The Complex ‘Military-Style’ Raid on California Power Station Spooks U.S.

When U.S. officials warn about “attacks” on electric power facilities these days, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a computer hacker trying to shut the lights off in a city with malware. But a more traditional attack on a power station in California has U.S. officials puzzled and worried about the physical security of the the electrical grid–from attackers who come in with guns blazing.

Around 1:00 AM on April 16, at least one individual (possibly two) entered two different manholes at the PG&E Metcalf power substation, southeast of San Jose, and cut fiber cables in the area around the substation. That knocked out some local 911 services, landline service to the substation, and cell phone service in the area, a senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy. The intruder(s) then fired more than 100 rounds from what two officials described as a high-powered rifle at several transformers in the facility. Ten transformers were damaged in one area of the facility, and three transformer banks — or groups of transformers — were hit in another, according to a PG&E spokesman.

Cooling oil then leaked from a transformer bank, causing the transformers to overheat and shut down. State regulators urged customers in the area to conserve energy over the following days, but there was no long-term damage reported at the facility and there were no major power outages. There were no injuries reported. That was the good news. The bad news is that officials don’t know who the shooter(s) were, and most importantly, whether further attacks are planned.

“Initially, the attack was being treated as vandalism and handled by local law enforcement,” the senior intelligence official said. “However, investigators have been quoted in the press expressing opinions that there are indications that the timing of the attacks and target selection indicate a higher level of planning and sophistication.”

Local investigators seemed to hit a dead end in June, so they released surveillance footage of the shooting. But that apparently produced no new information. The FBI says there have been no tips from the public about who the shooter might be and what he was doing there.

“These were not amateurs taking potshots,” Mark Johnson, a former vice president for transmission operations at PG&E, said last month at a conference on grid security held in Philadelphia. “My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal” for future attacks.

A shooter “could get 200 yards away with a .22 rifle and take the whole thing out,” Wellinghoff said last month at a conference sponsored by Bloomberg. His proposed defense: A metal sheet that would block the transformer from view. “If you can’t see through the fence, you can’t figure out where to shoot anymore,” Wellinghoff said. Price tag? A “couple hundred bucks.” A lot cheaper than the billions the administration has spent in the past four years beefing up cyber security of critical infrastructure in the United States and on government computer networks.

“There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid,” Wellinghoff said. “I don’t think we have the level of physical security we need.”

Full article: The Complex ‘Military-Style’ Raid on California Power Station Spooks U.S. (Foreign Policy | The Complex)

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