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Biden, Ryan Battle Over Iran but Steer Clear of Cyberwar

Early in last night's vice presidential debate, questions came up about what to do over Iran's nuclear program. Things got fierce. 

Biden scrunched his brow and hammered away on Iran's lack of missiles to deliver whatever it enriches and driveled on about diplomacy. Ryan's giant wet eyes darted around as he feigned foreign-policy expertise, shoveling some hard-line narrative that had little substance. 

Sanctions this, sanctions that, the joust went. But neither side went near one of the most fascinating and controversial aspects of a nuclear Iran: that the U.S., under President Obama, helped unleash a computer virus known as Stuxnet that wreaked havoc on Iran's nuclear program and ushered the world into the frightening era of cyberwar.   

Authorities first discovered Stuxnet, a vastly complex computer worm, in 2010, after it had crept onto the computer systems controlling Iran's nuclear centrifuges and caused a few of them to go haywire. It was widely believed at the time to be a joint operation between the U.S. and Israel. 

This summer, David Sanger of the New York Times described the worm as "America's most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran's nuclear efforts." A series of cyberattacks over the span of a few weeks took out "1000 to 5000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time to purify uranium," according to Sanger. The damage wasn't permanent, but there were no doubt delays on Iran's end. 

Yet neither Obama nor Biden has touted the administration's push into warfare 2.0 on the campaign trail. That's likely because it's scary as a hell to the general public. The clandestine nature of cyberwar also complements Obama's fondness for drone strikes. Together, cyberwar and drones are hardly choice talking points when trying to lock down lingering liberals who need to be inspired to go to the polls and undecided voters who may frighten easily.  

But Romney and Paul haven't tried to attack the administration on its quick push into the unknown world of computer viruses as weapons. There's plenty of fodder to do so, including that the worm, and others similar to it, have since spread throughout the world and could be reverse-engineered into a weapon that's eventually used against U.S. interests. On the other hand, accusing Obama of being soft on Iran and then following it up with claims that he's crazy enough to launch covert ops intended to deliver computer viruses of mass destruction seems contradictory. 

The fact is that warfare has changed dramatically under Obama. Strings of computer code that can decimate critical infrastructure have been unleashed with little understanding of how they will evolve after being discovered. The use of drones carrying deadly payloads has soared. 

Pulling out of Afghanistan, dealing with what remains of al-Qaeda, and handling Iran's nuclear ambitions are no doubt important national security issues that need to be debated among the candidates. 

Whoever claims victory in November, however, has a whole new world of warfare to deal with. It's about time these candidates acknowledge it. 

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Chris Sweeney

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