- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 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 monitor Iran’s activities in the region closely,” Mr. Ostick said. “That vigilance led to the arrest of the individual responsible for the recent assassination plot” against the Saudi ambassador.

“We constantly monitor for possible connections between terrorists and transnational criminals.”

A congressional staffer said members of the Senate subcommittee and their staffs had requested a classified intelligence briefing before the hearing.

In the secretly recorded meetings with the Venezuelan and Iranian diplomats, the hackers discussed possible targets, including the FBI, the CIA and the Pentagon, and nuclear facilities, both military and civilian.

The hackers said they were seeking passwords to protected systems and sought support and funding from the diplomats.

At one point in the documentary, according to a translation provided by Univision, Iran’s ambassador to Mexico at the time, Mohammed Hassan Ghadiri, is seen telling the students that it was “very important to know about what [the United States has] in mind, attack Iran or not.”

Interviewed from Iran by Univision, Mr. Ghadiri acknowledged meeting the students and consulting Tehran about whether the Iranian government should back the attacks.

“I wrote to Iran that a person can do this. They said do not allow him in [the building] anymore because this not an embassy’s job,” he said.

The ambassador denied any involvement in a plot, telling Univision that the students’ sting was a provocation by “CIA agents.”

“They proposed this, and we told them that this is not our job. We rejected it,” he said. “We don’t have any interest in doing those types of things.”

“A good ambassador with good intentions would have thrown [the hackers] out and contacted the Mexican authorities,” said the documentary’s director, Gerardo Reyes. “Instead, he listened to them, he asked questions, he made suggestions.”

One of the other diplomats implicated by the documentary - Livia Antonieta Acosta Noguera, then the second secretary at the Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico - is currently the Venezuelan consul in Miami.

Students secretly taped her asking for more information about the planned cyberattacks and promising to pass it along to Mr. Chavez via his head of security, Gen. Alexis Lopez.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to urge her to investigate and expel Ms. Antonieta if the reports are true.

The consul represents “a potential threat to our national security,” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said in the letter, which was co-signed by Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera, both Florida Republicans; and Albio Sires, New Jersey Democrat.

Officials at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington and the consulate in Miami were unavailable for comment Tuesday.

In Venezuela, Mr. Chavez denied the allegations in the documentary.

“They are using a lie as an excuse to attack us,” he said of the U.S. during a TV and radio address. “We must be on our guard.”

Meanwhile, Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi shrugged off President Obama’s request for the return of the unmanned spy plane and demanded an apology from the United States, the Associated Press reported.

Tehran last week identified the drone as the RQ-170 Sentinel and said it was captured over the country’s east. U.S. officials say the aircraft malfunctioned and was not brought down by Iran, the AP reported.