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October 31, 2013
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. grid threatened
An Energy Department-sponsored study of the U.S. electrical power grid publicly identifies numerous vulnerabilities to cyberattacks by nations or terrorists, including hacking that could cause widespread power outages.

“Impacts identified in the failure scenarios include loss of power, equipment damage, human casualties, revenue loss, violations of customer privacy, and loss of public confidence,” states the 269-page report “Electric Sector Failure Scenarios and Impact Analyses.”

The report was funded by the Energy Department and published in September by the National Electric Sector Cybersecurity Organization Resource, a group of industry and academic specialists focused on improving cybersecurity for networks in the power grid.

The highly technical report outlines more than 40 ways foreign intelligence services or other malicious hackers could break into the networks used to control the distribution of electrical power.

One threat scenario states that a catastrophic power outage could be caused by an insider with access to electrical control networks. By sending a computer order for mass “remote disconnects” in the power grid, the cutoffs would produce a cascading power failure over a large geographical area.

The report is designed to give both industry and government a comprehensive assessment of the weaknesses within electronic power grid networks. It also recommends ways to prevent cyberattacks, including the use of stronger passwords and better network access controls.

“Authorized personnel with legitimate access can inflict significant damage on a system either intentionally or by mistake,” the report said. “The impact for this scenario could range from a minor system being off-line to a widespread outage of unknown duration.”

Among those who pose threats are employees or contractors who may be bribed by foreign spy agencies, former employees seeking revenge, deranged people and cyber gangs.

Nation-state and terrororism threats identified in the report include China, North Korea, Cuba, al Qaeda, Afghanistan’s Taliban, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taibi and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

Domestically, the report warned that cyberattacks could be carried out by lone wolf terrorists, ecoterrorists and U.S. separatist groups and militias.

The U.S. electronic power grid is a regional system of three networks in the 48 continental states: The Eastern Interconnected System, the Western Interconnected System, and the Texas Interconnected System.

The report was first disclosed by on Oct. 17.

China dispatched five warships to the disputed Senkaku islands last week in the latest show of force, as part of its dispute with Japan over control of the uninhabited islands.

U.S. officials said the Chinese naval incursion Oct. 23 was part of stepped up saber-rattling by Beijing in the year since Tokyo purchased three of the five islands from private owners on Oct. 11, 2012.

The Chinese navy last week sent some of its most modern warships, including two Luzhou-class missile destroyers and three Jiangkai II-class frigates, to the islands.

U.S. Navy officials were less concerned about previous incursions because they were carried out by unarmed or lightly armed maritime surveillance ships.

The latest dispatch of front-line warships represents an escalation of pressure by China and a sign Beijing is stepping up claims to the islands that are believed to contain large undersea reserves of gas and oil.

According to U.S. officials, in the past year, Chinese ships have made 322 maritime incursions in both territorial Senkaku waters and nearby seas. The previous year the number of similar incursions was 17.

Other new military developments included China’s first aircraft violation of Senkaku airspace in December 2012, and three drone surveillance flights near the islands.

One of the most significant incidents took place Sept. 8 when two Chinese H-6 strategic nuclear bombers flew through the Miyako Strait, located south of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture and near the Senkakus. It was the second time Chinese aircraft made a provocative flight through the strait and followed earlier warship passages through those waters.

In the past year, Japanese jet fighters were scrambled 386 times to intercept Chinese aircraft, compared to 142 intercepts the previous year.

The stepped up military incursions are a sign Beijing is attempting to solidify its territorial claims to the islands it calls Diaoyou, a U.S. official said.

Ongoing disclosures of National Security Agency electronic spying following the large-scale document theft carried out by fugitive former contractor Edward Snowden are increasing pressure for new restrictions on the U.S. spy agency.

Concerns are growing among analysts, including current and former NSA and Pentagon officials, that the latest disclosures of U.S. electronic eavesdropping on European leaders are likely to increase pressure on President Obama to further curb NSA monitoring.

In August, the president directed a panel of specialists — known as the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies — to study how electronic spying protects national security, advances foreign policy and respects civil liberties. The group will present its report to the president in two months.

NSA Director Keith B. Alexander on Tuesday made an impassioned appeal for continued NSA spying that he said is vital for protecting against terrorist attacks and other threats.

The agency is having a “tough time” in terms of public trust as a result of Mr. Snowden’s ongoing disclosures through reporter Glenn Greenwald of Britain’s Guardian newspaper and others, many of them misleading and inaccurate.

“When we get together, we don’t whine,” Gen. Alexander said. “Well, maybe a couple of times we whined. But we actually say it is much more important for this country that we defend this nation and take the beatings than it is to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked.”

NSA has 6,000 people deployed around the world, and 20 were killed in support of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the war on terrorism, he said.

Globally, counterterrorism casualties continue to climb, Gen. Alexander said, with 2012 producing the highest toll with more than 15,000 people killed. In October alone, 2,336 people were killed in attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria.

“And yet, there has not been a mass casualty here in the U.S. since 2001,” he said of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“That’s not by luck. They didn’t stop hating us; they didn’t say that they were going to just forgive this. They continue to try. It is the great members in the intelligence community, our military, our law enforcement that have stood up and said, ‘This is our job and we do it with our partners and our allies.’ And it has been a great partnership.”

The four-star general, who has announced he is retiring after eight years at NSA, said defending the spying programs before Congress is better than “having given them up and have our nation or our allies be attacked and people killed.”

Stewart A. Baker, former NSA general counsel, who testified later Wednesday was more blunt. In written testimony, he denounced the anti-U.S. campaign to limit spying that he called “the greatest threat to the country’s security.”

“That is the current campaign by Glenn Greenwald and others who control the Snowden documents to cause the greatest damage to the United States and its intelligence capabilities,” Mr. Baker said.

The disclosures put the Obama administration in “a defensive crouch” as foreign governments demand concessions on U.S. spying that are being considered by the White House.

Mr. Baker said “President Obama seems genuinely embarrassed and unwilling to defend the National Security Agency.”

The European outcry over U.S. spying on its leaders is “hypocrisy,” he added.

France is engaged in large-scale international monitoring, and German leader Angela Merkel mildly spoke out against China for penetrating her computer but took greater issue with reported NSA intercepts of her cellphone.

“There were no calls for sanctions or agreements to put an end to China’s notorious hacking campaign,” Mr. Baker said.

“Domestic and international forces are pushing the United States toward a new understanding of how to govern our intelligence capabilities,” Mr. Baker said.

“If we make the wrong decisions in the next few months, our intelligence capabilities may be handicapped for a generation — or until some disaster reveals our errors in stark relief.”

  • Bill Gertz can be reached at @BillGertz.

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