STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | may 2016
“Expecting states to take in hundreds of thousands or millions of refugees isn't feasible.”
Ted Koppel, a journalist with ABC for 42 years, 25 as host of “Nightline,” has won 42 Emmys, 12 duPont-Columbia Awards and every other major television journalism prize. Koppel is currently a news analyst for NPR, BBC World News, ABC and NBC. In his latest book, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” he warns that America’s power grid is vulnerable to malicious hacking and that an attack is likely.
Why this book now?
Because everyone from the president on down has been talking about it without getting much reaction. The president has twice warned about it. Leon Panetta, when he was secretary of defense, warned about a cyber Pearl Harbor. Janet Napolitano, when she gave her farewell address as secretary of Homeland Security, warned about the danger of a cyberattack on the power grid. But it barely got much coverage and it’s gotten no reaction from the political class. I decided to look into it and see if the warnings were hyped or exaggerated. An awful lot of people in the intelligence branches of government and the military believe it is inevitable that it will happen. What has been done to prepare the civilian population for the aftermath? I suspected not much, and “not much” seems to be an exaggeration.
Is there a plan to deal with an attack on the nation’s power grid?
There is none. It did not surprise me. The best assessment came from Tom Ridge [former director of Homeland Security], who said we tend to be a reactive society. We’re very good at reacting but very bad about pre-empting or preparing.
How much preparation is necessary?
The bare outlines of a plan could be pulled together very reasonably, but it’s going to cost a lot of money and it’s going to take a lot of time. There is a great deal of competition for the money in Washington and not a great deal of respect paid to people who are planning ahead as much as three or five years. This is going to be a big task but it’s one that’s going to have to be taken on after the fact, when it’s going to be infinitely more difficult. Cmdr. Gen. Lloyd Austin, of the U.S. Central Command, told me it’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when.” If you take that at face value, then we’re going to have to deal with it at some point. It would be infinitely more useful to deal with it before it happens.
Why do you believe the grid is so vulnerable to an attack?
With the deregulation of the power industry, we now have more electric power companies than ever before. Very few of them take care of the entire process: generating, transmitting and delivering electricity. Many companies simply deliver electricity. But they are tied into the grid, and the only thing capable of controlling that much interaction on an hourly and daily basis is the Internet. I’m not suggesting that anyone with a laptop can get into it and take it down, but I’ve been told by the top people at the National Security Agency that the Chinese and the Russians are already inside the grid, some people believe that Iran is in it and the North Koreans aren’t that far behind. People believe that the Islamic State group, or one like that, will be able to acquire, given the enormous amounts of money they have, the expertise that will let them take down all or part of the grid. We only have three grids in the U.S. You’re talking about potentially tens of millions of people without power for a period of months.
The power industry insists the grid is secure.
I disagree. Although some, like the folks from Edison Electric Institute [which represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies], are moving in the right direction. Their notion is to have a system in place that, if you have people trying to intrude into your system, the National Security Agency can give you a heads-up that someone is coming in. If it’s “white-boarded,” that means it’s OK, a friendly coming in. If it’s “black-boarded,” then you can take measures to prevent that particular attack. When I asked the guy from Edison, “What percentage of your 3,200 companies have that capacity?” he said it was fewer than 1 percent. I asked how long it was going to take to expand the system, and he said they hoped to double it this year.
What role do states have if urban evacuations are necessary?
We should have an adequate supply of food so the country can support people who are in extreme dire straits. Right now, expecting states to take in hundreds of thousands or millions of refugees isn’t feasible. Assuming that people flooding in would be welcomed by the local population is just not realistic. One state government, not too far from D.C., has a plan—it’s, “Here’s a bottle of water, a sandwich and a map to the nearest gas station.” Were state legislatures to make a plan, over a period of five years, they could arrange to disperse people who can’t afford to live on their own.
Will some parts of the country deal with an outage better than others?
People in rural areas are more self-sufficient, more able to survive, in terms of generating power with generators, and in terms of being able to grow their own food, kill their own food, fish for their own food. Just having ordinary canned food will be a problem because it has an expiration date, but an adequate supply of freeze-dried food could help.
How do you respond to people who say you’re an alarmist?
I’m asking people to consider the evidence. If you think I’m a lousy reporter and I got everything wrong, then don’t worry about it. But if you think I have some vestige of my old reporting skills and the people I talk to were for the most part reasonable people, then do worry about the problem.
What preparations have you made for your family?
I’ve bought freeze-dried food for all my children, grandchildren and my wife and me. We have water, a couple of generators. We live in an area where the power tends to go out.
Mark Wolf, an NCSL publications editor, conducted this interview.
Editor’s note: This interview is part of a series of conversations with national leaders. It has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily NCSL’s.