The United States and Israel jointly developed a sophisticated computer virus nicknamed Flame that collected intelligence in preparation for cyber-sabotage aimed at slowing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon, according to Western officials with knowledge of the effort.
The massive piece of malware secretly mapped and monitored Iran’s computer networks, sending back a steady stream of intelligence to prepare for a cyberwarfare campaign, according to the officials.
The effort, involving the National Security Agency, the CIA and Israel’s military, has included the use of destructive software such as the Stuxnet virus to cause malfunctions in Iran’s nuclear-enrichment equipment.
The emerging details about Flame provide new clues to what is thought to be the first sustained campaign of cyber-sabotage against an adversary of the United States.
“This is about preparing the battlefield for another type of covert action,” said one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official, who added that Flame and Stuxnet were elements of a broader assault that continues today. “Cyber-collection against the Iranian program is way further down the road than this.”
Flame came to light last month after Iran detected a series of cyberattacks on its oil industry. The disruption was directed by Israel in a unilateral operation that apparently caught its American partners off guard, according to several U.S. and Western officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
There has been speculation that Washington had a role in developing Flame, but the collaboration on the virus between the United States and Israel has not been previously confirmed. Commercial security researchers reported last week that Flame contained some of the same code as Stuxnet. Experts described the overlap as DNA-like evidence that the two sets of malware were parallel projects run by the same entity.
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