IT, power grids not primary terror targets, FBI says

Rep. Mac Thornberry

Terrorist planners favor traditional weapons and targets rather than cybercounterparts, experts told a joint House Homeland Security subcommittee looking into last month's Northeast blackout.

Although the possibility of attacks on power stations and grids does exist, none has materialized so far, said J. Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator.

'We know from collecting intelligence' that the goal of terrorists continues to be 'large-scale attacks that do a lot of damage,' Black said. 'Most of this effort so far has been to kill lots of people.'

Black testified at a joint hearing of the subcommittees on Cybersecurity, Science and R&D, and on Infrastructure and Border Security.

Larry A. Mefford, the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, testified that no terrorist links have been found to the Aug. 14 blackout.

'We have not discovered any evidence indicating that the outages were the result of activity by terrorists or other criminal activity,' Mefford said.

No. 1 threat

He dismissed as wishful thinking the subsequent claims of responsibility by a reputed terrorist organization called the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade. 'We have no information confirming the actual existence of this group.'

Mefford agreed with Black's assessment.

'Our No. 1 threat remains al-Qaida,' he said. Although its targets are across the board, 'we haven't seen any specific or credible threats to date' against the power grid, and 'no specific threats to nuclear power plants.'

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the cybersecurity subcommittee, said his concern was not so much the Aug. 14 blackout but the implications for homeland security.

'Although I know of no evidence that the blackout was instigated by malicious intent, it raises a number of questions,' Thornberry said. Citing the blackout's impact on transportation, sewage treatment and water systems, he raised 'the prospect of a domino effect that is more than geographic and could spread from one infrastructure to another.'

The blackout remains under investigation, but a member of the National Research Council testified about a 2002 report suggesting similar consequences from coordinated attacks on critical nodes.

Paul H. Gilbert was chairman of an NRC panel responsible for energy issues written about in the report, Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism. Gilbert said cascading failures could produce a power outage that might last for weeks or months.

Power began to return within hours of the Aug. 14 blackout, however, and almost all areas were restored within two days.

Mefford said his office convened a conference call with special agents at eight FBI field offices affected by the outage. Local terrorism task forces of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies joined the investigation and worked with industry officials, he said. In addition to ruling out terrorists, the initial findings also appeared to eliminate hackers.

'The FBI Cyber Division, working with the Homeland Security Department, has found no indication to date that the blackout was the result of a malicious computer intrusion or any sort of computer worm or virus attack,' Mefford said.

The FBI is concerned about cyberterror, but for now bombs remain a bigger danger than bytes, he said.

'We haven't seen any evidence that al-Qaida possesses any sophisticated computer capability,' Mefford said. Investigators have found only 'very, very basic computer functionality from terrorists around the world.'

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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