War Stories

The Al-Qaida Question

Could terrorists cause such a massive blackout? Not likely.

On this week’s Sabbath-gasbag shows (as Calvin Trillin calls them), someone is certain to furrow his brow and declaim that Thursday’s blackout confirms, to a newly heightened degree, the American electrical grid’s vulnerability to terrorism. Not that this necessarily was a terrorist attack, the expert will concede (though with a cocked eyebrow, to suggest that, then again, maybe it was), but what if it had been? Look, he will say, at how much damage the terrorists can cause.

Certainly the blackout dramatizes the fragility of our overloaded, archaic, unevenly managed electrical-transmission system. But it also reveals the system’s—and society’s—resilience.

We have had, in one swoop, the largest blackout in U.S. history, wiping out electrical power for some 50 million people, including much of the Northeast corridor and the core of the nation’s financial network. And yet, less than 24 hours later, most (though by no means all) of the power has been restored. Financial markets were scantly affected, if at all. In New York City, just one person died (of a heart attack, after walking down many flights of stairs in a Midtown skyscraper); the police recorded just three cases of looting, all minor; by Thursday evening, planes were flying in to the area’s airports.

Police, firefighters, and emergency-management crews worked with few disruptions. (Some statistics: Police responded to 80,000 911 calls, more than twice the normal number; firefighters fought 60 fires and made more than 800 elevator rescues; EMS crews responded to 5,000 calls, 600 more than the previous record-high.)

Government officials—on city, state, and federal levels—communicated with one another, with almost no hitch, thanks in part to procedures put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

The point is: As big a deal as this blackout was (and, to some degree, still is), the streets did not erupt in panic; society remained fairly orderly; the wheels of government and finance turned. If this had been a terrorist attack, or if terrorists dream of inflicting such damage as this, one thing can be said: It did not unleash terror. Major inconvenience, yes; terror, not remotely.

That said, could a terrorist have caused this blackout or cause one like it in the future? Doubtful. As of late Friday afternoon, the executives and engineers who run the electrical network still don’t know precisely where or how the trouble began. If they don’t know how to find the precise vulnerability that caused such widespread damage, would anyone in al-Qaida know?

Last summer, the Naval War College commissioned Gartner, a Connecticut-based information-technology research group, to spin scenarios for a “Digital Pearl Harbor“—a systematic attack on the nation’s critical infrastructure networks: finance, transportation, telecommunications, the Internet, and energy. The group dealing with the electrical network envisioned a two-pronged attack: first, the physical destruction of key transmission bottlenecks, followed by sabotage through the Internet of the digital systems that allow supervisors to switch transmission flows on and off, and thus blocking them from restarting the power after the attack.

Regardless of whether such an attack is feasible, that certainly is not what happened Thursday. No physical damage was done (or at least none was reported), and the digital systems that restart the flow of power are working fine. In other words, the blackout reveals nothing, one way or the other, about the network’s vulnerability to terrorism.

However, it is worth noting that invading key nodes of the electrical network, whether by hacking or whacking, is very difficult and getting harder. (For an elaboration of this point, click here.) According to a spokesman for the North American Electric Reliability Council *, hackers try to intrude on some aspect of the grid’s computer network on a daily basis—never, so far, with any success. It’s also worth noting that the digital networks are not connected nearly as widely as the transmission networks; even if someone managed to muck up one digital center, it would have limited effect.

None of this is to warrant complacency, either about the electrical grid’s ability to supply enough continuous power or about its security from terrorists and pranksters. Just last Tuesday, NERC issued a new protocol for enhancing cyber-security standards, and when it comes to such matters, there’s no such thing as excessive caution. However, if we are vulnerable, the blackout probably tells us nothing new about why or how; if anything, it offers reassurance that society is more durable than many scenarios about terrorism suppose.

Correction, Aug. 18, 2003: This piece originally misstated the name of the group. It’s the North American Electric Reliability Council, not Center. ( Return to corrected sentence.)