The Metcalf Incident

In more ways than one, our current lifestyle and even our civilization itself depends on slavery. Only these "slaves" aren't human, they are machines -- billions of them at our beck and call. And what feeds the great majority of these man-made slaves is electricity.

Electricity supports not just our comfort but also the necessities of life. Without electricity, America could not come close to supporting its current population.

Electricity and its benefits has been with us for so long that we tend to take it for granted. That is a mistake. What if the grid were to go down nationally for a week, for months? Imagine what life would be like. The economic damage would be incalculable and in more places than I care to think the social fabric could literally be rent apart.

Commonly discussed concerns about the safety of our electrical grid usually center on relatively high-tech attacks like an electromagnetic pulse from an ionospheric nuclear blast or hackers taking down the control systems of power-generating stations or the transmission infrastructure. But what about low-tech options that are much more available to terrorists or foreign enemy governments? These would be actual physical attacks on our electrical infrastructure.

Consider the Metcalf Incident. This involved a sophisticated sniper attack on a Pacific Gas & Electric Company's power station in Metcalf, California in the early morning hours of last April 16. I hadn't heard about it until I read a column by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, nearly a year after the event.

The description of the Metcalf attack is chilling. The attackers apparently first slipped into an underground vault and expertly severed six AT&T fiber optic telecommunication lines in a way that would make repair difficult. The lid over this vault was so heavy that it would take at least two people to lift it. Then, a half hour later, the snipers began firing at the power station, destroying 17 giant transformers and six circuit breakers.

At the end of the attack, in the words of reporter Rebecca Smith, who put the story together through interviews, PG&E filings, and police video: "A minute before the police arrived, 'the shooters disappeared into the night." As simple as that.

The Metcalf power station was down for 27 days and the cost of the damage was estimated to be $15.4 million. Electrical power to Silicon Valley was not disrupted only because officials rerouted power there from other sources.

In the scheme of things in the world today, that's no big deal, right? That seems to be the official response to the attack. As Rebecca Smith put it: "...quoting an FBI spokesman in San Francisco saying the bureau doesn't think a terrorist organization launched the attack. Investigators, he said, 'are continuing to sort through the evidence.' PG&E, in a news release, called it the work of vandals."

Vandals! They make it sound as if Bubba, Jethro, and Betty Lou got liquored up one night and decided to have some fun.

Fortunately, not everybody is so sanguine. Jon Wellinghoff, who was at the time chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is quoted as saying the Metcalf attack "was the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred."

Mr. Wellinghoff also noted that if a surprisingly small number of U.S. power substations were knocked out at once, that could destabilize the system enough to cause a blackout that could encompass most of the country. Now realize that many of the components of the U.S.'s electrical system sit out in the open, often in remote locations, protected by little more than chain link fences and security cameras.

We are more vulnerable than commonly thought. Those who hate America and wish us ill could easily conclude that our electrical infrastructure as our Achilles heel.

For more level-headed thinking, Rich Lordan, an executive at Electric Power Research Institute, asserts that "The depth and breadth of the attack is unprecedented." The motivation, he said, "appears to be preparation for an act of war."

Noonan adds, "It's hard to look at the facts and see the Metcalf incident as anything but a deliberate attack by a coordinated, professional group with something deeper on their minds than the joys of vandalism."

Those of us who are of a charitable bent might say that the official responses to the Metcalf attack were just for public consumption and that behind the scenes the government is working like mad to secure our electrical power stations and infrastructure. I for one hope and pray that our intelligence agencies are not as stupid as the FBI official statement makes them seem to be. But are they doing enough? And will political correctness inhibit their efforts to safeguard the grid?

Noonan ends her column with an answer to those questions: "You always want to think your government is on it. You want to think that they see what you see. But really, they're never on it. They always have to be pushed."

The vulnerabilities of the nation's electrical net have been downplayed since the 9/11 attacks, though hundreds of references exist calling attention to them. Despite good intentions, Peggy Noonan is a latecomer to this debate. It has been ten months since the Metcalf incident. Have the wheels of government begun to turn? The record is not promising. Over the threat to infrastructure security, the shadows of the Twin Towers loom stark as night.