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The Cable-Cutter Mystery
Spies, lies, and "conspiracy theories" – what's behind the Middle East internet outage
I was skeptical, at first, of speculation over the cutting of two cables linking the Middle East with the Internet, which had it as part of some Vast Neocon Conspiracy to isolate the region prior to a US military assault. However, when two more cables – this time, in the Persian Gulf – were mysteriously cut, I began to wonder ....
In a piece headlined "Cable cutter nutters chase conspiracy theories," The Register goes out of its way to laugh off the prospect that what we are witnessing is a military operation, or the prelude to one, sniffing "there's little more than suspicions to work with" since we've yet to reach the damaged cables. Yet, given the sort of government we are dealing with – a regime that lied us into one war, and is not-so-subtly trying to finagle us into yet another one – why shouldn't we be suspicious? We'd have to be crazy not to be.
The Economist follows suit, sneering at "internet conspiracy theories" and denouncing the whole brouhaha as an "online frenzy" that is "way out of line." Yet one has to wonder: four cable cuts in the past week? I'm with Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University, who avers:
"As a security guy, I'm paranoid, but I don't understand the threat model here. On the other hand, four accidental failures in a week is a bit hard to swallow, too. Let's hope there will be close, open examination of the failed parts of the cables."
First it was supposed to be a ship's anchor that caused the damage, and yet the Egyptians have said there were no ships in the vicinity, which they regularly monitor: besides which, that entire area near Alexandria is off-limits to all shipping. Another reason to suspect a deliberate act: this politically-sensitive region is an Internet choke-point, as ABC News points out. "The route connecting Europe to Egypt, and from there to the Middle East" is tenuous:
"Today, just three major data cables stretch from Italy to Egypt and run down the Suez Canal, and from there to much of the Middle East. (A separate line connects Italy with Israel.) A serious cut here is immediately obvious across the region, and a double cut can be crippling."
Yet theories that this incident prefigures a US attack on Iran don't comport with the facts: Iran, far from being isolated by the cuts, may have enjoyed better connectivity as a result of the events. The areas hardest hit were Kuwait, Egypt, and especially Pakistan – this last being a likelier target for isolation than Iran, and certainly more current.
Another, and far more plausible, theory is that the seemingly coordinated cuts resulted from efforts to tap into the cables – a spying operation. Go here for an exhaustive and very convincing case for viewing this as "special warfare."
The Register cites Prof. Bellovin, but fails to note the real gist of his remarks. While he's skeptical of the above-cited link, which posits a scenario whereby the USS Jimmy Carter, present whereabouts unknown, uses its specially designed facilities to tap directly into the cables, Bellovin poses an alternative scenario:
"If if wasn't a direct attempt at eavesdropping, perhaps it was indirect. Several years ago, a colleague and I wrote about link-cutting attacks. In these, you cut some cables, to force traffic past a link you're monitoring. Link-cutting for such purposes isn't new; at the start of World War I, the British cut Germany's overseas telegraph cable to force them to use easilymonitored links. One of the messages they intercepted — and cryptanalyzed — was the Zimmerman telegram, which asked Mexico to join Germany in attacking the US, in exchange for financial support and recovery of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Instead, public outrage in the US contributed to the decision to enter the war against Germany."
"The problem with this scenario," he adds, "is that the benefit is short-lived: the cables will be repaired in a few weeks." Yes, but long enough to have accomplished – what? We can't know, of course, but Prof. Bellovin certainly raises some interesting possibilities, none of which can be discounted by clueless journalists who sniff at "conspiracy theories" – as if we have no reason whatsoever to suspect covert action, by the US or whomever, in that area of the world. As Prof. Bellovin and a co-author point out in this paper on the subject: "Attacks on the routing system, with the goal of diverting traffic past an enemy-controlled point for purposes of eavesdropping or connection-hijacking, have long been known."
Given the context in which these cable cuts are occurring – heightened tensions in the region, and not only with Iran – I think it is probable that they are deliberate, and that the diversion of internet traffic for purposes of eavesdropping is clearly the intent. After all, ask yourself this question: which is more plausible, an "accidental" cutting of four cables in one week in an area of the world which is the current focus of US military and diplomatic efforts, or the scenario outlined by Prof. Bellovin?
None of this is at all surprising. The US government currently claims the right to spy on Americans, in their own country, as well as when they're in communication with overseas individuals. They don't hide this, but proclaim it from the rooftops: does anyone doubt they are capable of commandeering the world's internet cable network in order to utilize it for their own purposes? You don't have to quaff the "conspiracy theorist" Kool-Aid to find this credible: a dose of realism will do.
Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo
February 8, 2008