Ted Koppel at GAC 2016

Koppel to U.S.: What’s the plan to defend our grid?

Journalist sounds the alarm about probable Internet-based attack.

February 23, 2016

His curiosity piqued, Ted Koppel asked many pertinent organizations and government agencies a seemingly straightforward question: What’s our nation’s plan in the event of a successful cyberattack on our tenuously defended electrical grid?

Koppel, whose award-winning broadcast journalism career spans more than five decades, contacted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Red Cross, among other groups. The response shocked and astounded him.

“There is no plan,” Koppel told CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference attendees during his keynote address at Tuesday morning’s General Session. “There are plans for hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, and droughts, but this is a unique threat to the United States.”

In his recent book “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” Koppel sounded the alarm about the probability of an Internet-based attack on one of the nation’s three power grids.

This “cyber Pearl Harbor” could leave tens of millions of Americans without electricity, running water, plumbing, the ability to communicate, and other necessities for weeks and even months, according to Koppel.

Clearly, that attack would also cripple credit unions and other financial institutions.

“The Internet is an extraordinary invention that has changed our lives,” Koppel said. “It’s also a weapon of mass destruction.”

To properly equip ourselves to fight cyberterrorism from entities such as Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the U.S. must change the paradigm of its defense strategy, Koppel said.

“We’re accustomed to living in a world where the existential threat was a nuclear attack. One thing we could always count on is we’d know within seconds where it was coming from,” Koppel said. "But the business of attribution of a cyberattack is a whole other thing."

For instance, the FBI needed two months of investigation into the Sony Pictures breach to confirm the cyberattack came from North Korea—even though that nation was suspected to be the probable perpetrator pretty quickly.

“If you can’t determine where the attack came from, how does the president respond? Against whom does the president respond?” Koppel asked.