FBI: Power grid not a primary terror target

The FBI is concerned about cyberterror, but bombs remain a bigger danger than bytes, the agency's counterterrorism chief told a joint House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on last month's Northeast blackout.

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

Government officials told the subcommittees on Cybersecurity, Science and R&D and on Infrastructure and Border Security that the power grid does not appear to be a primary target for terrorists.

Mefford said that when the blackout began Aug. 14, his office convened a conference call with special agents in charge of eight field offices affected by the outage. Local Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which include federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, took part and worked with industry officials.

'To date, we have not discovered any evidence that the outages were the result of activity by international or domestic terrorists or other criminal activity,' Mefford said. '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-related intrusion or any sort of computer worm or virus attack.'

He also dismissed a subsequent claim of responsibility for the blackout by an alleged terrorist organization, Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, as 'wishful thinking. We have no information confirming the actual existence of this group.'

Although the possibility of attacks on power stations and transmission grids is not being ignored, none has materialized so far, said Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator.

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

Mefford said the FBI has seen no evidence that a cyberterrorism attack has ever occurred.

'Our No. 1 threat today remains al-Qaida,' Mefford 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.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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