Ten years ago this month, Ted Koppel gave his last broadcast as the anchor of ABC’s Nightline. The 75-year-old journalist has not retired completely from the news business, contributing to various news outlets like National Public Radio, BBC World News America, and NBC News. This year, he released a book entitled Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. He stopped by the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue last Thursday for a discussion about it with Robert Siegel, the highly regarded host of NPR’s All Things Considered.
Based on his interviews with former top officials and directors, Koppel argued that the United States government is not doing enough to prepare for a cyberattack on one of its three major power grids. A successful hit to one segment could progress into a “Domino Effect.” Knocking out the electricity on a massive scale, he emphasized, would amount to a “Cyber Pearl Harbor.” It would be far worse than the blackouts experienced recently, such as the 2003 Northeast blackout. “We could be out of power for two years” or longer, Koppel stated grimly.
He went on to enumerate the future perpetrators. Russia and China have the capability but Iran, North Korea, and Syria are the countries of which we should be particularly wary. ISIS could ultimately learn to conduct these more sophisticated and coordinated attacks, too. Cyber warfare is trickier to handle, Koppel said, reminding the audience that “it took the FBI months before they could determine with certainty that North Korea” attacked Sony Pictures. “The internet, for all of its manifold blessings,” he went on, “has become a weapon of mass destruction.”
According to Koppel and his investigation, power companies are vulnerable in part due to the deregulation of the electrical industry decades ago. Smaller ones are the easiest targets, since they may not have the infrastructure or funds to support sophisticated firewalls. Restructuring the industry to address these vulnerabilities is difficult, because the electrical industry is permitted to vote against government proposals.
Within the government itself, Koppel singled out the Department of Homeland Security as “the least competent to handle” security measures and intelligence gathering. He believes that those activities would be better address by the National Security Agency. Additionally, serious questions about the power grid and disaster preparation need “to become part of the political process” and addressed in the current election.
Koppel advised that people save food and supplies on their own, finding the government reserves to be questionable. “Having enough food on hand is going to be critical,” he told the DC audience. MREs or Meals Ready to Eat, are currently in government storage units in limited supply and they have an expiration date of 5 years. Freeze dried products will last much longer, but growing food at that scale would take a while.
“I’m acknowledging that I don’t have the answers,” Koppel concluded. His book, Lights Out, paints a very troubling picture about the power grid and national security concerns. Nonetheless, the assessment is a much needed contribution in directing the nation’s focus toward other aspects of cybersecurity and terrorism.