The most fundamental mission of each of the United States’ security organizations, whether civil or military, is the protection of the homeland and the American people from attack. Traditionally, that has meant protection against hostile military forces that might blockade our sea lanes, and our shores, as the British did 200 years ago or, using the modern instruments of warfare -- aircraft and ballistic missiles -- to deliver a blow against this country.
The military deployed the best weapons of the age to defend this nation from coastal artillery to advanced air defenses. The nation today even has a defense, albeit woefully inadequate, against long-range ballistic missiles.
During World War Two and throughout the Cold War there was also the need to protect critical institutions and facilities against both physical attack but also infiltration and espionage. Since 9/11, there has been an intensified focus on securing our borders, points of entry, critical infrastructure and even large public gatherings against potential terrorist attacks.
Yet today, the electric power grid, the single most important system to the functioning of this country and the safety, health and well-being of the American people, remains virtually undefended. This nation relies on electricity to power everything from national defense, industrial production and communications, to the running of medical equipment and the Internet. Without a functioning, reliable supply of electricity, we would be back in the Dark Ages, both figuratively and literally.
As one of millions who experienced the massive power outage on the East Coast at the beginning of July, I can testify what it means to be without lights, air conditioning, refrigeration or communications. Unlike many, I was fortunate to have access to a public water system so I could drink and bathe.
According to recent hearings by the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the country’s electric power grid is extremely vulnerable to a wide range of threats from internal sabotage to terrorist attacks on key nodes and even cyber warfare. In recent years there have been reports of hackers, allegedly working for a foreign government, infiltrating the control networks for the power grid.
These penetrations could have been for reconnaissance purposes, scoping out future targets for attack. Or the perpetrators could have left cyber “bombs” behind to be activated in the event of hostilities. Why should an adversary worry about the threat of American military action if he has the capacity to paralyze this nation at a moment’s notice by shutting down the power grid?
The federal government, Congress and industry have been struggling to define the extent of safeguards needed to secure the power grid and the form they should take. The electric power grid is the only critical infrastructure sector even to have mandatory cyber security standards. While that is a start, it is not enough.
Securing the power grid against a major terrorist or cyber attack is an expensive proposition. This is the classic low probability but high consequence event. But so much rests on the ability of the grid to operate and deliver power. Its current state of vulnerability is an unacceptable risk in an age of global terrorism and instantaneous Internet access.