Sen. Feinstein Calls for Hearing on Stuxnet Leaks as FBI Begins Probe

Following a report in the New York Times last Friday, which quoted unnamed U.S. government sources saying the U.S. was behind the release of the Stuxnet worm, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has called for Capitol Hill hearings about the leak — but not about the extraordinary attack itself.

“I am deeply disturbed by the continuing leaks of classified information to the media, most recently regarding alleged cyber efforts targeting Iran’s nuclear program,” Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement released Tuesday.

The FBI has reportedly already launched a criminal investigation into the leaks, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Obama administration has been extremely aggressive in investigating and prosecuting leakers of other information, including using subpoenas to journalists in an attempt to unmask their sources and going after email and phone records.

Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, disclosed that she had sent a classified letter about the issue to President Obama and has discussed holding a joint hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee to investigate the leaks.

She told The Hill that there is concern that the attack and news attributing it to the U.S. would provide justification for copycat cyberattacks against the U.S.

“This is like an avalanche. It is very detrimental and, candidly, I found it very concerning,” Feinstein said. “There’s no question that this kind of thing hurts our country,” referring to the leak, not the unprecedented offensive use of a cyberattack that caused physical damage.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced on Tuesday that Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had agreed to hold a hearing on the leaks.

The move comes after the New York Times quoted a number of anonymous sources, including current and former U.S., Israeli and European officials, who said that Obama had ordered the Stuxnet attack against an Iranian uranium enrichment plant to continue even after he became aware that the malware used in the attack had spread beyond the intended target and was infecting computers elsewhere.

Sources told the Times that the cyberattack, part of a larger sabotage operation dubbed “Olympic Games,” was a joint project of the U.S. and Israel, and that the worm escaped its prescribed target after the Israelis made some unspecified alterations to it. The spread of the worm ultimately led to its discovery by a computer security firm in Belarus in June 2010.

McCain, in a statement, accused the White House of leaking information about its role in Stuxnet to improve the president’s reelection bid. He called for the appointment of special counsel to investigate and prosecute whoever was behind the leaks.

“The only conceivable motive for such damaging and compromising leaks of classified information is that it makes the president look good,” McCain said on Tuesday. “They are merely gratuitous and utterly self-serving.”

The White House has denied that it was behind the leaks.

Feinstein said she plans to add language to the next Intelligence Authorization Bill that would require notification of authorized disclosures and an explanation of the rationale behind the disclosures. She also wants more resources made available for investigating and prosecuting leaks of classified information.

The U.S.’s involvement in Stuxnet is just one in a series of recent leaks, including one that reportedly stymied an ongoing operation that involved a double agent who was helping the U.S. and allies infiltrate al Qaeda supporters in Yemen. The White House had attempted to convince the Associated Press to withhold the latter story, presumably to give the administration time to get the agent out of harm’s way, but was unsuccessful in getting the media outlet to delay publication for more than a few days.

Other leaks have involved the U.S. drone program in Yemen and the Obama administration’s “kill list.”

David Sanger, the author of the Times piece about Stuxnet told “Face the Nation” on Sunday, that he “spent a year working the story from the bottom up, and then went to the administration and told them what I had. Then they had to make some decisions about how much they wanted to talk about it . . . I’m sure the political side of the White House probably likes reading about the president acting with drones and cyber and so forth. National-security side has got very mixed emotions about it because these are classified programs.”

Photo of Sen. Dianne Feinstein courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory