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Global Security Threats and Solutions

​A keynote speaker at the ASIS 2016 Seminar and Exhibits, Edward James Martin “Ted” Koppel was a prominent television journalist for more than 50 years and is best known as the anchor of ABC News’ Nightline from 1980 to 2005. In Koppel’s new book Lights Out, the newsman and veteran reporter argues that the United States is vulnerable to a devastating cyberattack on its power grid. After his remarks, Koppel sat down with Security Management and defended his book’s thesis. 

Q. Having written this book, what would you now say are the odds of a substantial attack happening in the near future–say the next 10 years–on the U.S. power grid?

A. I’d say better than 50-50. I mean, [former Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano put it at 80 to 90 percent.

Q. Several people in your book say China and Russia definitely have the capability to get in the U.S. electric network. But what is the evidence that they have the capacity to cause a significant outage?

A. The evidence that they can do it is in Ukraine–they did it. They took out the Ukrainian power system. It only stayed out for a few hours, and the reason for that is the Ukrainian power system is antiquated, and everything is operated manually. So the irony is because the Ukrainian system was old, they were able to get it back up again. 

Q. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pushing the envelope in a lot of different ways, and there’s been greater antagonism with the United States. What are the chances that Putin decides to try a grid attack? Maybe it’s not likely, but is it possible? 

A. A cyberattack on one of the U.S. power grids would unambiguously be an act of war. Now, we’ve had all kinds of cyberattacks. The Chinese, a year ago, vacuumed up 22 and a half million personnel files from… 

Q. …this is the OPM [U.S. Office of Personnel Management] attack? 

A. Yes. You have personnel files from the State Department, Defense Department, CIA, FBI. It’s an intelligence haul the likes of which we have never seen in the history of mankind.  And we have effectively—I mean, I don’t know what we’ve done in terms of counter-cyberattacks that the Chinese don’t want to talk about—but effectively, the U.S. director of central intelligence almost saluted them and said, “You know, pretty good job! If we could have done that to them, we would have done it too!”

Q. So obviously, not an act of war. 

A. That’s my point. Intelligence gathering is one thing. Hacking into the Democratic National Committee is one thing. Futzing around with U.S. election results, if they find a way to do that? Is that an act of war? Mmm, probably not, but it will require something more than a stern note of admonition. 

But an attack on the power grid is going to cost thousands if not tens of thousands of lives. It’s going to wreak havoc on the American economy. It’s going to be a disaster unlike anything we have experienced in this country before. We’ve never had an attack like that on the United States.

Q. You say that terrorist groups like ISIS don’t have the capability yet for an attack on the grid, but you mentioned with ISIS that some of the equipment that would be required for an attack could be bought off the shelf. Is it likely that ISIS would pursue a project like that? From an organizational point of view, that’s not really ISIS’s specialty. 

A. You may know ISIS’s organizational plans better than I do, but all I can tell you is, do you know how it is, and why it is, that the North Koreans have developed nuclear weapons? Because they have several dozen former Soviet nuclear scientists who they hired and who are living in North Korea now and who have developed their program for them. So there are always experts out there. I’m not suggesting that ISIS has its own experts. But can they find someone who wants to make a couple of million dollars…?

Q. Your book came out in October 2015. What’s been the reaction from industry security representatives?

A. I have testified in front of a Senate committee sitting next to the industry representative from NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation) and they of course insist that things are not as bad as Koppel says they are, and that they are far more resilient than I give them credit for. But I would be shocked if they said anything else. I mean, what are they going to say–“Koppel’s right, we’re in terrible, terrible shape [laughs]?” 

Q. I have to ask you–I can remember when, at 11:30 p.m. every night, Nightline was a real event for news junkies. Do you miss it?

A. No. I did 6,000 of those, thank you. That was enough. 


Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations Elliott Abrams shared what he sees as the main U.S. foreign policy challenges for the next U.S. president. Abrams served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, where he oversaw U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House. Following his remarks, Abrams told Security Man­agement more about these challenges.

Q: In your speech, you said we’re going to see more terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East. Why Europe?

A: It’s a combination of things. Most of these attacks are coming from the Muslim, and especially Arab, population. That population is much, much larger in Europe than in the United States. 

Most American Arabs are Christians, and most American Muslims are non- Arabs. They’re American blacks, or they’re Pakistanis or Indians, so it’s a very different population. Whereas in Europe, it’s a mostly Arab population from which the terrorists recruit.

Second, in the United States, the Muslim and Arab populations are very well integrated. We don’t have ghettos like in Paris or Brussels. They have just not been able to do what the United States does, which is to assimilate immigrants so that they become Americans.

Thirdly, we just have one country here with one FBI, one Department of Homeland Security. They have thousands of different police forces…and we know from the Bataclan event that the exchange of information between the Belgians and the French was defective. It was inadequate. So they’re going to have to do a lot better at that.

 Q: The focus is to eliminate ISIS right now. If we do that, but don’t fix the underlying problems in the Middle East, will there be another group that rises up to replace ISIS?

A: Three years from now there will be some group that either doesn’t exist today, or you and I have never heard of. 

This is a long-term problem of dealing with the origins of this terrorism. And the origins of it are…in these societies that give young men no chance in life so they can be attracted by this ideology.

Now, it’s not always those people who become extremists. We saw this in the 9/11 attackers; sometimes it’s an engineer or a doctor. Some terrorists don’t fit that profile. But...the cannon fodder generally do. You may recruit a doctor. You’re not going to recruit 1,000 doctors to join ISIS.

Q: Switching to cybersecurity, when Chinese President Xi met with U.S. President Obama last year, they agreed to not use their militaries to steal corporate intellectual property. Is this effective? 

A: No, I think the Chinese are cheating…the Chinese so far have paid no penalty for this. If you’re doing something that you think is of some benefit to you, and all you get from the Americans is the occasional expression of concern, you’re not going to stop until either some penalty is paid or we do it to them.

Q: Obama signed an executive order that gives him power to levy economic sanctions for cybercrimes. Do you think those powers will be on the table in the future? 

A: Initially, they’re going to be symbolic. You sanction some piece of the Chinese economy no one’s ever heard of that doesn’t do any trade with us.

I think we’re going to need to figure out what are the pressure points where you can actually lead the Chinese to say, ‘Cost-benefit analysis, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.’   

Q: A new administration will move into the White House in January. What will be its biggest immediate foreign policy challenges? 

A: North Korea is an early pressing problem. The current policy has basically failed. North Korea’s testing; they’re building. You may have a [nuclear] test in January, February, or March. How are you going to react? 

And Syria. People are going to be dying; people are going to be fleeing. You can’t say, ‘Let’s get to that on Labor Day.’  ​