Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Blackout and the Question of Homeland Security

The Blackout and the Question of Homeland Security

On August 14, 2003, at just after 4:00 p.m., the power went off for over 50 million U.S. and Canadian citizens. Their homes, businesses, trains, elevators, refrigerators, air conditioners— all those myriad electrically driven motors, appliances, and gadgets— went silent, dark, and still. As we write this, (some 42 hours after the event), the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have yet to determine the cause of the outage and the prospects for an early resolution seem dimmer by the hour. And, even if we were to accept the latest reports describing the failure of a 345KV transmission line near Cleveland at 3:06pm on Thursday as the proximate cause of the system failure, we still have yet to hear why, or how, this failure caused the largest blackout in history. (As of Sunday, August 17, 2003, the Midwest independent system operator said that analysis of the cause of the blackout would require gathering of more data— that is, in addition to the 10,000 pages already available.)

Interestingly, while we now await the promised technical reports on the power failure, within less than an hour of the blackout our public officials appeared in the media with unequivocal statements that the event was not related to any act of terrorism. Here’s the International Herald Tribune’s report of the administration’s pronouncements:

“Senior administration officials said intelligence analysts at the Department of Homeland Security— after consulting with their counterparts at the FBI, the CIA and the New York City Police Department and with officials in the utility industry— concluded at about 4:45 p.m. that the blackouts were not the result of a terrorist attack.”

How did our public officials know and know with such certainty— that all the recent promises of al Qaeda’s leadership to cripple the US economy had not been made manifest? (3) As Osama bin Laden said in a November 2002 video: “This economic hemorrhaging [caused by the events of September 11, 2001] continues until today, but requires more blows. And the youth should try to find the joints of the American economy and hit the enemy in these joints, with God’s permission.”

Did our officials conclude the blackout was other than an act of terrorism because there was no explosion? Or was it, perhaps, because there was no wild-eyed, weapon-wielding suspect in sight and no advisory warning of elevated “chatter” preceding the event? Certainly, there has been no claim of responsibility broadcast on al Jazeera— but, then again, neither was there such an announcement immediately following September 11. For that matter, what, exactly, would an act of terrorism against our infrastructure look like, anyway? We seem to recall that, on September 10, 2001, hijackings were events to be played out through negotiations, not Ground Zero clean-up crews.

Regardless of whether it is eventually determined that the blackout was caused by weather, equipment failure, an accident compounded by human error, or even an intentional action, the mysteriously prompt reaction by government officials to the causes of the blackout brings into sharp focus the reasons for our earlier characterization of the aims and methods of terrorism as MUD (multilateral unconstrained disruption). Even more significantly, it underscores our perspective that the most likely targets of MUD are those systems that constitute the nation’s economic and social commons: the electrical grid, water purification and distribution, transportation, and telecommunications. (See our essay, “From MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction] to MUD [Multilateral Unconstrainted Disruption]: Dealing with the New Terrorism,” FPRI Wire, February 2003.

We have been writing and speaking about the potential vulnerabilities of the US electric grid (perhaps the prototypical commons) since shortly after the events of September 11th. As with most threat analysis in our post- 9/11 world, we have been dismissed as alarmist Jeremiahs. Representatives of the electric industry (including those in the recently deregulated generation, distribution, and independent system operations businesses) have repeatedly assured us that a scenario based on terrorist actions leading to a collapse of the grid could not possibly occur because (a) the industry had already taken the necessary steps to secure its systems; and (b) that those actions insured that faults would be isolated and repaired quickly, efficiently, and without any risks to the supply of electricity.

Sadly, this week’s events, characterized by President Bush as yet-another “wake-up call,” demonstrate otherwise. But having received this wake-up call, the question is: Will the nation rise from its sleep and now begin come to terms with the very real notion that terrorist groups such as al Qaeda are interested neither in public visibility or changes in policies but, instead, in the defeat of the US through the disruption of our economic and social infrastructure? Again, sadly, based on those premature assurances that terrorism had nothing to do with the blackout, it appears that the nation’s public officials are, once more, going to hit the bureaucratic snooze button before going back to complacent slumber.

In the post-deregulation, retail-wheeling era, the nation’s electric transmission grid bears all the hallmarks of the commons so aptly characterized by Garrett Hardin (See the_commons.html). It is a resource used by all, but one for which no individual user (in this case, the power generators and the power distributors) has an economic interest in investing in improving the inter-regional transmission infrastructure or the security of the grid as a whole. The various independent system operators, who might conceivably have an economic rationale for making such improvements, are, in fact, wholly owned subsidiaries of the larger generators and distributors and are, therefore, dependent on their largesse for investment capital. Many feel that only truly independent system operators are the answer. Currently, the ISO’s have little of the independence that has characterized the professional standards associated with their airspace analogs, the air traffic controllers. See, for example, PDF).

Our entire society depends— in any sense that we can imagine— on the ready availability of reliable electric power. The recent “failure”of the electrical grid— and the potential for “failures”to our water, transportation, and communication systems as well as the host of other critical supports for modern society— should be a more than sufficient signal that we now have to lay off the snooze button and get to work. If nothing else, the human and economic costs resulting from such failures clearly emphasize the value of our commons to our way of life, and, perforce, to the leverage value to be gained by terrorists from attacks upon these systems.

What is needed is a systematic analysis of the security of our economic commons, complemented by an equally systematic analysis of type and level of investments needed to improve their security. Our earlier proposal for the institution and use of comprehensive Security Impact Statements as the framework for such analyses is one possible way for our nation to initiate this effort. There may be others. But one thing should be clear by this point: we need to begin to take seriously the prospect for terrorist actions aimed at the nation’s commons, and we must take immediate steps to determine just what effective and efficient security measures and policies we need. As a starting point, we recommend an immediate comprehensive security review of all independent system operators (ISOs), including full background checks on all personnel having access to their facilities and networks. We recommend drawing on the knowledge and experience of Sandia National Laboratories, coupled with a creative and skilled “red team,”drawn, in part, from outside the electric industry.

Editorial Postscript:
As we go to press, according to the website Jihad Unspun, a communique, claiming to be from Al Qaeda and taking responsibility for the blackout appeared on the Arabic online group Global Islamic Media. We have no way of verifying this claim. See