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'New York Times' Report: U.S. Cyberattack Against Iran Wiped Out Critical Database

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Cast your mind back to earlier this summer - June 20. Tensions with Iran were running very high - so high that President Trump had approved military strikes against Iran, strikes which he called off at the last minute, as planes were already in the air. Well, it turns out that same day, Trump did give the green light to a very different operation, a cyberattack against a database used by Iran's paramilitary arm. And that is according to reporting by The New York Times.

And the Times' Julian Barnes is in our studio now. Hey.

JULIAN BARNES: Hey.

KELLY: So more details, please. What exactly was the target? And why was the U.S. interested in attacking it?

BARNES: There were a couple of targets here. The main target was this database that the paramilitary arm of the Iranian government was using to track tankers. Now, you'll...

KELLY: This is the IRGC...

BARNES: Yes.

KELLY: ...The Revolutionary Guard Corps? OK.

BARNES: Correct.

KELLY: Go on.

BARNES: And if you'll remember, as tensions were rising between Iran and the United States, there were a bunch of mine attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and the waters right outside. A Norwegian tanker, a Japanese tanker - all of these were covertly hit. The United States blamed Iran. They released some intelligence to make the case that Iran did it. It turns out that this database was what the IRGC was using to pick their targets.

KELLY: OK - to track those targets. So it'd be interesting to try to disable or paralyze that database in some way so that they could no longer use it to target.

BARNES: Exactly. And a cyber strike doesn't last forever. This is not something that eliminates this capability for all time. The Iranians will be able to rebuild it at some point. And it obviously didn't stop their overt attacks. The Iranians seized a British tanker, as we know. But it does make it harder to plot those strikes that are covert.

KELLY: And this cyberattack by the U.S. was successful. I mean, it worked.

BARNES: It was.

KELLY: It did disable it.

BARNES: Senior officials tell us that it was successful. Now, there were some doubts in the government afterwards, and that's partially why we're hearing a little bit more. Some people said, oh, we revealed too much of our capabilities with this strike.

KELLY: This is inside the Trump administration.

BARNES: Inside the Trump administration - some people who didn't want this to go on, some people maybe who wanted the kinetic strike, the airstrikes and not just the cyber strike. But as you pointed out, the White House had set - the cyber strike was proportional to what Iran did in a way that the airstrike might not have been.

KELLY: Has Iran retaliated?

BARNES: So Iran and the United...

KELLY: That we know of.

BARNES: Right.

KELLY: Guess we should add that caveat.

BARNES: Right. So - yeah, that's an important caveat because the cyberwar is a covert war. Attribution is hard. We don't know what is going on exactly at any given time. But officials tell us Iran, in recent months, has stepped up its cyberactivity but, since the June 20 attack, has not further escalated.

KELLY: I want to tease out something you nodded to, which is your sourcing for this article. You hang the story on anonymous officials. They are not on the record. You identify them as senior American officials. But you do describe in the article the reason you believe that they were willing to talk to you. Just speak to that.

BARNES: Yes. Now, it's very difficult when we are talking and reporting about operations that are meant to be secret. Officials are not at liberty to speak on the record. But the reason people spoke to us is because of some other officials saying there are doubts about this; this wasn't the right thing to do. And you know, this goes back not just to the Trump administration but to the Obama administration - a weighing back-and-forth of, when do you use - act on intelligence that you have and initiate a cyber operation? Because a lot of these operations you can only do once. And then after you do it, the vulnerability's discovered by the adversary and it is patched.

KELLY: That is Julian Barnes. He covers national security for The New York Times. Thanks for coming by.

BARNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.