Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday January 31, 2016
One of my oldest and dearest friends recently published a new book. It is a provocative book on an important subject. My friend had helped me enormously with my book a few years back. When he sent me an advance copy of his latest effort he could have reasonably expected that I might at least mention it in one of my columns. I did not.
Actually, Ted Koppel, with whom I’ve been close friends for fifty years, does not need me to help him sell his new book, “Lights Out. A Cyberattack. A Nation Unprepared. Surviving the Aftermath." The book is a compelling account of his two year investigation into America’s extreme vulnerability to a cyberattack on its electrical power grids that could plunge millions of people into total darkness for many months. “Lights Out” quickly made the New York Times best seller list. Koppel has made the rounds on national television - on NBC’s Meet the Press, the CBS Morning News, the PBS News Hour among others, eloquently explaining the imminent danger we face. Sales have been brisk, especially for a non-fiction book on such an overwhelmingly depressing subject.
So why, you may ask, have I ignored this book? I have very carefully examined my motives. It is a fact that many of my recent columns have decried the constant fear - mongering today- especially among the multitude of Republican presidential aspirants and the news media who cover them. Koppel’s “Lights Out” is fear- mongering of the highest order, albeit with the best of intentions. However I believe the over-riding reason I have not previously addressed this subject is that I typify the vast majority of people in this country, including virtually all of its political leadership – we are in total denial. The problem appears so intractable that we can’t seem to wrap our heads around it.
Koppel has done that for us. And this is how he begins his book on the aftermath of a major cyberattack (using only computers and the Internet) on America’s power grid.
“Darkness. Extended periods of darkness, longer and more profound than anyone living in one of America’s great cities has ever known. As power shuts down there is darkness and the sudden loss of electrical conveniences. As batteries lose power, there is the more gradual failure of cellphones, portable radios and flashlights. Emergency generators provide pockets of light and power. But there is little running water anywhere. In cities with water towers on the roofs of high-rise buildings, gravity keeps the flow going for two perhaps three days. When this runs out taps go dry; toilets no longer flush. Emergency supplies of bottled water are too scarce to use for anything but drinking and there is nowhere to replenish the supply. Disposal of human waste becomes a critical issue within a matter of days.”
Koppel says this is what likely comes next: Medicines begin to run out. Home care patients who rely on machines start dying. Banks cannot function. Gas stations without their own generators are unable to operate their pumps. Even those with generators soon run out of fuel. The water, food and fuel consumed by a city of several million is staggering and emergency supplies are sufficient for only a matter of days. People’s assumptions that help is on the way are replaced by the terrible sense that they are on their own. As Koppel puts it, “when that awareness takes hold it leads to a contagion of panic and chaos.” The really bad news comes in his next paragraph. “There are emergency preparedness plans in place for earthquakes and hurricanes, heat waves and ice storms. There are plans for power outages for a few days, affecting as many as several million people. But if a highly populated area was without electricity for a period of months or even weeks, there is no master plan for the civilian population.”
At first blush, this may seem more than a bit like the countless apocalypse movies that Hollywood is so infatuated with. But according to Koppel’s reporting, the threat to America’s electricity grid is absolutely real. Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says, “Ted Koppel has written an important ‘wake-up’ call for America on the threat of a crippling cyberattack. The danger we face right now is great, but so is the failure to acknowledge that the threat exists at all.” Likewise, in addressing the seriousness of the threat, Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin told Koppel, “It’s not a question of if, it’s just a question of when.”
We know just from reading today's news headlines, that cyberwarfare is already underway - at a significant level. The United States and Israel were able to infect Iran’s computers with a program that made thousands of its nuclear centrifuges inoperative. We strongly suspect Russia and especially China have been hacking into U.S. Government computers. And we know that hacking, among other things, compromised the personal records of millions of American government employees.
But while China and Russia may have the capability to launch a cyberattack against the American electrical grid, Koppel thinks because of the complexity of their relations with the U.S. and the potential consequences of retaliation, they are less likely to do so. On the other hand, he suggests, Iran is an open question. And if they could ever lay their hands on the expertise to launch such an attack, North Korea or terrorists groups such as the Islamic State would have no qualms about using it.
In his conclusion, Koppel writes, “acknowledging ignorance is often the first step toward finding a solution. The next step involves identifying the problem. Here it is. For the first time in the history of warfare, governments need to worry about force projection by individual laptop. Those charged with restoring the nation after such an attack will have to come to terms with the notion that the Internet, among its many, many virtues, is also a weapon of mass destruction.”
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