- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

Are we safer today than we were on Sept. 12, 2001? Yes and no. Ironically, the answer to that seminal question may lie in our utility security infrastructure, not flight safety. Keeping the other shoe from falling by protecting our utilities should now be a top priority.
For obvious reasons, extraordinary resources have been dedicated to making America's airways safe from terror. These efforts are likely to bear fruit and there is much relief to be found in the bright light of new airport security measures. Certification standards should be kept high for baggage screening technologies and in this there will be hope for enduring confidence. That said, another shadow grows long across America. If ignored by public and private utilities, legislators or the public at large, the consequences could be as severe perhaps more severe than those of 2001.
Terrorists like to notice what the rest of us do not; they like to find the pink elephant in the living room and make it work for them. By contrast, the average American and even the average American political leader tends to assume the elephant belongs there, since it has always been there, stable, unmoving, seemingly unmovable. An open invitation to terror, our nation's utilities sit in the center of our world, seemingly unmovable.
We rely upon the nation's interconnected utilities for our daily routines, our water, heat, cooking, transportation, even the electricity to power our computers. The notion that these commonplaces of daily life could suddenly blink or crash out, is utterly beyond our imagination like the idea that the Twin Towers might, in a few short hours, perish.
But the world has, indeed, changed. Like it or not, utilities are probably the next primary terrorist target America's electric, oil, gas, nuclear and water utilities. The sobering nature of nuclear utility vulnerability is becoming self-evident. But there are other vulnerabilities. Natural gas, for example, provides a full quarter of all energy consumed in the United States and can only be distributed through pipelines, exposing the overall system to threat. Today, there are more than 30 interstate natural gas pipelines across the United States.
Likewise, there are more than 200,000 miles of right-of-way supporting the nation's oil pipelines alone and these pipelines carry more than two-thirds of America's oil supplies. Imagine the impact of simultaneously disrupted oil supplies to leading U.S. utilities in the dead of winter or heat of summer for that matter.
Imagine the effect of rolling brown or blackouts in major metropolitan areas as energy became more scarce, shutting down even power plants and dependent military bases. Imagine the spectacle of both a terrorism-induced energy shortage coupled with major environmental disruption, for example on the heels of a terrorist-inspired second Exxon Valdez, perhaps near a metropolitan area. Consequence management is important; prevention of the bad act is better.
According to utility security experts, these scenarios are not far fetched. Don Buzzelli, former U.S. Special Forces member and head of ATOG, a Georgia-based utility security outlet has noted, "Utilities are at the top of the dome, the bricks that hold all others in place, and that is why their protection requires [federal] attention." Domestic threats to utilities have already been publicly reported. Last October, newspapers reported that half a dozen suspicious men were stopped in the Midwest with photos of electric generating facilities and sections of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline; they were mistakenly let go. Utility-related cyber attacks are also a legitimate concern, implicating computerized physical security, transportation chokepoints, and the nation's electric power grid.
Foreign nations' experiences make clear that utility infrastructure is a target of choice. While we value our perceived insulation, lessons from abroad are common. In 2001, terrorists in Colombia attacked one major oil artery 170 times, disabling it for 266 days. In 2002, the expanse of this pipeline has been blown up 15 different times, and environmental damage done by terrorists in Colombia since 1986 is 9 times the amount of oil lost in the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Lest there be a sense that nuclear, oil and gas utilities are alone, consider also water. A recent sewerage leak in D.C. underscored the speed with which contamination could occur. Last month, terrorists in Rome apparently sought to contaminate water supplies with cyanide, and on Feb. 4, a terrorist group in Colombia blew up a major aqueduct, leaving more than 20,000 people without water. How long could New York, Washington, Atlanta or Los Angeles go without clean water? What about agriculture? Is utility-focused prevention not worth more attention?
By hitting a utility, terrorists would seek to do what using an airliner did on September 11, 2001 paralyze a large sector of the economy, inspire fear, weaken the nation's faith in its own security, and leave citizens wondering what will happen next. The mere possibility that utilities are or could be next should send shivers up policymakers' backs. More immediately, utility vulnerability should encourage internal security reforms across the nations' utilities and trigger a complete rethinking of how they protect assets and those who depend upon them for energy and water.
The hardest fact to process may be this: America's utility infrastructure is as dear to every American as it is diffuse, as easy a target to hit today as it is to protect with foresight, and as precious a resource to America as our airports, bridges, tunnels and urban centers. The time is now to consider a more robust and collaborative public-private effort to protect America's utilities. If we don't find the energy today, we may not have energy tomorrow.

Robert Charles is former counsel and staff director to the U.S. House National Security Subcommittee (1995-1999), professor of government at Harvard University Extension School (1998-2001), and president of Direct Impact, the Maryland-based consulting group.

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