Polio virus strain in Syria confirmed as being from Pakistan, WHO says


Polio that has crippled at least 13 children in Syria has been confirmed as being caused by a strain of the virus that originated in Pakistan and is spreading across the Middle East, the World Health Organisation said.

Genetic sequencing shows the strain found in Syrian children in Deir al-Zor, where an outbreak was detected last month, is linked to the strain of Pakistani origin found in sewage in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories in the past year.

“Genetic sequencing indicates that the isolated viruses are most closely linked to virus detected in environmental samples in Egypt in December 2012 (which in turn had been linked to wild poliovirus circulating in Pakistan),” the United Nations agency said in a statement on Monday.

Closely-related strains of the wild poliovirus of Pakistani origin have also been detected in sewage samples in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip since February 2013, it said.

Polio virus has been confirmed in 13 of 22 children who became paralysed in the northern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor. Investigations continue into the other 9 cases. It is Syria's first polio outbreak since 1999.

No children in Egypt, Israel or the Palestinian territories have been hit by polio thanks to high immunisation rates and a strong response to the alert, WHO spokeswoman Sona Bari said.

Polio virus is endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria despite a 25-year-old campaign to eradicate the disease, which can paralyse a child in hours.

IMMUNISATION RATES

Islamist fighters from countries including Pakistan are among groups battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad, leading to speculation that they brought the virus into the country.

The WHO says it is unlikely that adults, who generally have higher immunity, carried the virus into Syria and that its mode of transmission will probably never be known.

Syria's immunisation rates have plummeted from more than 90 percent before the conflict to around 68 percent. Polio mainly affects children under five and cannot be cured, only prevented.

“All the children (paralysed) are under two years old, so they were all born after immunisation services fell apart,” Bari told Reuters. “No doubt the outbreak will be large.”

Children living in unsanitary conditions are especially vulnerable to the virus, which spreads via faecal-oral transmission and contaminated food and water.

More than 20 million children, including 1.6 million in Syria, are to be vaccinated in Syria and neighbouring countries over the next six months, U.N. agencies said last week.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche

Zombies solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict


Recently, I went to see “World War Z,” a typical Hollywood blockbuster with a fairly typical theme — zombies. Now, a quick note to all you non-film buffs out there: Zombie films are never about zombies; they are about the societal pressures of the day. The basic premise of the film was nothing new [Spoiler Alert]: A virus mutated and spread, people were turned into zombies, and entire cities across the globe were wiped out. There doesn’t seem to be any hope of survival except for Brad Pitt, a U.N. soldier of sorts, who must save the world.

None of this offers any brilliant insights about our society in 2013. There was, however, a notable choice in this film that surprised me. The screenwriters chose one country that was successfully keeping out the zombies: Israel.

Aerial shots of Jerusalem filled the big screen, along with a giant concrete wall built along the Green Line. Giant walls and checkpoints were seen as necessary security measures, which stimulated a positive feeling in the audience. Israel became a refuge for all of humanity — anyone who made it to the gates of the country without being infected. We saw strong women fighting for safety, we heard a brief history of Israel and the Jewish people, and we were given insights into the Israeli mentality. For me this choice alluded to the Isaiah 42:6 passage in which God says to the Jewish people that they should be “a light unto the nations.” While these moments made me smile, there was something more important coming through the big screen. It was the waving of the Israeli and Palestinian flags with all of the people, Jewish and Muslim, Orthodox and secular, dancing and singing the Hebrew peace song and prayer.

This scene, I joked, demonstrated to the audience what could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a zombie virus outbreak that was infecting the entire planet. It sounds outrageous, but in thinking about it a little more, I came to realize these screenwriters were onto something. Could it be that they were trying to argue that only an external power of enormous magnitude could solve the conflict? So, I took a look at both the current state of the conflict and a theory that could explain why a zombie apocalypse could, in fact, create peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli and Palestinian governments have been at a stalemate for more than a decade, yet among Middle East experts it is common knowledge that everyone knows what a peace agreement would look like. As Aaron David Miller, Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said on NPR recently, “Look, you could have an agreement. If Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas were prepared to pay the price of what it would cost.” Right now, that price is too high. The societal pressures placed on both leaders make it politically unfavorable to resolve the conflict. The status quo is better than the unknown. The final-status agreement will take tremendous strength and political capital, as well as the will of the people, but that is not what is frightening — it is what comes next: How do the people shift their beliefs and mentalities as well as erase their fears and the hatred? How do they live in peace with their neighbors? How can their typical behaviors and way of thinking shift overnight when their leaders sign a piece of paper — a peace treaty. The “next” is harder than the agreement.

So what does this have to do with zombies? Well, zombies are a metaphor for a great external power that forces populations and governments to dramatically shift their behavior overnight. The only way to go from conflict to peace overnight is through a forced shift in the typical behavior of the elites as well as average citizens changing national interests, ingrained belief systems, identity, involuntary reactions to “the other,” negative stereotypes and many other small but significant social and cultural cues.

This can be explained by a theory in sociology called socialization — when a major force causes an external and internal crisis in a country or region, people shift their behavior because they must in order to survive. In other words, zombies.

Does this mean that unless a zombie virus breaks out and Israel becomes a safe haven, we won’t have peace between Israelis and Arabs? I’m not such a skeptic. This is where public diplomacy remains a key factor in shifting behavior over time — laying the foundation for a slow and steady migration toward a true peace instead of needing an external crisis to force the behavior shift overnight. Peace activists, public diplomats, and ordinary citizens of both Israel and the future Palestinian state must continue to listen and learn from each other, find the commonalities and overcome fears … or pray for Ebola, the bubonic plague, flesh-eating bacteria or, clearly, a zombie apocalypse.

An extended version of this piece was originally posted on the CPD Blog of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School.


Naomi Leight is a partner in Rimona Consulting, assistant director for research and publications at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School and co-founder of Jewcer.com.

Snowden says U.S., Israel created Stuxnet virus


Whistleblower Edward Snowden told a German magazine that Israel and the United States created the Stuxnet computer virus that destroyed nuclear centrifuges in Iran. 

Snowden made the statement as part of an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel in which he answered encrypted questions sent by security software developer Jacob Appelbaum and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Excerpts of the interview were published Monday on the Spiegel website.

Snowden was asked if the U.S. National Security Agency partners “with other nations, like Israel?” He responded that the NSA has a “massive body” responsible for such partnerships called the Foreign Affairs Directorate.

He also was asked,  “Did the NSA help to create Stuxnet?” Snowden responded, “NSA and Israel co-wrote it.”

Stuxnet in 2010 wrought havoc on equipment at Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant and complicated the manufacture of highly enriched uranium, which the West suspects is intended for making atomic weapons. The virus temporarily disabled 1,000 centrifuges being used by the Iranians to enrich uranium.

Snowden, a former technical contractor for the NSA and employee of the CIA, last month revealed the existence of mass surveillance programs by the United States and Britain against their own citizens and citizens of other countries.

He said Germany and most other Western nations are “in bed together” with the NSA.

Snowden said a private citizen would be targeted by the NSA based on Facebook or webmail content.

“The only one I personally know of that might get you hit untargeted are jihadi forums,” he said.

Snowden is a fugitive of the United States who is believed to be in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Three Latin American countries — Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia — have offered him asylum, NBC reported.

Researchers say Stuxnet was deployed against Iran in 2007


Researchers at Symantec Corp. have uncovered a version of the Stuxnet computer virus that was used to attack Iran's nuclear program in November 2007, two years earlier than previously thought.

Planning for the cyber weapon, the first publicly known example of a virus being used to attack industrial machinery, began at least as early as 2005, according to an 18-page report that the security software company published on Tuesday.

Stuxnet, which is widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was uncovered in 2010 after it was used to attack a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, Iran. That facility has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the United States, Israel and allies, who charge that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Symantec said its researchers had uncovered a piece of code, which they called “Stuxnet 0.5,” among the thousands of versions of the virus that they had recovered from infected machines.

Stuxnet 0.5 was designed to attack the Natanz facility by opening and closing valves that feed uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges, without the knowledge of the operators of the facility, according to Symantec.

The virus was being developed early as 2005, when Iran was still setting up its uranium enrichment facility, said Symantec researcher Liam O'Murchu. That facility went online in 2007.

“It is really mind blowing that they were thinking about creating a project like that in 2005,” O'Murchu told Reuters in ahead of the report's release at the RSA security conference, an event attended by more than 20,000 security professionals, in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Symantec had previously uncovered evidence that planning for Stuxnet began in 2007. The New York Times reported in June 2012 that the impetus for the project dated back to 2006, when U.S. President George W. Bush was looking for options to slow Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Previously discovered versions of Stuxnet are all believed to have been used to sabotage the enrichment process by changing the speeds of those gas-spinning centrifuges without the knowledge of their operators.

Since Stuxnet's discovery in 2010, security researchers have uncovered a handful of other sophisticated pieces of computer code that they believe were developed to engage in espionage and warfare. These include Flame, Duqu and Gauss.

Stuxnet 0.5 was written using much of the same code as Flame, a sophisticated virus that researchers have previously said was primarily used for espionage, Symantec said.

Tens of millions of hackers target Israel government Web sites


More than 44 million hacking attempts have been made on Israeli government web sites since Wednesday when Israel began its Gaza air strikes, the government said on Sunday.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said just one hacking attempt was successful on a site he did not want to name, but it was up and running after 10 minutes of downtime.

Typically, there are a few hundred hacking attempts a day on Israeli sites, the ministry said.

Attempts on defence-related sites have been the highest, while 10 million attempts have been made on the site of Israel's president, 7 million on the Foreign Ministry and 3 million on the site of the prime minister.

Screenshot from Groupon.co.il which was hacked by Pakistani hackers.

A ministry spokesman said while the attacks have come from around the world, most have been from Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“The ministry's computer division will continue to block the millions of cyber attacks,” Steinitz said. “We are enjoying the fruits of our investment in recent years in developing computerised defence systems.”

Steinitz has instructed his ministry to operate in emergency mode to counter attempts to undermine government sites.

Both sides in the Gaza conflict, but particularly Israel, are embracing the social media as one of their tools of warfare. The Israeli Defense Force has established a presence on nearly every platform available while Palestinian militants are active on Twitter.

“The war is taking place on three fronts. The first is physical, the second is on the world of social networks and the third is cyber,” said Carmela Avner, Israel's chief information officer.

Last month, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said cyberspace is the battlefield of the future, with attackers already going after banks and other financial systems. U.S. banks have been under sustained attack by suspected Iranian hackers thought to be responding to economic sanctions aimed at forcing Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program.

Reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Stephen Powell

PRO PROP 37: Should genetically engineered foods be labeled?


[Read the con argument here]

Did you know that you have been enrolled in the largest research study ever conducted in the United States, but you never signed a consent form or agreed to participate? That’s because since 1996, you — and basically everyone you know — have been eating genetically engineered foods.

Genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are created by forcing a piece of DNA from a totally different species, such as bacteria or viruses, into the DNA of a plant or animal. For example, genetically engineered soybeans have DNA from bacteria and viruses spliced into their DNA to help them tolerate weed killers such as Roundup.

This genetic feat creates a whole new species of plant that would have never occurred in nature. Most soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, some zucchini, yellow squash and alfalfa are genetically modified. Products such as oil, high fructose corn syrup and sugar are created from these crops and added to processed foods. This explains why nearly 80 percent of processed foods, including baby formula and most fast foods, contain GMOs.

The question is, are GMOs safe for us and the environment? The answers are not clear. When we decided to write an article on GMOs, we quickly realized there is no evidence that GMOs are safe for humans. We also found that the Food and Drug Administration did not do its own safety testing before GMOs were put into our food supply. The “studies” done by the companies that created the seeds compared genetically modified corn to regular corn and found that they were similar and thus thought to be safe.

However, there are animal studies with negative findings, including organ damage, tumors, infertility and immune system changes. Toxins from GMO corn and soy have been found in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their umbilical cords. It is clear that more research is needed.

The environment is another issue. What are the implications when a genetically engineered plant crossbreeds with other plants? Monarch butterflies are declining due to the destruction of milkweed. Super bugs and super weeds are already appearing. What other consequences are possible? Do we really want to irreversibly change the face of plant life with unknown consequences?

The bottom line is that we have a product in our food supply with unknown health and environmental implications. At the very least, we should have these foods labeled. However, try as we might, we cannot make that happen in the United States. Polls show 90 percent of people want them labeled, but the biotech companies and food manufacturers do not. If their products are beneficial and safe, why not be proud of those products and label them? Nearly 50 countries, including China, require GMO labeling, and some countries ban GMOs. Don’t we have a right to know what’s in our food?

What do Jewish leaders have to say about labeling? The Resolution on Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods issued by Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action states that “GE [genetically engineered] products ought to be labeled as such, since the concealment of vital information (and this information is vital, important to the decision of the consumer to use it) is a violation of the prohibition against deceitful advertising.” (Shulchan Aruch) Similarly, a Conservative rabbi and a Chabad rabbi told us they support labeling because “it’s important for Jews to know what is in their food.”

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) says that kashrut would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Surprisingly, kashrut agencies may decide that salmon with eel genes (which may soon be sold unlabeled) is kosher. But, observant Jews may feel otherwise and want to avoid it. Vegetarians may prefer to avoid ice cream that is now sold with GMO yeast with fish genes in it. 

Everyone has the right to be informed, through labeling, and thereby avoid foods that violate their personal standards of conscience and religious observance.

Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, will be on the November ballot. Companies such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta will probably create ads telling us that labeling is expensive and unnecessary because GMOs are safe. But, prices did not increase when Europe introduced GMO labeling in 1997 or when companies began labeling trans fats in the U.S.

Food labels already tell us if a food has high fructose corn syrup, trans fat or is irradiated. Why can’t we know if it’s genetically engineered? These companies’ biggest fear is that once GMOs are labeled, we won’t want to eat them anymore. And that may happen, just like it did when we found out there was pink slime in our hamburgers.

Our country is based on a free-market economy. If you supply a product the public does not want, the market dictates it will go away. So, biotech companies and food manufacturers will probably spend $50 million to $100 million to prevent the labeling of GMOs.

Whether you are concerned about health and fertility, the environment, or kosher or ethical eating, we hope you will join us and vote for the right to know when there are genetically engineered ingredients in our food.

Adapted with permission from an article at laprogressive.com.


Carole Bartolotto, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in exercise physiology, has worked in the field of diet and health for more than 20 years. She blogs about nutrition and health at healthyeatingrocks.com. Lisa Goldwag Kassner lives in Northridge and can be reached at labelgmos80@gmail.com.

Iran denies report of AC/DC song playing from computers at nuclear site


Iran denied a report that some computers at the country’s nuclear facilities were hit with a virus that shut them down and played the AC/DC song “Thunderstruck” at full blast.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, called the report “incorrect,” according to Bloomberg News, citing the Iranian Students News Agency. He did not elaborate on the issue.

Late last month, an Iranian nuclear scientist reportedly complained to a cybersecurity expert via e-mail that the song was playing from some of the computers. The e-mail claimed that the virus also shut down part of the network.

The cybersecurity expert, Mikko Hypponen, the chief research officer at the Finnish security firm F-Secure, could not provide further details on the attack. F-Secure confirmed, however, that the e-mails were from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

Virus gives Iran’s nuclear facilities a blast of AC/DC


A virus reportedly caused a heavy metal song to play from computers at two of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

According to the Times of Israel, computers at the Nantaz and Fordo facilities blasted the AC/DC song “Thunderstruck” at full volume in the middle of the night last weekend. An Iranian nuclear scientist reportedly complained to a cybersecurity expert via email that the song was playing from the computers. The virus also reportedly shut down part of the network.

The cybersecurity expert, Mikko Hypponen, the chief research officer at the Finnish security firm F-Secure, could not confirm the reports.

On Wednesday, the head of Iran’s Information Technology and Communications Organization, Ali Hakim Javadi, called for international condemnation of cyberattacks, the Times of Israel reported.

U.S., Israel developed Flame computer virus, according to anonymous Western officials


The United States and Israel jointly developed the Flame computer virus that collected intelligence to help slow Iran’s nuclear program, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday, citing anonymous Western officials.

The so-called Flame malware aimed to map Iran’s computer networks and monitor computers of Iranian officials, the newspaper said. It was designed to provide intelligence to help in a cyber campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, involving the National Security Agency, the CIA and Israel’s military, the Post said.

The cyber campaign against Iran’s nuclear program has included the use of another computer virus called Stuxnet that caused malfunctions in Iran’s nuclear enrichment equipment, the newspaper said.

Current and former U.S. and Western national security officials confirmed to Reuters that the United States played a role in creating the Flame virus.

Since Flame was an intelligence “collection” virus rather than a cyberwarfare program to sabotage computer systems, it required less-stringent U.S. legal and policy review than any U.S. involvement in offensive cyberwarfare efforts, experts told Reuters.

The CIA, NSA, Pentagon, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

Flame is the most complex computer spying program ever discovered.

Two leading computer security firms – Kaspersky Lab and Symantec Corp – have linked some of the software code in the Flame virus to the Stuxnet computer virus, which was widely believed to have been used by the United States and Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear program. (Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Philip Barbara)

Americans, Israelis jointly developed computer virus


The National Security Agency and a secret Israeli military unit jointly developed a complex computer worm that attacked equipment in Iranian nuclear installations.

The cooperation—which began in the Bush administration and was accelerated by the Obama White House—may have been part of an American effort to dissuade Israel from launching a preemptive military strike on Iranian nuclear installations, The New York Times reported.

Israel’s Unit 8200 worked with the NSA to develop what Americans called “the bug,” according to the Times report. To do so, the teams built replicas of Iranian centrifuges using equipment that had been provided by Libya’s Gadhafi regime when it revealed its nuclear program to international inspectors in 2003.

After successful tests, “spies and unwitting accomplices” with access to the Iranian plant at Natanz infected computers there with thumb drives, the newspaper reported.

Many western countries believe the Iranians are using what they say is a civilian nuclear energy program to mask an effort to make their own nuclear weapons.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

His country has dragged out negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency for inspections of its sites.

Israeli officials repeatedly have pressed the United States and other western countries to halt the Iranian program and are widely believed to have prepared military strike plans against Iranian nuclear sites.

President Obama has said that he has not ruled out any options when it comes to halting the suspected Iranian weapons program.

Flame computer bug may have been released by Israel, minister says


A computer virus attacking computers in Iran and the West Bank may have been created with Israeli involvement, a government minister hinted.

Israeli vice prime minister Moshe Ya’alon said in an interview Tuesday on Israel Radio that “Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat would be likely to take various steps, including these, to harm it.”

“Israel was 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 also said.

The discovery of the Flame virus was announced Monday by the Kaspersky Lab in Russia. It was discovered in high concentrations in Iranian computers and also in the West Bank, Syria and Sudan.

The virus was created to collect data, and may have lain dormant for several years and is controlled by a remote computer, which can turn it on and off at will. It is being called “the most sophisticated virus of all times,”

It reportedly shares some characteristics with the Stuxnet virus, which damaged Iranian nuclear centrifuges before it was discovered in 2010.

Experts believe that it took a sophisticated programming team and state resources to create the program.

Experts say Iran has ‘neutralized’ Stuxnet virus


Iranian engineers have succeeded in neutralizing and purging the computer virus known as Stuxnet from their country’s nuclear machinery, European and U.S. officials and private experts have told Reuters.

The malicious code, whose precise origin and authorship remain unconfirmed, made its way as early as 2009 into equipment controlling centrifuges Iran is using to enrich uranium, dealing a significant but perhaps temporary setback to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons work.

Many experts believe that Israel, possibly with assistance from the United States, was responsible for creating and deploying Stuxnet. But no authoritative account of who invented Stuxnet or how it got into Iran’s centrifuge control equipment has surfaced.

U.S. and European officials, who insisted on anonymity when discussing a highly sensitive subject, said their governments’ experts agreed that the Iranians had succeeded in disabling Stuxnet and getting it out of their machinery.

The officials declined to provide any details on how their governments verified that the Iranians had ultimately defeated the virus. It was not clear when it occurred but secrecy on the subject has been so tight that news is only now emerging.

Some officials said they believe that the Iranians were helped in their efforts by Western cybersecurity experts, whose detailed technical analyses of Stuxnet’s computer code have circulated widely on the Internet.

Once the Iranians became aware that their equipment had been infected by the virus, experts said it would only have been a matter of time before they would have been able to figure out a way of shutting down the malicious code and getting it out of their systems.

“If Iran would not have gotten rid of Stuxnet by now (or even months ago), that would indicate that they were complete idiots,” said German computer security consultant Ralph Langner. Langner is regarded as the first Western expert to identify the ultra-complex worm and conclude that it was specifically targeted toward equipment controlling Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

Peter Sommer, a computer security expert based in Britain, said that once Iran had detected the presence of the worm and figured out how it worked, it shouldn’t have been too hard for them to disable it.

“Once you know that it’s there it’s not that difficult to reverse engineer… Neutralization of Stuxnet, once its operation is understood, would not be that difficult as it was precisely engineered to disrupt a specific item of machinery.

“Once Stuxnet’s signature is identified it can be eliminated from a system,” Sommer added.

Private experts say that however well-crafted the original Stuxnet was, whoever created it probably would have to be even more clever if they want to try to supplant it with new cyber-weapons directed at Iran’s nuclear program.

“Aspects of Stuxnet could be re-used, but it is important to understand that its success depended not only on ‘clever coding’ but also required a great deal of specific intelligence and testing. It was the first known highly-targeted cyber-weapon, as opposed to more usual cyber weapons which are more diffuse in their targeting,” Sommer said.

‘CAT AND MOUSE GAME’

David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector who has extensively investigated Iran’s nuclear program for the private Institute for Science and International Security, which he leads, said that spy agencies would have to go back to the drawing board if they’re intent on continuing to try to hobble Iran’s nuclear program via cyber-warfare.

Iran says that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes but many Western officials believe it is seeking to build nuclear weapons.

“I would assume that once Iran learned of Stuxnet, then intelligence agencies looked at this method of cyber attack as compromised regardless of how long it has taken Iran to neutralize it. It is a cat and mouse game.”

But Albright added that “intelligence agencies have likely been looking at more advanced forms of attack for a couple of years that they hope will catch the Iranians unprepared.”

Reports first surfaced in 2010 that Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz was hit by Stuxnet, though some experts later said it likely first was deployed a year earlier. Experts who later analyzed the Stuxnet code said it was engineered specifically to attack machines made by the German company Siemens that control high-speed centrifuges, used to purify uranium which can fuel a nuclear weapon.

Tehran accused the United States and Israel of planting the virus. In November 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that malicious software had created problems in some of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges, although he said the problems had been solved.

Several experts said, however, that while they believed the virus’ potency waned over time, they had not heard confirmation that the Iranians had defeated and purged it.

Experts say the inventors of Stuxnet had to be unusually clever because the centrifuge control equipment at which it was targeted – and which it apparently succeeded in hobbling – was entirely cut-off from the Internet. So not only did the worm’s creators have to write a code that would cause targeted equipment to malfunction but they had to figure out a way to physically introduce the code into a “closed system.”

Most experts think the virus was somehow introduced into Iran’s control systems via some kind of computer thumb drive.

European and U.S. experts have said that they believe that Stuxnet, at least for a time, caused serious malfunctions in the operations of Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

Iran and its antagonists today appear to be engaged in multiple levels of clandestine warfare, with unknown assailants killing Iranian nuclear scientists and, in the last few days, bomb attacks on Israeli embassy personnel in India and Georgia. Israel has blamed Iran.

Hackers strike Israel again


An international group of pro-Palestinian hackers said they leaked the credit card details of thousands of Israelis in an escalation of cyber attacks on Israeli targets.

The group, called OpFreePalestine, claimed to have published online Thursday the details of 26,000 Israeli credit card holders.

Most of the list comes from a list posted in January by a Saudi hacker, Ynet reported. Many of the details are incorrect or partial, according to the report.

OpFreePalestine is part of Team Poison, which was founded two years ago with the goal of attacking Israeli and American targets online. It reportedly has hacked major websites, including high-tech companies and the computer systems of countries that have ties with Israel, according to Haaretz.

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli hackers have been attacking each other on the Internet in recent weeks. Thousands of credit card details, mostly of Israelis, have been exposed, and the websites of Israeli targets such as the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and two hospitals were shut down.

Israel concerned it may be under cyber attack


Israeli officials said on Friday they were concerned the country may be under cyber attack after a wave of credit card code thefts in the past week by a hacker who claims to be operating out of Saudi Arabia.

Credit card company officials said 14,000 numbers had been posted on line on Tuesday and another 11,000 on Thursday. However, they said some of the codes had expired and that the active cards were all being cancelled.

The hacker has identified himself as OxOmar and says he is part of a Saudi Arabian hacker team. In a post on Thursday he said he had leaked information about more than 400,000 Israelis and said the “Jewish lobby” was hiding the scale of the attack.

Israeli officials say the hacker has also released email addresses and passwords, but have yet to confirm where he is based.

“This incident should be treated as a cyber attack,” Justice Ministry official Yoram Hacohen told the Ma’ariv daily.

“When it comes to digital felonies committed outside the country, it is difficult to locate the perpetrator if he took the correct precautions,” Hacohen added.

The data theft was one of the worst that Israel has said it has faced, and while the financial damage was reportedly minimal, the breaches have heightened concerns about the potential use of stolen information by Israel’s enemies.

“These matters are worrisome,” Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz told Israel Radio, calling the incident “a sample of the great danger out in cyberspace.”

He added that Israel had “impressive capabilities” and was setting up an agency to deal with the issue, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged last year.

On the back of the credit card theft, a parliamentary committee has scheduled a session for the coming week to review Israel’s readiness to defend itself from cyber attacks.

“We must prepare to cope with cyber threats in anticipation of any attempts to use Internet terror to strike at Israel,” said lawmaker Ronit Tirosh, the committee chairwoman.

Some newspaper columnists speculated that hackers might be retaliating for recent attacks in Iran, including the mysterious Stuxnet computer virus that snarled its controversial nuclear computer systems.

“The peculiar incident we are facing could be a bad joke, a youthful prank, a hate-driven terror attack for beginners or the first stage in an Iranian cyber-terror attack,” commentator Ben Caspit wrote in Friday’s edition of Ma’ariv.

However, Hershkowitz dismissed such speculation, saying: “the imagination tends to soar.”

The hacker wrote in his Web post: “So, I’ve started thinking of sending all Israeli credit cards I own which reaches 1M data.”

“Enjoy it world! Purchase stuff for yourself online, buy anything you want,” he added.

Dov Kotler, CEO of Isracard, a unit of Bank Hapoalim , said 5,200 credit card numbers listed by the hacker on Thursday, belonged to his customers.

The thefts have dampened Internet sales in Israel, media reports said, though no figures were immediately available. Israeli reports have indicated that most of the information stolen had been gleaned from online commercial sites.

Editing by Crispian Balmer

New computer virus detected in Iran


A computer virus similar to the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear program last year has been detected in Iran.

Iran said Sunday that it had found the Duqu computer virus in some Islamic Republic computer systems, but that it has been contained and neutralized, the head of Iran’s civil defense branch, Brig.-Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, told the Tehran Times.

Duqu is designed to gather data such as keystrokes from computer systems that will help it to launch future attacks on the systems, the Symantec company said in a report after the virus was discovered last month.

Stuxnet, the computer worm that some say set back Iran’s nuclear program by several months or years, affected some of Iran’s computer systems and centrifuges used to enrich uranium after it was released last year. The New York Times reported that it was a joint project of Israel and the United States. Iran had to replace 1,000 Stuxnet-damaged centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant at Natanz last year.

The report added that the creators of the Duqu program had access to the Stuxnet source code.

“Duqu is essentially the precursor to a future Stuxnet-like attack,” according to Symantec.

Palestinians say hackers hit Internet services


Hackers disrupted Palestinian Internet services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Tuesday, the Palestinian telecoms minister said, alleging that a foreign government was behind the interference.

“All Palestinian IP addresses have been exposed to a focused, organised attack from abroad,” Mashour Abu Daqqa told Reuters. “I think this is organised by a state. This is my prediction,” he said.

Abu Daqqa said technicians from telecoms firm Paltel , an Internet services provider, were working to resolve the problem which also prevented users from viewing foreign websites. They had identified fake servers behind the disruption, he added.

“It’s between slow and stopped altogether,” said Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian Administration in Ramallah.

In separate remarks to the Palestinian news agency WAFA, Abu Daqqa said the attack was linked to the Palestinians’ admission to the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO on Monday—a diplomatic success for the Palestinians and a move opposed by Israel.

Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Karolina Tagaris

New Stuxnet-like computer virus discovered


A computer virus similar to the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear program has been identified.

Duqu, with a malicious code similar to Stuxnet, was discovered on computer systems in Europe, the computer security firm Symantec said in a report issued Tuesday.

“Parts of Duqu are nearly identical to Stuxnet, but with a completely different purpose,” Symantec said in its report. “Duqu is essentially the precursor to a future Stuxnet-like attack.”

The report added that the creators of the Duqu program had access to the Stuxnet source code.

Stuxnet, the computer worm that some say has set back Iran’s nuclear program by several months or years, affected some of Iran’s computer systems and centrifuges used to enrich uranium after it was released last year. The New York Times reported that it was a joint project of Israel and the United States.

Iran had to replace 1,000 Stuxnet-damaged centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment plant at Natanz last year.

Duqu is designed to gather data such as keystrokes from computer systems that will help it to launch future attacks on the systems.

With Stuxnet delaying Iran’s bomb, is the urgency gone?


In the wake of revelations that a computer virus may have set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Western groups and analysts that track the Islamic Republic are saying “More of the same, please.”

The benefits of a nonviolent program that inhibits Iranian hegemony by keeping the country’s nuclear weapons program at bay are obvious: Better to stop Iran with cyber warfare—in this case, the Stuxnet computer virus, which reportedly caused Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control—than actual warfare.

For those who favor engagement, the cyber attack buys more time to coax the regime in Tehran into compliance. For those who favor the stick, it allows more time to exert pressure on Iran through sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Almost coincident with last weekend’s revelations—published in Sunday’s New York Times in a piece that detailed the extent of the damage caused by the virus—Meir Dagan, the outgoing head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said that Iran likely would not have a bomb before 2015. Prior to that, Israeli assessments had predicted a weapon as early as this year.

The Stuxnet revelations, if anything, reinforce the need for a tough stance, said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. They underscore how committed Iran is to producing a bomb, he told JTA.

“It’s a reason to push down on the pedal,” said Berman, who crafted the most recent Iran sanctions law in the Congress. “Iran is still enriching uranium. It is absolutely critical we bear down with a comprehensive strategy of which sanctions is a critical part.”

Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the delay was welcome but that the prospect of new complacency in the wake of its announcement makes it more urgent than ever to maintain a posture that includes the threat of a military strike on Iran.

“No individual measure is a silver bullet,” he said. Stuxnet “set back the program but hasn’t stopped it. If you’re going to target a hard-line regime, you’ve got to have a military option on the table.”

Such a concern was behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s furious backpedaling in the wake of Dagan’s pronouncement about 2015. The Israeli leader dismissed the prediction as one of several “intelligence estimates.” Dagan, reportedly under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office, recast the deadline this week as 2014 and noted carefully that Iran is capable of surprises.

Champions of engagement also welcomed the revelations of the damage Stuxnet apparently caused to Iran’s nuclear program, seeing it as an opportunity.

“The cyber worm may have set back Iran’s nuclear program, but it is unlikely to alter its nuclear ambitions,” said Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. “In order to introduce real change, the U.S. and its international allies must change the manner in which they deal with Iran and start to comprehensively engage with Tehran.”

Hadar Susskind, the vice president for policy at J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby that advocates for U.S. pressure on Israel in talks with the Palestinians, said the news of the virus demonstrated that there are creative ways of working around military brinksmanship when it comes to Iran.

“Any nonviolent method is good,” Susskind said. “It shows we can create more time using a range of tools.”

No nation or entity has acknowledged being behind the virus, which seemed to be designed to assume control of the nervous system at Iran’s nuclear facilities and to spin the centrifuges out of control, damaging about a fifth of them. The Times, citing anonymous sources, suggested that it was a U.S.-led venture with Israel’s cooperation. Germany and Britain also may have been involved, though perhaps unwittingly.

Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the London-based International Institute of International Studies, said it was critical not to regard the virus as a “deus ex machina” that would allow the world to shunt aside considerations of Iran’s ambitions.

“Any solution to the Iranian crisis will require the use of a range of tools, including tougher sanctions, tighter export controls, a containment and deterrence posture, and a readiness to talk,” he said. “Stuxnet obviously provides some breathing space by extending the timeline for Iran to get a bomb. It would be nice if it also gave Iranians a sense of futility that their enrichment efforts are not going to give them a bomb anytime soon.”

That’s not likely to happen, according to Geneive Abdo, the director of the Washington-based National Security Network’s Inside Iran project. Iran’s leadership is susceptible to popular Iranian support for its nuclear program.

Because of public opinion, she said, “They’re very careful that they’re not compromising on this issue.”

If anything, Abdo said, the revelations will prod the regime to become more recalcitrant when it comes to major compromises, like shutting down enrichment entirely. Iran has tended to harden its line when it is weak.

Instead, she said, Western powers might press for compromise on smaller issues like a broader regime of U.N. inspections. Western powers are scheduled to meet this weekend in Istanbul with Iran to discuss its nuclear program.

“The West should use this breathing space to try and convince Iran to agree to more verification,” Abdo said. Citing her sources inside Iran, she said that “The Iranians are more fearful that more damage is on the way, so that’s an incentive to compromise to some degree.”

Indeed, Iran last week invited representatives of major powers to tour its enrichment plant in Natanz to see that Iran is limiting itself to civilian-level nuclear power. The major powers—including the United States, Russia, the European Union and China—declined, saying that the only inspections they would sanction would be by qualified inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.

Dagan’s prediction and the Stuxnet leaks may have been timed precisely to pressure Iran to expand such inspections ahead of this weekend’s talks, said Trita Parsi, the director of the National Iranian American Council and the author of a number of books on Iran-Israel relations.

“The Obama administration has changed the metrics,” Parsi said.

“We’re not talking about the LEU count,” he said, referring to Iran’s burgeoning supply of low-enriched uranium, which had worried the West. “We’re talking about the centrifuges that have been destroyed. Shifting the conversation to Stuxnet puts you in a stronger position.”

Domestically, Parsi said, the revelations also may pay off as the White House fends off demands from Congress that it ratchet up pressure on Iran, including through the military option.

Berman’s outlook suggested that was not likely.

“Let me know when Iran certifiably suspends enrichment and allows inspections, throughout all its territory, and then we can have a conversation about sanctions,” he said. “Having that military option on the table is an important part of achieving that goal and affecting their calculations.”

Israeli military officer cadets contract swine flu


Some 35 cadets in a military officer’s course in Israel’s South were diagnosed with the swine flu.

The soldiers, who were diagnosed Thursday, were described as having mild cases, according to reports. None of the soldiers required hospitalization.

The army is continuing to inoculate soldiers against the flu.

Israel suffered its first swine flu death, a 33-year-old Palestinian from eastern Jerusalem, last week.