Op-ed: “Cyberattack may be the next 9/11”
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By: J.D. Gordon
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As we mark another grim anniversary of 9/11, America’s military and intelligence communities continue to work overtime to protect our homeland from another devastating attack.
Yet despite their best efforts, marked by two wars which cost nearly 7,000 troops, tens of thousands of wounded, and trillions of dollars, perhaps we’re not much safer today. That’s because the response to 9/11 has centered on who attacked that day and how they did it. We clearly need more attention on who might attack tomorrow, and how they’ll do it.
Regarding who on 9/11, whether you call it a “War on Terror” as President Bush did, or a “struggle against violent extremists” like President Obama does, both administrations have mostly been bombing the same people. And that’s primarily Middle Easterners and Africans bent on ridding the region of Western influence and wiping Israel off the map.
Nobody knows who tomorrow. After all, fanatical jihadists aren’t the only people who want to crush America, whether foreign or homegrown.
Regarding how, instead of boxcutters, the next weapon of choice may be far more deadly.
Rather than crashing planes into buildings resulting in instant death of thousands, it could be crippling our electrical grid resulting in the slow death of millions by starvation and disease.
Think that is far-fetched?
According to a 2013 National Geographic documentary, “American Blackout” a nationwide power outage could kill 300,000 people and cost $1 trillion in damage – just within the first 10 days.
That’s because electricity has become the lifeblood of modern civilization. Without it, there’s no power, meaning hospitals and everywhere else goes dark. Pumps no longer operate, so automobiles quickly run out of gas. And forget about trains and planes. No trucks to deliver food to grocery stories. No tractors to harvest crops. We’d be back to the 18th century. Perhaps fine for a couple of days – but what about for a year?
Yet all it would take is a nuclear explosion above our skies to make that scenario come true. Hardening the grid from an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack has been the subject of Congressional legislation for years. Regrettably, it’s always failed to make it into law. Too many special interests lined up against it, in what’s truly a non-partisan issue.
So what does an EMP attack entail?
As we learned during “Starfish Prime,” an American high altitude nuclear test over the Pacific in 1962, such an explosion generates intense heat, light and powerful X-rays and Gamma rays. Though the explosion was 900 miles southwest of Hawaii, it still blew out streetlights and caused widespread telephone outages.
If a nuke exploded directly over the East Coast or West Coast today, it would be lights out for us.
Though it’s unlikely that today’s leaders in China or Russia would take their best shot at America this way, despite EMP inclusion in their military doctrine, does anyone trust North Korea’s crazed regime? Or Iran’s fanatical Ayatollah? Or a leader of ISIS who wants to bring on the apocalypse? They don’t even need a ballistic missile delivery system — the nuclear warhead could be launched from a freighter in international waters sitting off our coasts.
Yet as if failure to harden the grid isn’t bad enough, the White House has been dragging its feet for years on an East Coast missile interceptor site to replicate our sites in California and Alaska. This is despite Congressional approval in 2013. They’re still busy working on the environmental assessment right now. I kid you not.
Meanwhile, cyberattack vulnerabilities extend to beyond an EMP attack.
Lines of computer code can hurt us too.
Nearly ¼ million Ukrainians don’t. That’s because “BlackEnergy” malware at their local power plant left them cold and dark this past December. Attackers took over the grid’s Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and learned how to turn off the breakers.
Though it’s not just power plants and entire electrical grids that are vulnerable to cyberattack.
Coming full circle back to civilian airliners, hackers can wreak havoc there too. According to Wired Magazine, last year a security researcher named Chris Roberts was removed from a United flight after tweeting he hacked into the inflight entertainment system. Turns out he did more than that – veering the plane off course. Even if barely, it begs the question of what else can hackers do to planes in flight? And what about at aircraft control towers?
Bottomline, we are vulnerable to cyberattacks. Very.
Failure of imagination led to the disastrous attack against our nation on 9/11, just as it did at Pearl Harbor six decades before. So if the past is any guide, our government and industries ought to start doing more to protect the glaring security weaknesses that exist today.
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served from 2005-2009. He has also served as a Senior National Security & Foreign Policy Advisor to Republican Presidential Candidates Donald Trump, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain.