The entrance of the reactor of Bushehr nuclear power plant.
The entrance of the reactor of Bushehr nuclear power plant, outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. Photo by AP
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The IDF Spokesman's website is not usually in the business of breaking stories, so Sunday's report on the Operations Department instructions defining the roles of cyber warfare in the IDF's operational doctrine was unexpected and intriguing. According to the report,

Cyber space is to be handled similarly to other battlefields on ground, at sea, in the air and in space. The IDF has been engaged in cyber activity consistently and relentlessly, gathering intelligence and defending its own cyber space. Additionally if necessary the cyber space will be used to execute attacks and intelligence operations.

There are many, diverse, operational cyber warfare goals, including thwarting and disrupting enemy projects that attempt to limit operational freedom of both the IDF and the State of Israel, as well as incorporating cyber warfare activity in completing objectives at all fronts and in every kind of conflict. Moreover, it will be used to maintain Israel's quality and advantage over its enemies and prevent their growth and military capabilities, while limiting their operation in this field.

Additional goals defined by the document published by the Operations Department include creation of operational conditions that will assist in fulfilling IDF capabilities in combat as well as influence public opinion and raise awareness by advocating in the cyber space.

Overall cyber space will be used to improve the operational effectiveness of the IDF, both during war and peace time. This will be done through clandestine activity, while maintaining confidentiality and expertise.

There are no actual operational details here, but the fact that the IDF has for the first time officially admitted that it is using cyberspace for offensive purposes is significant.

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It is unthinkable that such a report could have been issued (both on the Hebrew and English IDF websites) without authorization from the highest military and perhaps also political levels.

In previous on-record briefings and interviews, officers and officials have been prepared only to acknowledge work being done to protect vital computer and communications infrastructure and networks from cyber attacks, never to specify attempts to use those same weapons to disrupt the enemies infrastructure and to collect intelligence.

The timing is especially interesting, as it comes just a week after Flame, the mega-computer worm spying on Iranian and other Middle Eastern computer users was revealed. And it comes hot on the heels of the interview last week in which Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, said (regarding such cyber attacks) that "anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat – it's reasonable that he will take various steps, including these, to harm it" and that "Israel is blessed as being a country rich with high-tech, these tools that we take pride in open up all kinds of opportunities for us."

Ya'alon a few hours later attempted to scale down his remarks tweeting that "plenty of advanced Western countries, with apparent cyber-warfare capabilities, view Iran and especially its nuclear program as real threat," but the message got through.

This uncharacteristic Israeli openness coincides with a similar development across the Atlantic, where American officials have also revealed for the first time the level of cooperation with Israel in developing and deploying cyber weapons against Iran's nuclear program.

Few of the sources in the lengthy New York Times report are named, but for the first time we have reliable details on the way the computer virus known as Stuxnet, was developed and used in a joint U.S.-Israeli operation to sabotage Iran's uranium enrichment project. The cooperation between the American National Security Agency and the IDF's Military Intelligence Unit 8200, waging electronic war together on Iran, is probably the closest the two nations have ever come together in the history of their strategic relations.

The timing of the report by David E. Sanger could be coincidental. After all it is an adapted extract from his book “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power,” which will bepublished tomorrow in the U.S.

But the confluence of all these events, the emergence of Flame - which has been lurking in Iranian computers, unconcealed, for a few years now and may have been revealed intentionally to spook the Iranians, Ya'alon's unguarded comments, the IDF's report on its cyber warfare doctrine, and now the detailed statements from senior U.S. officials to Sanger, can hardly be a coincidence. It raises a number of key questions:

First, were these revelations part of a coordinated decision between Washington and Jerusalem to momentarily lift the cloak of darkness over their joint cyber efforts? Or are organizations and individuals in either country just trying to grab some of the credit for their own purposes?

Second, if the openness is intentional, who is all this information aimed at? Is their purpose to create more pressure on Iran, where researchers, officers and ordinary citizens are afraid to use their computers and the leaders have to take into account that further attempts to hide nuclear development are bound to fail? Or is this the Obama Administration trying to convince public opinion in the U.S and Israel and of course the Netanyahu government that the intelligence and electronic war on Iran is sufficient, and that there is no need for military strikes? And are certain elements in Israel's security and political establishment helping the Americans do this?

Third, is this just an aberration or are we going to see in the near future an acceptance by governments that cyber warfare is an accepted extension of diplomacy by other means? And how will Iran and other countries targeted in this way respond?