Security Brief

Trump Weighs Cyberattack on Iran

But Pentagon planners caution such a strike could prompt damaging retaliation.

Visitors gather at Tehran's Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense museum during the unveiling of an exhibition of what Iran says are U.S. and other drones captured in its territory, in the capital Tehran on Sept. 21, 2019.
Visitors gather at Tehran's Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense museum during the unveiling of an exhibition of what Iran says are U.S. and other drones captured in its territory, in the capital Tehran on Sept. 21, 2019. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

What’s on tap: The Trump administration weighs sending a message to Iran through another cyberstrike, the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting kicks off in New York, researchers at Google may have achieved a breakthrough in quantum computing, and Edward Snowden speaks.


Second Cyberattack on the Table

Facing questions about whether the deployment of additional U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia to beef up the Kingdom’s defenses is enough of a show of force to deter Iranian aggression, President Donald Trump is reportedly weighing a second cyberstrike to punish Tehran for the attacks on Saudi’s oil infrastructure last weekend.

Economic and military targets. Cyberattacks and other covert measures can be extremely effective, Lara Seligman and Elias Groll write—the most famous, an attack by President Obama’s administration using the “Stuxnet” virus, crippled Iranian nuclear-enrichment centrifuges. They are also flexible: They can be used to take down Iran’s oil fields and refineries, or military installations.

How to avoid escalation? The rules of engagement around cyberstrikes are still a subject of debate. But the Pentagon has long held that a cyberattack is an act of war that could require  physical military response–and Tehran likely takes the same view. So the question for the White House and Pentagon planners now is how to send a message of deterrence without prompting a significant escalation. Already, there are reports that Iran is planning another attack.

Britain wades into the fray. The United Kingdom on Monday joined the United States in blaming Iran for the attacks, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying he would consider taking part in the U.S.-led effort to bolster Saudi’s defenses. But in a surprising sign that Tehran may be looking to ease tensions with London, Iran said a British-flagged tanker it seized in the Strait of Hormuz in July, the Stena Impero is free to go, ending a monthslong standoff.


All the World’s a Stage 

UNGA. The United Nations General Assembly opens its annual meeting today, and this is the year that the rest of the liberal order tries to imagine life without U.S. leadership, Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report.

Climate summit. A who’s who of world leaders will convene for a major climate summit Monday, but President Donald Trump won’t be attending. Instead he’ll preside over a special meeting on the persecution of religious minorities.

Not on the agenda. Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, will be in New York, though a visa delay had threatened to cancel their appearance. But a long-anticipated meeting between Trump and Rouhani likely won’t happen amid an acrimonious dispute over what Amercan officials allege was an Iranian attack on a Saudi oil production facility.

North Korea talks. President Donald Trump and South Korean Prime Minister Moon Jae-in are expected to meet on Monday in an attempt to jumpstart the stalled diplomatic opening with North Korea. Working level talks between Washington and Pyongyang are expected to resume later this month.


World leaders convene in New York this week for the 74th U.N. General Assembly and FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer are covering events in a special one-week-only newsletter. Sign up here for the U.N. Brief.


What We’re Watching 

Trump’s Ukraine headache. President Donald Trump admitted that he discussed corruption allegations regarding Vice President Joe Biden’s son with the leader of Ukraine, a revelation that has significantly increased the possibility that congressional  Democrats will pursue an impeachment inquiry against him.

Domestic terror. The Department of Homeland Security released a new counterterrorism strategy that focuses on the threat posed by domestic groups and examines at length the role played by white nationalist groups. “The DHS document is an acknowledgment that, nearly 20 years after 9/11, the new terrorist threat comes largely from within—and not as much from jihadists as from the extreme right,” the Atlantic reports.

National security letters. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is using secret subpoenas, so-called national security letters, to force companies to hand over data about their customers on a wider scale than previously understood, the New York Times reports.

Twitter misfire. The Pentagon on Friday tweeted a picture of a B-2 nuclear bomber with a formation of airmen in front of it along with the caption: “The last thing #Millenials will see if they attempt the #area51raid today.” The department quickly deleted the tweet and apologized on Sunday, but not before Task & Purpose got a screenshot.

For more news and analysis from Foreign Policy and around the world, subscribe to Morning Brief, delivered weekday mornings.


Movers & Shakers 

NSC’s new No. 2. The National Security Council’s top Asia official, Matthew Pottinger, will serve as the deputy to newly named National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. Pottinger is a former journalist who gave up his life as an ink-stained wretch to join the Marine Corps. He is widely regarded as the chief architect of Trump’s hawkish policies toward China and a thoughtful, highly competent advisor.

Scandal at State. Andrea Thompson, the State Department’s top official for arms control, will leave her post next month after months of controversy over revelations that she had not disclosed a close relationship with the former boyfriend of Russian agent Maria Butina.


Technology & Cyber 

Possible quantum milestone. Researchers at Google may have achieved a major breakthrough toward ushering in the era of quantum computing. In a research paper briefly posted online and then taken down, Google researchers claim to have used quantum computing to perform in three minutes and 20 seconds a calculation that would have taken a supercomputer at least 10,000 years, the Financial Times reports.

In the paper, Google’s researchers claim to have achieved what has long been the dream of quantum computing enthusiasts: when the technology would make possible calculations previously impossible to solve. “To our knowledge, this experiment marks the first computation that can only be performed on a quantum processor,” the researchers wrote.

Quantum computing has huge implications for national security. The technology would likely render contemporary cryptography irrelevant and grant the country that controls it a decisive technological edge over its rivals, including by trivially decrypting any of its adversaries’ communications.

Election security. Microsoft announced it would continue providing security support to state and local governments for Windows 7, that it had no longer planned to update.


Quote of the Week 

“I didn’t cooperate with the Russian intelligence services — I haven’t and I won’t.” –Edward Snowden, in an interview with NPR, said he was offered assistance by Russian intelligence in exchange for access to his archive of secrets but that he turned down the offer.


FP Recommends 

Reversal. With President Trump once again contemplating military action against Iran, the New York Times has a timely tick-tock of how the president reversed an order in June to launch strikes in retaliation for the downing of an American drone.


That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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