- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

Lawmakers — impatient with their progress in mapping the vulnerabilities of the nation’s electricity grid — are set to question Department of Homeland Security officials about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the grid, which could result in chaos in urban areas and an economic collapse if the outage was prolonged.

“With power out beyond a day or two, both food and water supplies would soon fail. Transportation systems would be at a standstill … . Natural-gas pressure would decline and some would lose gas altogether — not good in the wintertime … . Martial law would likely follow,” Paul H. Gilbert of the National Research Council told a congressional panel late last month.

Mr. Gilbert’s analysis was based on the work of a high-level brains trust within the National Academies. Nearly 200 scientists, experts and officials worked for six months on the report he cited as the basis for his assessment.

Lawmakers on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security were trying to see what lessons could be learned from the massive Aug. 14 power outage that crippled the Northeast and Midwest. They want to hear from officials of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for protecting U.S. infrastructures.

Frank Libutti, Homeland Security’s undersecretary for information analysis and infrastructure protection, is expected to testify Sept. 17, said a committee staffer on the condition of anonymity.

In particular, lawmakers are dissatisfied with the progress made on a survey of the vulnerabilities of the nation’s critical infrastructure. Although the survey was a priority objective of the White House’s homeland-security strategy published last year, the department still has not been able to answer questions about its progress.

“There’s a degree of frustration among some members [from both parties],” said the committee staffer.

Committee Chairman Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, pointed out at last week’s hearing that without such a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s weak spots, it was hard to know what needed defending.

“In the absence of [the survey], it seems you would have a very difficult time knowing where our priorities should be and where we should spend our limited dollars,” he said.

A terrorist attack on the power grid is well within the realm of reality. Larry A. Mefford, counterterror chief of the FBI, told the panel that “al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are known to have considered energy facilities … as possible targets.”

While cautioning that there was “no specific, credible intelligence about threats” to the nation’s power infrastructure, he said that methods of attack could range from blowing up pylons or power stations to sophisticated cyber-attacks on the automated computer-run elements of the grid.

Mr. Gilbert called these programs — known as supervisory control and data acquisition systems or SCADAs — “an open invitation to those who would use computer technology to attack the grid.”

But Mr. Mefford told the panel that there was no evidence al Qaeda had the ability to exploit such weak points.

“We have not seen any indication that al Qaeda possesses a sophisticated computer-intrusion capability,” he said.

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