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Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David E. Sanger

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Three and a half years ago, David Sanger’s book The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power described how a new American president came to office with the world on fire. Now, just as the 2012 presidential election battle begins, Sanger follows up with an eye-opening, news-packed account of how Obama has dealt with those challenges, relying on innovative weapons and reconfigured tools of American power to try to manage a series of new threats. Sanger describes how Obama’s early idealism about fighting “a war of necessity” in Afghanistan quickly turned to fatigue and frustration, how the early hopes that the Arab Spring would bring about a democratic awakening slipped away, and how an effort to re-establish American power in the Pacific set the stage for a new era of tensions with the world’s great rising power, China.

As the world seeks to understand the contours of the Obama DoctrineConfront and Conceal is a fascinating, unflinching account of these complex years, in which the president and his administration have found themselves struggling to stay ahead in a world where power is diffuse and America’s ability to exert control grows ever more elusive.


About the Author

DAVID E. SANGER is the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and bestselling author of The Inheritance. He has been a member of two teams that won the Pulitzer Prize and has received numerous awards for coverage of the presidency and national security policy. He also teaches national security policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.


Introduction: Author talking about the book


Table of Contents:


Piggybacking on GW Bush’s earlier forays into cyber warfare, President Obama, in lieu of having to launch (or having to prevent Israel from launching) a full-scaled air attack, elected to launch instead, a joint cyber attack with Israel on the centrifuges at Iran‘s Natanz nuclear plant. In retrospect, it can be seen that Obama’s motive for pulling Israel into a highly secret cyber project was designed primarily to dissuade our closest Middle East Ally, from launching its own unilateral (but what would have probably been a highly destabilizing) military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This well-written book goes into such scary detail about the whole enterprise, that like John McCain in his recent call for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the matter, I too wondered how a New York Times Reporter could get access to so may intricate details of such a closely held national security secret?

Here is a rough summary of the most interesting part of the book in my view, the author’s description of how a Bush initiated project called “Olympic Games,” unfolded and got played out under Obama administration direction:

Following up on previous efforts to surreptitiously install faulty parts into Iran’s German made computer systems and power supplies, General James Cartwright, of the U.S. strategic command convinced President GW Bush that launching a cyber penetration effort could be at least as effective as the stratagem of trying to introduce faulty parts. Bush bought into Cartwright’s idea, which outlined a way of gaining access to the Natanz plant’s industrial computer controls by the innocent introduction via a thumb drive of a small bit of “sleeper” code called a “beacon.” Once the “beacon” entered the system, its job was then to surreptitiously map the complete operation of the facility’s master control system and report the results back to the NSA.

This scenario was played out exactly as General Cartwright had planned it to; and once the beacon did its job, NSA (by now under the Obama administration’s direction), engaged in a joint effort with the Israeli version of our own NSA cyber counterparts. Together they developed a “worm” called Stuxnet, that, without making itself known to the target, infiltrated and fouled up the operational controls of the Iranian centrifuges. In effect, and without tipping off its own presence, Stuxnet instructed the centrifuges to self-destruct, leaving control panel gauges with readings that would be perfectly normal for an uneventful operational state.

The exercise worked to perfection with two exceptions. First, although the worm did indeed knock out about a thousand or so Iranian centrifuges, they were back up and running in little over a year. Second, an Iranian Scientist accidentally downloaded the worm onto his private laptop, and unwittingly disseminated the Stuxnet worm across the Internet. This boomerang effect, for obvious reasons, set off alarm bells in Washington.

The moral of this exercise is a non-political one, but is nevertheless a profound one, and can only stand as a cautionary tale about playing with “cyber weapons” that we neither fully understand nor can fully control: The cautionary tale is that these weapons can have profound far-reaching unintended consequences. In a world where cyber technology, and thus cyber weapons, are available to anyone, whether they be nations, innocent or mercenary computer hackers, or terrorists, all nations, including the largest and most sophisticated ones, are equally vulnerable. And once attacked, it is next to impossible for those attacked, to know the identity of the attacker. Unless that is, the country happens to be the U.S., who sooner rather than later will spill its guts and spill the beans on itself, and admit that it was the attacker: A devastatingly clear and alarming read that does not pander to the Obama administration, but reveals the risk it will take to get on the good side of national security hawks. Five stars

-By Herbert L Calhoun

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