US says it ‘takes steps’ to ensure Iran talks secure

US says it ‘takes steps’ to ensure Iran talks secure

American officials refuse to say whether they believe Israeli spyware compromised recent nuclear deliberations

US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke (YouTube screen capture)
US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke (YouTube screen capture)

The US said Wednesday night it “takes steps” to ensure the confidentiality of nuclear negotiations with Iran, after a leading cyber-security firm said European hotels hosting the talks were attacked by an intelligence-collection virus linked to Israel.

“We take steps, certainly, to ensure that confidential, that classified negotiating details stay behind closed doors in these negotiations,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters during the daily press briefing.

“We are always mindful of the need…to take steps to keep our discussions confidential,” he added.

Grilled on whether the US believed security had on this occasion been compromised, Rathke refused to divulge any details.

“These are claims by a private company about another government, so we’re not going to weigh in on that report,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that three European hotels were targeted by a version of the spyware Duqu virus about two weeks before hosting the negotiations, citing researchers at the cyber-security firm Kaspersky Lab ZAO, based in Moscow.

According to WSJ, Kaspersky checked thousands of computers in other European hotels, all of them coming up clean – and it also quoted “current and former US officials and many cybersecurity experts (as believing that) Duqu was designed to carry out Israel’s most sensitive intelligence-collection operations.” The report did not offer any specific evidence of the allegations.

Israel, the Wall Street Journal report said, “has denied spying on the US or Israel’s other allies, although they acknowledge conducting close surveillance on Iranians generally. Israeli officials declined to comment specifically on the allegations relating to the Duqu virus and the hotel intrusions.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in March that Israel allegedly spied on the Iran nuclear talks in 2014.

Kaspersky did not identify Israel by name as being responsible for the virus, which allows the hacker to eavesdrop on conversations and steal electronic files, and could also enable the hacker to operate two-way microphones in hotel elevators, computers and alarm systems, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, it did conclude the threat came from the same source as the original Duqu virus, and says it was likely carried out by a nation-state.

““The people behind Duqu are one of the most skilled and powerful [advanced persistent threat] groups and they did everything possible to try to stay under the radar,” said Costin Raiu, head of Kaspersky Lab’s Global Research & Analysis Team, in a statement released by the company.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the report. Israel has denied spying on its allies.

US intelligence agencies view Duqu infections as Israeli spy operations, former US officials said, according to the report.

Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan denied that the country spied on nuclear talks, but then admitted he would not know about the program if it did exist.

Deputy Minister Eli Ben Dahan (photo credit: Flash90)
Deputy Minister Eli Ben Dahan (photo credit: Flash90)

In an interview with Israel Radio Ben Dahan flatly rejected the allegations, calling them “nonsense,” and assured the interviewer that Israel had other ways of gathering intelligence, and didn’t need to resort to hacking.

Shortly afterwards however, Ben Dahan conceded that if Israel’s intelligence services launched a covert operation of that nature he likely wouldn’t have been informed of it.

The spying allegations coincide with deepening tensions in the US-Israeli relationship, much of it linked to Iran. The Obama administration has rejected much of the hawkish advice of its close Mideast ally in favor of what US officials say would be an accord that removes the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The Jewish state has aggressively lobbied against the package both internationally and within the United States.

JTA, AP and David Shamah contributed to this report.

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