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U.S.: Blackout Shows America's Infrastructure Vulnerable To Terrorists

  • Andrew Tully

The massive blackout that crippled the northeastern United States last week may have been caused by human or mechanical error, but security analysts say the next one could be an act of terror -- and that the U.S. government must act now to protect its electrical infrastructure.

Washington, 18 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Everyone agrees that the power failure that blacked out more than 240,000 square kilometers of the United States and Canada last week should not have happened.

But it did, and security analysts say it can happen again -- next time perhaps with the help of terrorists.

Even before all the power was restored to the state of New York, its governor, George Pataki, expressed incredulity at the massive collapse in electrical service on 14 August. At a news conference in New York City, Pataki said: "It is 2003 and there is no reason why most of the Northeast, a lot of the Midwest, cascading through Canada, should have this type of systemic power failure. We were told after the blackouts in the '60s and then in the '70s that it wasn't going to happen again and, in fact, I'm advised this is the largest blackout the country has ever experienced."

Pataki should not be surprised. The United States electrical grid is old and notoriously poorly maintained. And yet the country's electrical system must provide warmth in the winter and cool air in the summer in a country that is subject to temperature extremes greater than those experienced in much of Europe.

The recent heat wave in Europe brought high temperatures in the mid-30s Celsius. Many Europeans are not accustomed to such heat, and as a result rely much less frequently on air conditioners. But such temperatures are common in many parts of the United States during the summer, and as a result, air conditioning is far more common in American offices, shops, and homes.

The country's electrical grid system can run energy-hungry air conditioners, along with lights and other ubiquitous appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and microwave ovens. But only barely.

Unexpected blackouts are not uncommon in the United States, nor are so-called "brownouts" -- targeted electrical service reductions due to a power shortage or excessive use by consumers. But never has there been a blackout in North America that covered so wide an area or affected so many people.

When subways and elevators stopped, when air conditioners went silent, when televisions blinked off from the center of the country to the Atlantic Ocean, many people wondered if the blackout was a coordinated terrorist attack on America's infrastructure.

Quickly it became clear that the cause was likely more benign, but the very fact of the blackout opens a new opportunity for sabotage, according to Jamie Metzl, the coordinator for homeland security programs at the Council on Foreign Relations, a private policy research center in New York.

Metzl tells RFE/RL that a blackout is usually caused by the failure of a "node," or connecting point, in an electrical service grid. He said the 14 August power failure was akin to painting a bull's-eye on the node that failed -- making it clear to potential terrorists where the systems' weaknesses lie.

"If terrorists can be smart enough to identify what those critical nodes are, not only in the energy infrastructure, but in all of our infrastructure, we are extremely vulnerable," Metzl says.

Because of this vulnerability, Metzl says, the U.S. government must assess the threat posed to the nation's electrical infrastructure to find out which nodes are susceptible to both spontaneous and human-assisted failure, and to make them safe before they are attacked by terrorists.

Further, Metzl says North America's electrical grids desperately need to be brought into the 21st century. He acknowledges that this will cost anywhere between $50 billion and $100 billion, according to most estimates.

"But we also have to ask ourselves, what's the cost of even one-and-a-half days of lost work? The cost of this will be up in the billions of dollars for sure," Metzl says.

James Phillips agrees. He is a research fellow in U.S. foreign policy and national security at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy center. Phillips told RFE/RL that the United States cannot afford not to pay the price for a more robust, reliable -- and safer -- system for delivering electricity.

Phillips says he hopes last week's blackout provided what he termed a "wake-up call" for the American government and its energy industry.

"It's important to dedicate the funds to invest in new technology and new capacity to give more leeway in the system so it doesn't cascade down when there's a problem," Phillips says.

Phillips says it is not outlandish to think that a terrorist group might attack the country's electrical infrastructure to make its point. He notes that the goal of an act of terror is not military victory but to damage the morale of the people.

According to Phillips, a very effective campaign to lower morale is occurring now in Iraq, where guerrillas have been hampering the efforts of the U.S. military to restore power, running water, and other basic services to an increasingly restive civilian population.

"If there are chronic blackouts or 'brownouts' over time, I think that could have a cumulative effect. In fact, I think that's part of the strategy of some of Saddam Hussein's followers in Iraq: to keep knocking out the electricity to demoralize and dispirit the Iraqi people," Phillips says.

Metzl agrees that a blackout caused by terrorists could affect civilian morale, depending on the way the populace perceives the quality of their leaders' response. He says that if local and federal leaders were to respond ineffectively to a blackout caused by sabotage, they could lose the confidence of the people. Repeated attacks, he says, could lead to chaos.

What is worse, Metzl says, is that a sophisticated terrorist group could attack a power grid and cause a blackout as a prelude to an even bolder and deadlier attack akin to the hijacking of passenger-laden jetliners on 11 September 2001.

"The more sophisticated the terrorist, the more sophisticated the terrorist act. So one could see [a terrorist leader] starting with a critical infrastructure attack and following with something else. And as we saw, our guard was down [on 14 August] because we didn't have electricity; our response capabilities were decreased," Metzl says.

Metzl says that all forms of terror are possible after 11 September, but they will not be likely if the U.S. government and its energy industry remain alert and are not reluctant to invest in strengthening the nation's electrical system and anticipating the terrorists' next moves.

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