Targeted by Terrorists? - A shock to the system

DeWayne Bartels
“We know that cyber intruders have probed our electrical grid, and that in other countries, cyber 
attacks have plunged entire cities into darkness,” President Obama said in a speech May 29, 2009.

Technology has made our lives easier and more productive. But, the very technology we depend on is a target,  a point not lost on President Obama.

“It’s the great irony of our Information Age — the very technologies that empower us to create and to build also empower those who would disrupt and destroy. And this paradox — seen and unseen — is something that we experience every day.”

The president, in that May 29, 2009, speech, was talking about cyber attacks on our information and power networks, from both domestic and international criminals, spies and terrorists.

The president, a congressman familiar with cyber threats and a recent investigation by the news magazine 60 Minutes claim a devastating blackout wreaking havoc on the U.S. is a very real threat.

Or, is it just hyperbole of the sort generated by the Y2K scare?

Neal Johnson, Ameren-CILCO spokesman, last week, sat down to discuss security of the electrical system of the Greater Peoria Area.

The threat

Even before President Obama took office and made cyber security a plank of his administration, U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin was sounding the alarm.  

On Sept. 11, 2008, Langevin testified before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality about cyber security vulnerabilities in the nation’s electric grid.

“In the interest of national security, a statutory mechanism is necessary to protect the grid against cyber security threats,” Langevin, chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber security and Science and Technology, said.

“I believe America is disturbingly vulnerable to a cyber attack against the electric grid that could cause significant consequences to our nation’s critical infrastructure. Virtually every expert that I’ve discussed these matters across government and throughout the private sector and everyone shares this assessment.”

Langevin said federal legislation should be drafted, which includes:

• emergency standards that are enforceable upon a finding by an intelligence or national security agency

• a definition of cyber security threats encompassing either the likelihood of a malicious act or substantial possibility of disruption.

Langevin is hardly alone in taking an alarmed view.

Retired Admiral Mike McConnell, former chief of national intelligence who  oversaw the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, told 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft if an attacker wanted to harm the U.S., they would attack the electrical grid in the cold of winter or the heat of summer and attempt to cause a cascading blackout across the nation.

“All of those things are in the art of the possible from a sophisticated attacker,” McConnell said.

Asked if the U.S. is prepared for that eventuality, McConnell said, “No. The United States is not prepared for such an attack.”

Kroft reported that a intelligence official said the Chinese have already “aggressively infiltrated” American electrical grids, mapping out our networks and presumably left behind software that could sabotage the systems.

The response

There was a limit to what Johnson could say.

He was limited by concerns about revealing security protocols, and he was limited by the fact that he is not privy to a good deal of security information.

“Cyber security is a 24/7 continuous job for us. Hacking is a constant threat. Our information techs monitor for it every day,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he is not aware of any portion of the electric grid maintained by Ameren being probed by hackers. But, he also said even if he was aware, he would not admit how or where because it could possibly expose a vulnerability in the system.

Johnson said he would not be surprised if the federal government — in one form or another — worked with Ameren on cyber security issues.

“Eyes are on us all the time. They have to be,” Johnson said. “It’s a threat that’s not going to diminish.”

Johnson said the fact a foreign terrorist was uncovered right here in Peoria makes it clear that no utility or other business can downplay the prospect of domestic or foreign terrorists pinpointing a target in Peoria.

“Everybody’s a target. We’re strong in terms of security, but we’re not Superman,” Johnson said. “It can happen anywhere. The bottom line, is we have to be prepared.”

In the end, though, Johnson said, there are no guarantees.

“Nobody is 100 percent protected,” he said. “We do the best we can with the tools we have.”