14 December 2011
U.S. officials are investigating reports that Iranian and Venezuelan diplomats in Mexico were involved in planned cyberattacks against U.S. targets, including nuclear power plants.
Allegations about the cyberplot were aired last week in a documentary on the Spanish-language TV network Univision, which included secretly recorded footage of Iranian and Venezuelan diplomats being briefed on the planned attacks and promising to pass information to their governments.
A former computer instructor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico told Univision that he was recruited by a professor there in 2006 to organize a group of student hackers to carry out cyberattacks against the United States, initially at the behest of the Cuban Embassy.
In an undercover sting, instructor Juan Carlos Munoz Ledo and several selected students infiltrated the hackers and secretly videotaped the Iranian and Venezuelan diplomats.
Reports about Iran’s involvement in the suspected plot come amid the Islamic republic’s refusal to return a sophisticated, unmanned U.S. spy plane that crashed inside its borders this month. Iranian officials have laid claim to the drone, vowing to research it for its technology.
Calling the reports “disturbing,” State Department spokesman William Ostick said federal authorities are examining the cyberplot allegations but added that U.S. officials “don’t have any information at this point to corroborate them.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, called for hearings in the new year about Iranian activities in Latin America.
Some House lawmakers called for the expulsion of a Venezuelan diplomat in the U.S. who is implicated in the suspected plot.
The Univision documentary fanned fears among lawmakers that Iran’s recent diplomatic outreach in the region, particularly to Venezuela’s anti-American leftist President Hugo Chavez, might be a front for nefarious activities.
Earlier this year, U.S. prosecutors charged an Iranian official based in Tehran with trying to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States by bombing a Washington restaurant.
“If Iran is using regional actors to facilitate and direct activities against the United States, this would represent a substantial increase in the level of the Iranian threat and would necessitate an immediate response,” Mr. Menendez said.
An aide to Mr. Menendez told The Times that the Univision report, which also said that Iranian extremists were recruiting young Latin American Muslims, is “one of a variety of concerns we have about Iran’s efforts to engage with countries and other actors in the region.”
Next year’s hearing will examine Iran’s “political and commercial outreach, as well as more nefarious activities,” the aide said.
“We constantly monitor for possible connections between terrorists and transnational criminals.”