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Is America completely unprepared for a power grid cyberattack?

October 27, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
We’re aware of the risk of hacks that result in theft and espionage, but what about a devastating cyberattack on the power grid? In his new book, “Lights Out,” Ted Koppel argues that not only is this a distinct possibility, but that America is totally unprepared. The author joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the frightening potential fallout.

GWEN IFILL: Now: another addition to the NewsHour bookshelf.

It’s a warning about the vulnerability of the country’s power grid. And it comes from Ted Koppel, the veteran newsman and former anchor of ABC’s Nightline.

I talked with him recently about his new book, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”

Ted Koppel, welcome.

TED KOPPEL, Author, “Lights Out “: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You have written a book about the next big threat. We always talk about cyber-threats, about hacking. But you’re talking about the electrical grid.

TED KOPPEL : We are accustomed to cyber-attacks that result in grand larceny. We are accustomed to cyber-attacks that amount to huge vacuuming of intelligence information.

What we have never had is a cyber-attack that amounts to a weapon of mass destruction. And my point is that, if someone succeeds in taking down one of our power grids — and the Russians and the Chinese can do it and maybe the Iranians and the North Koreans — it would be devastating.

GWEN IFILL: Of all things for you to write about, what got your interest to start writing about this particular topic?

TED KOPPEL: The funny thing is, Gwen, that for about three years now, a number of our top leaders, including the president — the president has twice mentioned it in successive State of the Union addresses, warning — just a little paragraph, but warning that there are those who are trying to get into our infrastructure, especially the power grid.

The secretary of defense at the time, Leon Panetta, called the threat of a cyber-attack on the power grid potentially a cyber-Pearl Harbor. That’s pretty huge, and nobody was paying any attention to it. And so I wondered, A, are these people just exaggerating for reasons I don’t quite understand, and, B, if they’re not, what is the government doing to prepare for it and to prepare the public for it?

And my instinct told me that the answer was going to be not much. Not much is an exaggeration. Nothing is closer to the truth.

GWEN IFILL: You have talked to so many people, including the last four heads of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense.


GWEN IFILL: And did you get a sense, after talking to them, that any one of them knows what to do if this were to happen?

TED KOPPEL: Probably not.

Several of them know that the likelihood of it happening is great. When I spoke to Janet Napolitano just after she left as secretary of homeland security — and she had been on the job for five years — I said to her, what do you think the chances are of a cyber-attack on the power grid? She said very, very high, 80 to 90 percent.

It seems to me inevitable that we have to deal with this. But maybe, because we don’t know what the answer is, we have not even begun to do so.

GWEN IFILL: We have talked to Jeh Johnson, who currently runs Homeland Security. He was trying to be more optimistic currently being in the job, but it didn’t sound like that conversation went well.

TED KOPPEL: It didn’t go well, because, on the one hand, he conceded that the likelihood of a cyber-attack on the power grid is great. On the other hand, when I said, OK, what’s the plan? You’re the secretary of homeland security.

He sort of dismissed it and said, well, as long as you have a radio with extra batteries.

And I said, yes, but — so you have a radio and the power goes out and you turn the radio on. What are you going to tell people? And doesn’t it seem a little strange that we’re going to defer telling people what the plan is until after the electricity goes out and communication is far more difficult than it needs to be?

GWEN IFILL: So it’s easy to see there is not a plan, but what would you say the plan ought to be? Mass evacuations from someplace like Manhattan?

TED KOPPEL:Can’t do it. Too many people, no place to put them.

The only thing — and I don’t want to be in a position of even sounding as though I have the answers. But I spent three chapters of the book dealing with the Mormons. And the reason I focused on the Mormons is that the Mormons, after 200 years of being driven from pillar to post, have learned how to survive in difficult situations.

And they are probably about as well-prepared as any large group in the country. And so the one thing that the Mormons do that I would recommend to Americans in general to do is to have a three to six months’ supply of food and water.

GWEN IFILL: So, this is not a corporate responsibility, necessarily, or a government responsibility? We’re not talking about state actors all the time?

TED KOPPEL: It may be. It may be their responsibility, but since what I’m finding is that they haven’t taken that responsibility very seriously, or at least have not come up with a solution yet, I’m saying to those people who can afford it — and I fully appreciate that there are tens of millions of people in this country who can barely afford to put food on the table every day, let alone get a supply of three to six months.

But if those who can afford it do it, and if the government has a backlog of freeze-dried food, which lasts up to 25 years, we can probably survive something like this. If we don’t do that, there will be thousands of fatalities.

GWEN IFILL: You say, quite provocatively, toward the end of the book that the Internet is our weapon of mass destruction.

TED KOPPEL: In addition to all the wonderful things that it does, it can be used as a weapon of mass destruction.

And the dangerous thing, Gwen, is, it doesn’t require a government to do it. It doesn’t require anyone with a ton of money to do it. Someone sufficiently skilled in cyber-warfare, using an individual laptop, can inflict enormous damage.

I have been told by the man who was the former chief scientist for the NSA, the National Security Agency, that he now believes that there are individual groups, and possibly a group like ISIS, for example, which has about $2 billion, that they could buy the expertise and that the equipment they need is available off the shelf. That’s a pretty scary prospect.

GWEN IFILL: Are you worried that you will be dismissed as a doomsayer?

TED KOPPEL: I would be more worried if people after the fact found out that I had discovered what I had discovered, and that I hadn’t said anything about it. I think that would be the greater — the greater ill.

GWEN IFILL: Ted Koppel, the author of “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” thank you.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Gwen.