The Dimona complex in the Negev desert is famous as the heavily guarded heart of Israelâ€™s never-acknowledged nuclear arms program, where neat rows of factories make atomic fuel for the arsenal.
Over the past two years, according to intelligence and military experts familiar with its operations, Dimona has taken on a new, equally secret role â€” as a critical testing ground in a joint American and Israeli effort to undermine Iranâ€™s efforts to make a bomb of its own.
Behind Dimonaâ€™s barbed wire, the experts say, Israel has spun nuclear centrifuges virtually identical to Iranâ€™s at Natanz, where Iranian scientists are struggling to enrich uranium. They say Dimona tested the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive program that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iranâ€™s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehranâ€™s ability to make its first nuclear arms.
â€œTo check out the worm, you have to know the machines,â€ said an American expert on nuclear intelligence. â€œThe reason the worm has been effective is that the Israelis tried it out.â€
Though American and Israeli officials refuse to talk publicly about what goes on at Dimona, the operations there, as well as related efforts in the United States, are among the newest and strongest clues suggesting that the virus was designed as an American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian program. …
Many mysteries remain, chief among them, exactly who constructed a computer worm that appears to have several authors on several continents. But the digital trail is littered with intriguing bits of evidence.
In early 2008 the German company Siemens cooperated with one of the United Statesâ€™ premier national laboratories, in Idaho, to identify the vulnerabilities of computer controllers that the company sells to operate industrial machinery around the world â€” and that American intelligence agencies have identified as key equipment in Iranâ€™s enrichment facilities.
Siemens says that program was part of routine efforts to secure its products against cyberattacks. Nonetheless, it gave the Idaho National Laboratory â€” which is part of the Energy Department, responsible for Americaâ€™s nuclear arms â€” the chance to identify well-hidden holes in the Siemens systems that were exploited the next year by Stuxnet.
The worm itself now appears to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iranâ€™s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. Another seems right out of the movies: The computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.
The attacks were not fully successful: Some parts of Iranâ€™s operations ground to a halt, while others survived, according to the reports of international nuclear inspectors. Nor is it clear the attacks are over: Some experts who have examined the code believe it contains the seeds for yet more versions and assaults. …
Israeli officials grin widely when asked about its effects. Mr. Obamaâ€™s chief strategist for combating weapons of mass destruction, Gary Samore, sidestepped a Stuxnet question at a recent conference about Iran, but added with a smile: â€œIâ€™m glad to hear they are having troubles with their centrifuge machines, and the U.S. and its allies are doing everything we can to make it more complicated.â€
In recent days, American officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity have said in interviews that they believe Iranâ€™s setbacks have been underreported. That may explain why Mrs. Clinton provided her public assessment while traveling in the Middle East last week.
By the accounts of a number of computer scientists, nuclear enrichment experts and former officials, the covert race to create Stuxnet was a joint project between the Americans and the Israelis, with some help, knowing or unknowing, from the Germans and the British.
The projectâ€™s political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. In January 2009, The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush authorized a covert program to undermine the electrical and computer systems around Natanz, Iranâ€™s major enrichment center. President Obama, first briefed on the program even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administrationâ€™s Iran strategy. So did the Israelis, other officials said.
You can hear the champagne corks popping at Langley all the way out here in Fauquier County.