“Lights Out” by Ted Koppel
[Nyerges is the author of 16 books on self-reliance and preparedness, including “How to Survive Anywhere” and “Self-Sufficient Home.” He has been conducting survival field trips since 1974. He is an advocate of perma-culture and local farmers markets, and he frequently consults to the movie industry. See the Schedule and booklist at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com]
Former Nightline TV journalist Ted Koppel has written a hard-hitting, compelling book called “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”
What if, asks Koppel, terrorists decide to strike the power grid of the United States? How, after all, does one “attack” the complex, inter-connected group of thousands of independent companies, in order to take out the ability of the U.S. to have and transport power?
Koppel does his homework and tells us how the electrical system works today, and how power is transmitted. Koppel asks the hard questions to power executives, and lays out the strengths, and weaknesses, of our system. Koppel does not say that this would be an easy task, but someone with the know-how for hacking, with a laptop computer, could conceivably disable any of a number of the transformers throughout the country.
Though the power company executives and Homeland Security officials tried to assure Koppel that this could not happen, or that it would be fixed quickly, Koppel traces the steps to replace a disabled transformer. Replacing transformers, he points out, is not like replacing a battery in a flashlight. Transformers – one of the weak links in the system, according to Koppel – are huge custom-made pieces of equipment, each costing in the neighborhood of $3 to $10 million, and enormous, anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 pounds each. They are not readily transported, assuming there was a backup ready to use.
Knowledgeable hackers could access the system other ways as well, causing havoc in a number of ways. Indeed, Koppel provides clues that hackers have already been exploring digitally, and physically, various aspects of the U.S. power grid. And there are several nations hostile to the U.S. who could launch such a digital attack any day, without the need for any troops, and with a high degree of deniability. According to CENTCOM [Central Command] Commander General Lloyd Austin, “It’s not a question of if (this will happen), it’s a question of when.”
Finding that a cyber attack is a distinct possibility, Koppel starts to ask government officials and power executives what can be done. Some deny there is a problem. At least one official indicated that he hoped nothing like this happens anytime soon because he was due for retirement in a few years!
Koppel asked Howard A. Schmidt what someone could do. Schmidt was the former cyber-security co-ordinator for the Obama administration. According to Schmidt, “There is no answer,” says Schmidt, saying that no government agency has any guidelines for private citizens because Schmidt believes there’s nothing an individual can do to prepare. He adds that “We’re so inter-connected, it’s not just me anymore. It’s me and my neighbors and where I get my electricity from. There’s nothing I can do that can protect me if the system falters.” Koppel describes this answer as very fatalistic, implying that the individual can’t do anything, and that the government won’t do anything.
Part of the reason that the government won’t do anything, according to Koppel, is that government tends to react to emergencies, and nearly all the emergencies that organizations such as FEMA and the Red Cross prepare for are nearly all natural disasters: floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes. A cyber attack taking out the U.S. electrical grid would be very different. No electricity over a large portion of the U.S. would be unprecedented. Normal communication systems would be severely hindered; people would not be able to access money; purchases would be very difficult; problems would arise with sanitation systems and water delivery. Refrigeration would go out.
To determine the potential severity of a nation-wide blackout, Koppel asks then-secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, to define the threat-level of a cyber attack. “It is potentially very large,” he responded. “It is potentially devastating.”
Isn’t there something that ordinary citizens could do to prepare for such a possibility as a knock-out of the electrical grid, asks Koppel. Shouldn’t the government be trying to get the message out to people of what to do in the first few days? “I suspect there is a message that is out,” said Jeh Johnson. “It’s just very few people are actually paying attention to it.” According to Koppel, the level of interest in government preparing for a grid-down situation has not yet risen to the level of apathy. And government officials to who Koppel spoke believed that there is nothing to worry about, as there is a very low probability of this ever happening.
The only plans that Koppel was able to discover had to do with either getting the power back on, or evacuating millions of people. Evacuation of millions of people out of cities would be a logistical nightmare, of course, and the only reason that would be considered is because all the natural disaster plans typically involve some evacuation. But a grid-down scenario would be very different than a natural disaster. According to Koppel, the best thing to do would be to stay in one’s homes, in most cases.
Most FEMA officials interview by Koppel admitted that there is only so much FEMA could do, especially in a scenario with no electricity nation-wide. Some feel that the only way to defend against a cyberattack is by a close coalition between government and industry.
But there are people – many of them – who are doing something. Some of these plans are band-aids, and some are more extensive. Koppel introduces us to survivalist and preppers in the latter part of his book. He introduces the reader to folks with large ranches, with lots of guns for defense, and to the Mormon Church, perhaps the single-greatest non-government entity that has consistently focused on all phases of survival preparedness. You could describe the operations of the Mormon Church as a country within this country, for they own farms, canneries, storage facilities, and distribution networks that take care of their own so that the government doesn’t have to – assuming it could.
I found the “Solutions” chapter quite useful, and Koppel doesn’t ignore the old standbys for emergencies that everyone should have: stored food and water for six months, grinders for beans and wheat, extra supplies, lots of extra cash, medicines – basically, extra of everything you need, and especially the things that you quickly run out of. Plus, there is the encouragement to create, or become a part of, a social-financial network where people can work together in good times or bad. Everyone is also encouraged to take CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training wherever you live.
The directions for any associations, even very loose associations, should be to locate and establish the needs of the most vulnerable, and determine the skills and assets of those who are willing to share either or both. As Koppel says, “Once disaster strikes, it is already too late.”
Koppel is one of our greatest journalists, and he doesn’t make his call-to-action without thorough research. “Lights Out” is interesting and entertaining to read, painting a clear picture of the possibility of a cyber-attack, as well as providing many details for individual action.