence," a former senior intelligence official said.
There is little doubt that cyber offensives are a growing segment of warfare as evidenced by a recent New York Times report about a debate within the Obama administration to use the weapon to neutralize Libya's computer networks.