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What is Critical Infrastructure Anyway?

Everyone agrees that certain sectors of society—energy, telecommunications, water supply—are critical infrastructures. But what about monuments and icons? Key industry buildings? Sports stadiums and other large gathering places?

More and more sectors are being included under the rubric of critical infrastructure, according to a review of presidential orders and directives, federal statutes, and government reports. For example, when President Clinton established the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection (PCCIP), critical infrastructures explicitly included telecom, electric power, gas and oil, banking and finance, transportation, water supply, emergency services, and government continuity.

One month after the 9-11 attacks, President Bush signed two executive orders, which effectively expanded the definition of critical infrastructure to include information systems, facilities that use nuclear material, “special events of national significance,” and agriculture. The National Strategy for Homeland Security, issued in July 2002, added the chemical industry, the defense industrial base, and the postal and shipping sector.

More recently, the National Strategy for the Physical Protection of Critical Infrastructures and Key Assets (Physical Protection Strategy), which was released in February 2003, identified “key assets” not listed as critical infrastructure: national monuments, symbols, and icons; facilities that represent U.S. economic or technical preeminence, such as dams and nuclear power plants; and large gathering sites, such as shopping malls, office buildings, or stadiums.

The list of critical infrastructures will likely continue to evolve, and that is likely to stretch security funds thinner and thinner, according to John Moteff and Paul Parfomak, who address this concern in a Congressional Research Service (CRS) paper on that topic. Moreover, they note, private owners of infrastructure “need clear and stable definitions of asset criticality so they will know exactly what assets to protect, and how well to protect them.”

The answer to this problem may be that not every element of a critical infrastructure need itself be considered critical. President Bush’s Physical Protection Strategy says as much: The document urges the creation of “a comprehensive, prioritized assessment of facilities, systems, and functions of national-level criticality” and that preparedness be monitored across the various infrastructure sectors.