Terrorist Attack Shows Vulnerability in Critical Infrastructure
February 19, 2014 at 2:52 pm
Just after midnight on April 16, 2013, someone slipped into underground
tunnels and cut the phone lines running to the PG&E Metcalf power substation
near San Jose, California. Then two snipers proceeded to fire over 100
rounds into the substation in 19 minutes, knocking out 17 transformers. The
electric company managed to prevent a widespread blackout, but security
officials fear the attack could be a dry run for a larger scale terrorist
Investigators believe that there were two attackers, both of whom remain
at-large and unidentified. Jon Wellingoff, chairman of the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission at the time of attack, said it was "the most
significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever
occurred" in the U.S. While the FBI does not believe a terrorist
organization is behind it, the attack underscores the growing threat posed
by "lone wolf" attackers. This is also a threat that top U.S. intelligence
officials have recently been warning about.
For example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned in his
annual global threat assessment that "homegrown violent extremists will
likely continue to pose the most frequent threat to the US Homeland,"
particularly "those who act alone or in small groups."
Additionally, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson warned that "lone
wolf" attacks are "the terrorist threat to the homeland-illustrated last
year by the Boston Marathon bombing-that I worry about the most; it may be
the hardest to detect, involves independent actors living within our midst,
with easy access to things that, in the wrong hands, become tools for mass
Furthermore, the substation attack demonstrates the weakness in our critical
infrastructure, as recently warned by Heritage. Clapper has echoed the
warning, saying the critical infrastructure "provides an enticing target to
malicious actors." A recent study by West Point's Network Science Center
found that shutting down the electric grid by causing a cascading failure is
much easier than one would think.
The electric grid is arguably the most important sector of the critical
national infrastructure, since none of the other sectors could function
without it. The liabilities in the psychical structures (e.g., substations,
generation facilities, and control centers) are just part of the
vulnerabilities in the overall electric grid. Weaknesses within the
software, supply chain, operational technologies, and personnel all pose
To mitigate these threats, Congress should enable effective information
sharing between the government and the private sector, work collaboratively
with utility companies to enhance both cyber and psychical security, and
encourage private-sector awareness, education, and training.