Iran Behind Cyber-Attack on Adelson’s Sands Corp., Clapper Says

National Intelligence Director James Clapper
James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

The top U.S. intelligence official confirmed for the first time that Iran was behind a cyber attack against the Las Vegas Sands Corp. last year.

Identifying Iran as the perpetrator came more than a year after the Feb. 10, 2014, attack against the world’s largest gambling company, which crippled many of the computer systems that help run the $14 billion operation. Sands’ chairman and chief executive officer and top shareholder is billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a leading U.S. supporter of Israel and of Republican political candidates.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday that the attack by Iran, followed by the hacking of Sony Corp. by North Korea in November, marked the first destructive cyber-assaults on the U.S. by nation-states. Iran’s role in the attack that crippled operations at several of Sands’ U.S. casinos was reported in December by Bloomberg Businessweek.

“While both of these nations have lesser technical capabilities in comparison to Russia and China, these destructive attacks demonstrate that Iran and North Korea are motivated and unpredictable cyber-actors,” Clapper said.

He also said the cyberthreat from Russia is “more severe than we have previously assessed,” without elaborating.

Computer attacks such as those by Iran and North Korea are more likely to threaten the U.S. in the future than a single massive assault crippling the country’s infrastructure, he said.

No ‘Cyber-Armageddon’

“Rather than a ‘cyber-Armageddon’ scenario that debilitates the entire U.S. infrastructure, we envision something different,” Clapper said in a report on global threats submitted to the Senate committee. “We foresee an ongoing series of low-to-moderate level cyber-attacks from a variety of sources over time, which will impose cumulative costs on U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.”

Clapper’s report marks a departure from past U.S. warnings about the type of Internet attacks that the country will face. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in 2012 of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” that could paralyze the country.

Attacks may include not only hacking but “supply-chain operations to insert compromised hardware or software,” Clapper said. At the same time, detection has improved so that attackers can no longer assume that their identities will stay concealed, he said.

Arming Ukraine

At the hearing on worldwide threats, Clapper and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, clashed with the committee’s chairman, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, over whether to send defensive weapons to Ukraine in its battle against Russian-backed separatists.

Sending weapons to Ukraine “would not change the military balance of power and it would not get there quickly enough,” Stewart said.

McCain, who has advocated providing arms for months, said “it’s just incredible to believe” that weapons couldn’t be sent quickly or that such a move would provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin when he’s already achieving what he wants in Ukraine.

Findings in Clapper’s wide-ranging summary of a “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community” were less optimistic than positions taken by other Obama administration officials.

On Iraq, where officials have said the U.S. has stopped the momentum of Islamic State extremists, Clapper described a stalemate.

Violent Extremists

Six months of air strikes by the U.S. and allies and limited ground operations have “largely stabilized” Iraq, with no side “able to muster the resources necessary” to meet its objectives, Clapper said.

On terrorism more broadly, Clapper said that “Sunni violent extremists are gaining momentum” and the number of groups “and safe havens is greater than at any other point in history.”

The threat to U.S. allies and partners will probably increase depending on extremists’ success in seizing and holding territory, he said.

Most groups “place a higher priority on local concerns than on attacking the so-called far enemy -- the United States and the West,” Clapper said.

If Islamic State’s priority were to change, “radicalized Westerners who have fought in Syria and Iraq would provide a pool of operatives who potentially have access to the United States and other Western countries.”

As the U.S. seeks to negotiate an accord to halt Iran’s nuclear program, Clapper said Iran remains “an ongoing threat to U.S. national interests because of its support to the Assad regime in Syria, promulgation of anti-Israeli policies, development of advanced military capabilities and pursuit of its nuclear program.”

While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been described as relatively moderate, Clapper said he is “a longstanding member of the regime establishment” who “will not depart from Iran’s national security objectives.”

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