The Flame cyber-weapon was part of an intelligence-gathering operation designed to aid separate more physically disruptive attacks, the Washington Post has reported anonymous US officials as saying.
If accurate this would posit Flame as the software that made more than one version of Stuxnet (discovered before Flame but now forensically connected to it) the effective tool it turned out to be when wielded against systems at Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz.
Flame was so successful at its reconnaissance role that it probably furnished Iran’s enemies - including co-developer Israel - with enough data to attack a wide range of other targets, including a mysterious one reported on the country’s main oil terminal as recently as April.
“This is about preparing the battlefield for another type of covert action,” the newspaper reported the US official as saying. “Cyber-collection against the Iranian program is way further down the road than Flame,” confirming that operations were ongoing.
“Flame doesn’t mean that other tools aren’t in play or performing effectively,” the official reportedly said.
Normally, newspaper reports such as this would be part of the stream of interesting speculation of the sort that has appeared from time to time since Stuxnet’s discovery almost two years ago.
That US officials seem to be queuing up to claim responsibility for a cyberweapon most people already believe was the work of the US suggests that the Administration is complimenting software war with a psychological counterpart.
The cover blown, the US might now be making the best use of Flame as a warning to Iran of its intent, capability and ingenuity.
As several analyses have pointed out, that capability is significant, featuring a large number of different modules, at least five zero day exploits over time, and an innovative attack on the encryption used to secure Microsoft certificates as a way of compromising the Windows Update system.
The role of Israel and other countries remains less clear. According to the Washington Post report, Israel used the same Flame independent of US direction during the oil terminal attack, which suggests a looser and less disciplined modus operandi than officials have tried to project.
In the US, the revelations about the US's apparent cyber-weapons programme have already been dismissed by Senator John McCain as part of an attempt by US President Obama to portray himself as being tough on Iran.