Staying wary of cyber attacks shows vision

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the United States is stepping up its fight against worsening threats to this country’s electricity system and other critical industries.

According to the Journal, top Trump administration officials are devising new penalties “to hit back more forcefully at state-sponsored hackers of critical infrastructure to deter attacks such as the successful penetration of U.S. utilities by Russian agents last year.”

The report also refers to menacing actions from North Korea, Iran and China.

“The threat to the U.S. electric grids is so serious that in June a group of presidential advisers said the country needs to prepare for a ‘catastrophic power outage’ possibly caused by a cyberattack,” the article said.

A Department of Homeland Security briefing last month about hackers working for the Russian government having gotten inside the control rooms of U.S. electric utilities where they could have triggered blackouts is the basis for deep concern.

The Departments of State, Treasury and Defense reportedly are spearheading the new effort. However, they need to look beyond their current focus of attention, to a threat that an expert in the energy industry has said could make 9/11 look trivial someday.

That person is Peter Kelly-Detwiler, co-founder of NorthBridge Energy Partners LLC, of Lexington, Mass. NorthBridge provides industry expertise and decision support to organizations and business leaders navigating complex power markets and energy initiatives.

In a July 2014 Forbes magazine article, Kelly-Detwiler, who has more than 25 years of experience in the energy industry, recounted the effects of the U.S. having exploded a nuclear weapon in 1962 high above an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The exercise was part of a larger project to evaluate the impact of nuclear explosions in space.

Kelly-Detwiler pointed out that what was not expected by U.S. officials was the magnitude of the electromagnetic pulse emanating from the blast in question.

“The EMP was powerful enough to affect the electric grid in Hawaii, blowing out streetlights, and resulting in telephone outages and radio blackouts,” he said.

Working on follow-up to the project was Dr. William Graham, who later, during the Reagan administration, became a member of the President’s Arms Control Experts Group and Science Adviser to the President.

The July 2014 Forbes article quoted Graham as saying that nobody knew, prior to the blast, that the electromagnetic pulse would be anywhere near as large as it proved to be.

Four years ago, Graham was concerned about Iran having the ability to effect a result similar to what occurred in 1962, but North Korea, China and Russia now are no less of a threat, if not more of one.

In his Forbes article, Kelly-Detwiler asked: “Why is this so important? Because a single missile with a warhead that actually doesn’t have to be all that large, has the potential to take out the U.S. power grid, destroy our electronics networks, and create an existential crisis like nothing the world has ever witnessed.”

Even though the military has since the 1960s been working on hardening capabilities against the EMP threat, the relevant question is whether today’s capabilities are sufficient; congressional commissions in 2004 and 2008 raised heightened concerns that should concern everyone.

The effort aimed at deterring malicious cyberattackers must continue full-throttle, but the potential threat that exists from high above the earth is an equal or greater cause for great uneasiness.