Report: U.S. Electric Grid ‘Inherently Vulnerable’ to Sabotage

Multiple unreported incidents raise security concerns
U.S. power grid / AP

U.S. power grid / AP

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Electric grid compounds across the country have faced an uptick in unauthorized intrusions by unknown individuals, causing concern that the U.S. grid is “inherently vulnerable” to widespread sabotage, according to a recent oversight report issued by New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC), which monitors the threat level.

Following at least eight “reports of intrusions at electrical grid facilities in New Jersey” from October 2013 until January 2014, the ROIC’s Intelligence & Analysis Threat Unit issued a report warning that the U.S. electrical grid is “inherently vulnerable” to attacks that could wipe out power across large swaths of the country.

The ROIC report, released in late February, is marked as “unclassified” but designated “for official use only.” New Jersey State Police Spokesman Trooper Jeff Flynn confirmed that a report of this nature had been commissioned by ROIC when contacted by the Washington Free Beacon.

The multiple incidents of “sabotage” and crime outlined in the report “highlight the grid’s vulnerabilities to potential threats,” according to a copy of the report obtained by the Free Beacon.

U.S. officials and experts have increasingly warned over the years that the electrical grid could be a prime target for terrorists or others seeking to damage the country’s infrastructure and disrupt daily life.

The concern is that many of the incidents outlined in the ROIC report could be a sign that preparations are under away for a larger, coordinated attack on the grid.

Highly sensitive areas of the electrical grid were found to be lightly monitored, leaving them vulnerable to attack, according to the report.

“The electrical grid—a network of power generating plants, transmission lines, substations, and distribution lines—is inherently vulnerable,” the report said.

“Transmission substations are critical links in the electrical grid, making it possible for electricity to move long distances and serving as hubs for intersecting power lines,” according to the report. “Many of the grid’s important components sit out in the open, often in remote locations, protected by little more than cameras and chain-link fences.”

While the incidents are greatly concerning to security officials—and remain mostly unresolved—the ROIC “currently does not have enough information to classify the New Jersey incidents listed [in the report] as indicative of pre-operational activity or connect them to a pattern,” according to the report, which does not discount this possibility.

However, the incidents of grid tampering are not isolated to New Jersey.

An unidentified individual in Tucson, Ariz., in January, “removed multiple bolts from an electric tower’s support structure, increasing the potential for collapse and electrical service interruption.”

Authorities suspect that the goal was “sabotage rather than vandalism” due to the “deliberate manner of the bolt removal, including probable acquisition of the requisite tools,” the report said.

In April 2013, “unknown subject(s) fired multiple shots at an electrical transmission substation” in San Jose, Calif., “damaging several transformers,” the report notes.

Surveillance video of the incident shows sparks flying across the compound as bullets strike the substation.

“Authorities subsequently discovered intentionally cut fiber optic cables in a manhole,” according to the report. “No motive or suspects have been identified.”

Sabotage has also been reported in Jacksonville, Ark., where in August 2013, “an identified suspect … removed bolts from the base of a high-voltage transmission line tower and tried to bring down the 100-foot tower with a moving train,” according to the report

One month later, “the subject reportedly set a fire at a substation control house.”

In October of that year, “the subject cut into two electrical poles and used a tractor to pull them down, cutting power to thousands of customers,” according to the report.

While the incidents in San Jose received widespread media attention, several of the others did not.

New Jersey has experienced eight separate incidents of a similar nature since last year.

On Jan. 26, for instance, “employees found a hole, approximately three-foot high by two-foot wide, in the perimeter fence of an electric switching and substation in East Rutherford,” according to the report.

Several days before that incident, on Jan. 22, “an identified subject entered a Burlington generating station using false identification,” according to the report. “The subject claimed he had a gun (none found) and a bomb (package cleared).”

Other incidents include break-ins at certain electrical stations and the theft of various on-site materials.

The ROIC concluded that while “the incidents more likely involve vandalism and theft, rather than sabotage,” any type of “intrusion or damage to substations is a critical concern to the power supply and public safety.”

Counterterrorism expert Patrick Poole warned that these attacks could be a “test-run” for a larger act of sabotage.

“While some of these incidents involving substations can be attributed to metal scavenging, it’s planned attacks, much like the one in San Jose, that have officials worried the most and raises a number of questions,” Poole told the Free Beacon. “Why was this substation targeted? What were they trying to accomplish with this attack? Was this a test-run for something larger?”

“What the New Jersey ROIC report shows is that this fits into a larger pattern of incidents, which should be keeping someone at Homeland Security up at night,” Poole said. “The other big question is how many more of these incidents are going unreported?”

The ROIC report outlines several types of suspicious behavior that authorities should be on the lookout for.

These include “photographing objects or facilities that would not normally be photographed,” instances of individuals “loitering in sensitive areas,” and other types of atypical behavior such as “unfamiliar or out of place persons posing as panhandlers, protesters, vendors, [or] news agents.”

Flynn told the Free Beacon that ROIC aims to analyze and codify various grid incidents across the country in order to “learn from those incidents and apply them to situations here in New Jersey.”

The goal is to reach “potential conclusions to solve potential problems we have in state,” Flynn said in response to questions about the report.