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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We live in a networked world. Our banking, transportation, power, and water systems all depend on computer operations. An attack on the U.S. in cyberspace could bring a halt to normal life here.

INSKEEP: So far, the countries with the greatest cyber capabilities, China and Russia, have little reason to hurt us this way. But soon there may be another country to worry about.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on the cyber threat from Iran.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The United States and its allies have brought tremendous pressure on Iran to give up any thought of developing a nuclear weapon. Israel says military action may be needed to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. If that happens, the Iranians may want to retaliate. They could sponsor terrorist attacks. Or they could go to their computers and wage a cyberwar.

Security expert Dmitri Alperovitch says the Iranians' capabilities should not be underestimated

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: There is a great deal of worry in terms of what they may be able to do if they're pushed to the brink. And certainly if they believe the regime is threatened, if they believe they're about to be attacked, how can they employ cyber weapons to either to deter that attack or to retaliate in a way that they can't do militarily?

GJELTEN: Iran until now has not been considered a big threat in the cyber domain. But that is changing, says consultant Jeffrey Carr

JEFFREY CARR: They have all the resources and the capabilities necessary to be a major player in terms of cyber warfare.

GJELTEN: In testimony early this year, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said Iran's cyber capabilities have dramatically increased in recent years. Iranian authorities, for example, have organized a cyber army and made use of so-called patriotic hackers to suppress dissident communications, shut down Twitter, and block websites.

Jeffrey Carr, author of "Inside Cyber Warfare," says these are not easy things to do.

CARR: If the Iranian hackers have demonstrated, you know, a better than average capability, then it's only common sense to assume that the Iranian government is at least as good and probably better. They certainly have the money. They have the desire. And they have access to some of the best schools around the world to train their engineers.

GJELTEN: The big fear in the U.S. is that a cyber attacker could penetrate the computer system that controls a critical asset like the power grid and shut it down. If Iran were caught doing that, it could find itself in a cyber war with the U.S. military. That would probably be a losing proposition.

But there is an alternative. Retired Marine General James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thinks Iran could share its cyber weapons with a group more willing to use them and less vulnerable to counterattack.

GENERAL JAMES CARTWRIGHT: A country could take an offensive capability and easily hand it to somebody that has the intent to use it as a sword rather than a shield. OK? That's what people worry about, both in cyber and nuclear. In cyber it's much easier. I mean I'll just, you know, email it to you, whatever, and say, OK, hey, I know you don't like the Americans, here's a tool.

GJELTEN: The obvious candidate is Hezbollah, the Islamist group that has conducted operations around the world, often in support of Iran. U.S. officials say Hezbollah has shown interest in developing its own cyber arsenal.

On Capitol Hill today, a Homeland Security subcommittee will hear testimony on the Iranians' potential to sponsor cyber attacks against the U.S. homeland. Representative Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania is the chairman.

REPRESENTATIVE PATRICK MEEHAN: We know that they will do something if they feel cornered. We know they have a capacity. And I think it's realistic to try to be assessing the scope of that.

GJELTEN: U.S. intelligence officials decline additional comment on the Iranian cyber threat. John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, says only that when a country has both the capability and intent to launch a cyber attack against the United States, everything possible must be done to prevent that attack from taking place.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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