What would happen, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., asked utility officials at a Southern California electricity plant, if terrorists blew up a transmission tower? And what if they knew where the backup facility was and blew that up, too?
Cox asked those disturbing questions six years ago, but he says they vividly came to mind in the initial moments of the blackout that darkened the Northeast in mid-August. Now, as chairman of the House Select Homeland Security Committee, Cox says he is still disturbed about the vulnerability of the country's electrical infrastructure.
“Yes, the electrical grid is insecure,” Cox says. “It is vulnerable to widespread shutdown based on assaults at discrete locations.”
Cox plans to hold hearings this month on the vulnerability of the nation's utility infrastructure and what the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can do to improve the grid's resilience and physical security. Although the blackout has turned into a debate about electricity deregulation in Washington, the massive power outage raised major questions about what could happen if terrorists engineered a similar blackout.
“It was a serious object lesson,” Cox says. “DHS is not going to be the federal energy regulator, but the department is going to have to ensure security is built into regulatory policies.”
Other experts agree that the DHS, while avoiding sticky policy debates over deregulation and reliability, needs to be deeply involved in mandating security standards. The Pentagon, in simulation exercises, has found that rogue states or terrorist groups with sophisticated technology could hack into computer networks and shut down parts of the electrical grid. If the attackers used conventional explosives, replacing a transformer at a major electrical power junction could take months.
“Anybody who was out to do harm might be watching this whole scenario with great interest,” said Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Roy Maxion.
Within an hour after the blackout, the Department of Homeland Security determined that the outage was not a terrorist attack. Nonetheless, the department snapped into a higher mode of communication. Secretary Tom Ridge, from his headquarters in northwest Washington, spoke with the White House on a secure video-conference link and contacted local and state authorities and power companies. They confirmed that the outage was not an intentional attack and discussed how to handle the blackout from a security perspective.
The DHS is conducting a wholesale inventory of all the country's critical infrastructure — electrical grids, railroads, bridges, dams, telecommunications networks, chemical plants, nuclear-power facilities and tunnels — to determine where security vulnerabilities remain. The assessments are being done on an ongoing basis based on DHS priority lists, with chemical plants at the top of the list. The electrical-power grid is next on the list, according to DHS spokesman David Wray.
Ridge says federal, state, local and private-sector officials were able to efficiently communicate without panic during the blackout. “Our ability to communicate, to share information and to be prepared to respond to assist one another was tested,” Ridge said. “And, again, [it was a] tremendous inconvenience, some economic loss. But I think let's call it just an initial test of our relationship [with states and local authorities], and I think it worked pretty well.”