Politics was again front and center in Berlin this morning as Alex Gibney discussed his documentary Zero Days, which unspools in competition later today. The Oscar-winner is here along with New York Times chief Washington correspondent David E Sanger and former Haaretz intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent Yossi Melman. Both were consultants on the film. Their appearance came just hours after Sanger, reporting in the Times, revealed Zero Days’ uncovering of “an elaborate plan for a cyberattack on Iran.”
Based on documents and interviews with members of the intelligence community and military sources, Gibney’s film — backed by Participant Media and produced by Marc Schmuger — delves into the use of cyber weapons which Gibney said today, “affects us in a profound and existential way.”
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The film chronicles the story of Stuxnet, self-replicating computer malware that the U.S. and Israel deployed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target, opening what Zero Days calls “a Pandora’s box of cyber warfare.” But this was reportedly part of a bigger cyber disruption plan which was code named Nitro Zeus. That program is said to have been designed to take down Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and parts of its power grid in the event that diplomatic efforts to stem the country’s nuclear program failed and led to military conflict. When a nuclear deal struck with Iran last summer was fulfilled, Nitro Zeus was shelved, per the New York Times report.
The incidents have not been publicly acknowledged and Gibney did a good job of keeping the contents of the film largely under wraps. “When the government keeps secrets, sometimes it’s important for filmmakers to keep secrets,” he said. Magnolia and Showtime acquired the doc yesterday. Its first screening is later today.
Referring to the U.S. government, Gibney raised his concerns about the use of this type of “covert operation” which can “end up having very unexpected, unintended consequences.” Some in the press corps were shaken, and Gibney didn’t assuage fears when he said, “Not only is ‘the grid’ vulnerable, but also more dismaying is that there hasn’t really been yet a discussion of how formidable is the offensive cyber program of the U.S. and presumably also Israel, Russia and China.”
Sanger referenced the Sony Hack saying that it was part of a “mushrooming of the use of this kind of malware effect on real-world power systems.”
He said that cyber warfare is seen by the government as an option short of full-scale conflict. “This is part of three technologies that presidents have used in order to avoid war.” The first two are Special Forces and drones, followed by cyber warfare which “enables you to have the effect of disabling an adversary’s facilities without ever stepping on their soil.”
Asked how close the world is to “catastrophe” if nothing is done about cyber weapons, Gibney said he was incapable of answering but offered, “The disquieting thing is we know so little. We’re just beginning to understand and attempting to come to grips with the fact that this realm of cyber weapons is developing very rapidly not only by the U.S. on other countries, but by other countries in the U.S.”
The director said he hopes Zero Days will act as “a cry to arms” that will “rattle some cages.” The trend “and the momentum towards greater and greater secrecy in the U.S. administration,” he said, “is appalling.” Speaking of secrecy, he offered that he doesn’t think that Edward Snowden and Julian Assange “are criminals… Assange was a publisher. I don’t think it caused any great damage. Snowden performed a valuable service.”
In closing, Gibney offered what he sees as a solution to the situation raised by Zero Days, quoting US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who famously declared that “sunlight is the ultimate disinfectant. We need to resolutely attack secrecy.”
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