You’ve heard about Russian hackers breaking into voter databases, The New York Times and other computer systems. Chances are good that you’ve been warned that hackers have seen sensitive information about you at some point.
Ted Koppel, the former host of ABC’s Nightline program, takes this scenario one step further, and it’s terrifying.
I spoke with Koppel about his new book, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” prior to his appearance at the Sinai Forum on, appropriately enough, the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
Koppel noticed President Barack Obama’s passing references to the likelihood of a possible cyberattack that could cripple a large portion of the nation. A speech by Leon Panetta, former CIA director and former defense secretary, warned of a cyber Pearl Harbor.
Think about what hackers shutting down the power grid could mean.
“We really only have three major grids in this country. You could be talking about tens of millions of people,” Koppel said. “There never has been anything that comes that close to that kind of devastating attack.”
After Panetta’s speech, Koppel began calling federal agencies, the American Red Cross and others to see how they have planned for this possibility.
“Being a journalist of many, many years, I’ve sort of developed a cynicism gland which led to questions about whether the government has done anything” to prepare for a possible attack, he said.
“The first thing I discovered is you can’t get through, even when there’s no crisis going on,” Koppel said.
When he finally did get through to a human, he would be told to set aside enough food, water and essential prescription drugs for two or three days, and keep fresh batteries for a radio. When he pressed for how the federal government or Red Cross would respond, he got the same answer.
“There really is no plan,” he concluded.
Koppel knows what a blackout is like. I asked him about the one that hit New York City in 1967.
“I was on the air,” he said. “I was quite literally on the air for hours and hours,” keeping people up to date and telling them how to cope without electricity.
But that was an equipment failure, and that was before the internet made power grids more vulnerable.
Planning for a lengthy blackout is difficult. While the federal government has millions of MREs — meals ready to eat — for the troops, those expire after five years. Getting Congress to pay for additional MREs for an attack that might never come would be beyond difficult.
There’s also the option of freeze-dried foods, which could last longer, but gearing up for that would take a few years — and again, that’s after getting Congress to agree to pay for them.
I remember throwing out bulging cans while cleaning out a friend’s basement that was intended to double as a bomb shelter. What a waste of food.
Koppel and I talked about the duck-and-cover drills from the Cold War era, in which children were told to hide under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack. Pointless, right?
These drills actually helped by showing the folly of expecting we could survive a massive nuclear attack. That led to treaties to stop the nuclear arms race and, later, to efforts by Sens. Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar to round up stray nukes after the Soviet Union broke up, to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. This all happened because of those drills.
“They were silly, but they weren’t pointless,” Koppel said.
So now the fear is that our electrical grids are vulnerable, and with rogue nations like North Korea and terrorist groups like ISIS, it’s hard to predict where an attack might come from.
But as the Cold War drills showed, that doesn’t mean failing to plan for that possibility is pointless.