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June 2012
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American power grid too vulnerable


Events sometimes surprise political leaders. When the facts emerge afterwards they often show that the leaders should have expected, prepared for, and prevented what happened.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are the biggest recent example. The investigation revealed that there were plenty of warning signs, but insufficient action in response.

The alarm is now sounding about the danger potential terrorist attacks on America's power grid pose. If national leadership is listening, it is not acting.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on an attack on a Pacific Gas & Electric substation in San Jose, Calif., last year. Assailants cut telephone cables and opened fire with automatic weapons. "Shooting for 19 minutes, they surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley," the newspaper reported.

"Using simple assault rifles," the Los Angeles Times says, "two attackers caused millions of dollars in damage and almost knocked out power to Silicon Valley." The utility avoided catastrophe by rerouting power around the site and asking other utilities to generate more, but it took over a month to repair the facility and restore it to operation.

The WSJ quotes Jon Wellinghoff, then-chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who called the attack "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred." A senior technical executive for the Electric Power Research Institute said the motivation for the attack "appears to be preparation for an act of war."

The FBI has made no arrests. "A spokesman for Homeland Security said it is up to utilities to protect the grid," the WSJ says. "The department's role in an emergency is to connect federal agencies and local police and facilitate information sharing," the government spokesman said.

The WSJ followed-up with an article disclosing a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) report that concluded "the U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country's 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day." According to the newspaper, "The FERC analysis indicates that knocking out nine of those key substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, if not months."

The Washington Post recently cited to a 2012 report by the National Research Council that found that high-voltage transformers "are the single most vulnerable component of the transmission and distribution system." Although cyber-terrorism apparently receives more attention, attacks on the isolated and hard to replace transformers may pose a greater danger.

Some in Congress seek to do something about it. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) has introduced the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage Act, or SHIELD Act, HR 2417. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), two of the most liberal members of Congress, have proposed the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act, or GRID Act, HR 4298.

Both bills would give federal regulators more power over utilities regarding security. Both enjoy bipartisan support. The House of Representatives actually passed a previous version of the GRID Act on a bipartisan basis, but it died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Why? Look no further than senators like Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). In a recent Roll Call article she said "some have sought to sensationalize the [California] incident and the general issue of physical security." Murkowski claims the attack was "a testament to the grid's resiliency."

But last November the North American Electric Reliability Corporation held a two-day drill to test whether the power grid could withstand various attacks. It showed that planning was insufficient. FERC has since ordered the power industry to develop plans to better protect vital facilities.

There would be costs associated with better protecting the power grid, of course, but they pale in comparison to the costs of a country plunged into months of darkness. Nothing can adequately explain the inaction on this critical national security issue.

Then-CIA director George Tenet told the 9/11 Commission Report that in the summer of 2001 "the system was blinking red" warning against a big al Qaida attack. Only afterwards did we connect the dots to learn that terrorists had long been planning and training in America.

The situation seems similar with regard to the power grid now. If it took only two attackers to disable the California substation, and taking down as few as nine such plants would cause a prolonged coast-to-coast blackout, we had better hope there are not 18 terrorists now among us busily preparing to mount such attacks.

Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser at the time of the 9/11 attacks, said, "If we had known an attack was coming against the United States, against New York and Washington, we would have moved heaven and earth to stop it." There has already been an attack against the power grid, but we are still not doing much to stop a bigger and more devastating one.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.

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