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Paul Greenberg: Glow, little glow worm, glow

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All the years of empty talk from Western diplomats, negotiators and various distinguished do-nothings have failed to stop Iran's nuclear program. Who, after all, thought it would? Except of course those naifs who are always mistaking words for action.

Like the pundits who thought Barack Obama's speech in Cairo would actually make a difference in the Middle East. (Do they still talk about the Cairo Effect or have they developed a sense of reality since those heady days?) Lenin had a term for the kind of deep thinkers who took his talk of Peace and Friendship seriously: useful idiots. It's still relevant in our time.

None of the bountiful verbiage out of Washington or at the United Nations has made the slightest impression on the mullahs in Teheran. On the contrary, the principal result of these endless negotiations is to give them more time to develop their nuclear program. The centrifuges just keep on spinning.

Iran's nuclear installations are for peaceful purposes only, the world is assured. Do you think anyone actually believes such assurances, especially those who make them? Teheran's ever-faster progress toward a nuke of its own -- and the means to deliver it -- proceeds steadily. The pattern is familiar. It's the same one North Korea's regime followed to acquire nuclear weapons while assuring the world it had no such plans. Iran was on track toward the same goal. Until the worm appeared.

This worm's name is Stuxnet. It's of the computerized species, and reports indicate that somehow it's managed to set back Iran's nuclear ambitions for months, maybe years, even permanently. Work at both Natanz, that country's big uranium-enrichment plant, and its reactor at Bushehr has been disrupted, if not paralyzed.

How can that be? Because once little Stuxnet begins to worm its way into a computer system, there doesn't seem to be any way to get it out, such is its zest for replicating itself, prodigious little worm that it is.

There may be nothing the Iranians can do to stamp it out -- short of destroying the whole, infected system. And having to start all over again. Which means the ayatollahs' plans for a nuke of their own would be set back to Square One, or maybe before. Not bad for a little worm.

Let one Ralph Langner try his hand at explaining what Stuxnet has wrought. He's a German consultant on cybersecurity and should know. (Ah, the words the Internet has contributed to the language; they sound German even in English, like Cybersecurity.) "The Iranians," he says, "don't have the depth of knowledge to handle the worm or understand its complexity." He describes Stuxnet as the most "advanced and aggressive malware in history."

According to Herr Langner, it may be too late by now for the Iranians to stop our lumbrical friend from duplicating its way right through their whole nuclear program, slowing the centrifuges to a crawl or maybe stopping them altogether. The best-laid plans of mullahs and men gang aft agley and all that. What a pity. But some of us have been able to contain our sorrow. Indeed, just thinking about this sad turn of events is enough to induce a quiet smile.

The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, now has confirmed that Iran has had to suspend work at its nuclear production facilities. Which is good news for the rest of the world.

To quote Ralph Langner, "This was nearly as effective as a military strike, but even better since there are no fatalities and no full-blown war. From a military perspective, this was a huge success." Congratulations to all involved, whoever they may be. Clearly it wasn't the work of some amateur hacker; the Stuxnet code is said to be 15,000 lines long and must have taken years of research to develop.

"Here is the problem" for the Iranians, explains Herr Langner. "They should throw out every personal computer involved with the nuclear program and start over, but they can't do that. Moreover, they are completely dependent on outside companies for the construction and maintenance of their nuclear facilities. They should throw out their computers as well. But they can't. They will just continually re-infect themselves. With the best of expertise and equipment it would take another year for the plants to function normally again because it is so hard to get the worm out. It even hides in the backup system. But they can't do it."

Not since the Lord God Almighty Himself set a little worm inside a gourd to teach old Jonah a little humility has the humble worm proved so useful. But who put Mr. Stuxnet up to this caper? How many of the world's intelligence agencies are capable of conceiving, planning and executing such wormwork? The CIA? Its history, despite some bright spots, argues against it. But there's always hope.

If this really is the CIA's doing, there ought to be commendations and bonuses all around, maybe presented in a quiet ceremony. Very quiet. Indeed, top secret. The mark of a great accomplishment in espionage, sabotage and associated black arts is that researchers find out about it only when the archives are opened 50 or 100 years later. No sense boasting.

How about our friends in Jerusalem? Could they have pulled this off? But isn't the Israeli specialty removing terrorists from this vale of tears with considerable, not to say explosive, force? Rather than worming their way into computer systems. Note how they eliminated the Syrian/North Korean nuclear reactor across their border in one swift strike. It happened with so little ado the Syrians still haven't admitted it. But effective as that piece of work was, it lacked the subtlety, the effectivness, the discreet charm, of a worm at work.

The word around the kumsitz is that Israel's Unit 8200, an outfit known for its cyberwork, had a hand in creating the suspect software. Maybe in cooperation with our own cyber-savvy operatives.

Who do you think dunnit? Once you've rounded up the usual suspects, only two countries in all, the field is pretty limited. Say, you don't think some anonymous altruist is responsible, do you? If so, let's nominate him, her or it for the next Nobel Peace Prize. Worms, as any biologist can tell you, do useful work.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)



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