An Examination of Vulnerabilities in the Electric Transmission Infrastructure of the United States and How They Could Set the Stage for the Next 9/11

By David Omick

More than a decade into the new millennium, it’s still September 10, 2001 in America.

Imagine an attack targeting a major American city that results in a grisly death toll possibly higher than that which occurred on September 11, 2001.  Imagine also that unlike the events of 9/11, this attack is almost impossible to defend against and could be exploited repeatedly, virtually at will.

Such a scenario is, in fact, a very real possibility.  It is based on several fundamental vulnerabilities in the electrical energy infrastructure of the United States and, for that matter, of many countries.  The ease with which a small group having minimal skills, technical expertise or financial assets could exploit these vulnerabilities and the magnitude of the resulting casualties and economic costs renders it the quintessence of an asymmetrical attack.

(Note: Some readers may prefer to go first to the scenario described in Chapter 6, then to read the technical explanations in Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5.)

This website is intended to educate the general public about the electrical transmission infrastructure, its vulnerabilities, the ways those vulnerabilities might be exploited, and most importantly, the various ways in which the likelihood of such an attack could be reduced or its consequences mitigated.

Some will no doubt object to an exposition that publicly exposes national energy security vulnerabilities.  I would respond to that objection in several ways:

First, although I independently thought of the vulnerabilities described on this website and how they might be exploited, I was not the first to do so, nor was I the first to share that information publicly.  The U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment referenced that information in a report available online titled “Physical Vulnerability of Electric Systems to Natural Disasters and Sabotage.”  

Second, none of the security issues examined in this website are revelations of state secrets, nor are they derived from inside information.  Most of the technical explanations are publicly available online.  Although a modicum of technical competence is helpful in thinking through the various aspects of an attack and how they might synergistically reinforce each other to maximize deleterious impacts, doing so does not necessarily require uncommon intelligence or skills.  Conceptually, the work of a saboteur is just a matter of looking for weak links from a security perspective and ways of exploiting them in the simplest, least expensive and most repeatable way possible.

Third, the larger issue is not whether exposing such vulnerabilities might lead to their being exploited, but why our national electric system is so vulnerable that a saboteur could cause a major blackout using just a few items purchased at Walmart.  Readers would be well-advised to instead ask why, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, none of the security steps suggested in Chapter 7 of this website have been aggressively implemented on a broad scale.

Fourth, by making national security vulnerabilities part of the public discourse, we are better able to prevent those vulnerabilities from being exploited, and to mitigate the impacts if they are.  Many lives could have been saved if, prior to 9/11, the ease with which an airplane could be turned into a missile had been widely publicized.  It is likely that public pressure would have led to enhanced airport security and that high-probability targets such as the World Trade Center would have had more effective evacuation plans.  As past experience has shown, a head-in-the-sand perspective is counter-productive.  A society that fails to identify and correct such vulnerabilities before they become targets, does so at its peril.

To a large degree, the public entrusts its security to technological experts, elected officials and security agencies, and in large measure that trust is well-placed.  However, when the forces of expedience, economic expense and vested interests compete with national security interests, the latter will in some cases be compromised.  Resolving such conflicts in favor of security interests requires broad-scale public pressure.  This is only possible if the public is aware of security vulnerabilities, of their implications and of the solutions necessary to resolve them.


Note: The author is solely responsible for this website and its contents.  No other individuals, groups or organizations have contributed to its creation or content.


© David Omick and Operation Circuit Breaker, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, as well as photos by the author, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Omick and Operation Circuit Breaker with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.