Woolsey: U.S. energy can be target of terrorist attacks


R. James Woolsey speaks in the Amphitheater Friday, closing a week of lectures on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage, and Alliances.” Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

During a summer storm in Cleveland a few years back, the conditions knocked branches from their trees — much like many storms nationwide. The result of this one was very different.

Branches struck power lines, making a regular storm into something much worse. Fifty million people were left without power, some of them for days. By the end, the economies of the U.S. and Canada lost almost $10 billion.

“Now we come to the real problem,” R. James Woolsey said after presenting the story. “Terrorists are a lot smarter than tree branches.”

Woolsey said during his lecture, 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater, that Americans need to take measures to protect the country’s energy resources, especially in today’s age.

Woolsey is former head of the CIA, having held the office between 1993 and 1995. He also is a member of the board of directors of Week Three partner the International Spy Museum.

His speech, titled “Keeping Our Infrastructure Secure in the Age of the Internet: The Case of Energy,” was the fifth and final lecture in Week Three’s topic on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances.” Unlike the rest of the speakers this week, Woolsey focused most of his speech on how to counter foreign espionage.

Oil and transportation

While electricity comes from several sources, Woolsey said, 97 percent of U.S. transportation is fueled by gasoline and diesel. Furthermore, the 12 nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries control 78 percent of the world’s known oil.

“We have oil, which has a virtually complete monopoly on (U.S.) transportation, and we have OPEC, that has a degree of monopoly over oil,” Woolsey said.

He called this a “conspiracy in restraint of trade” because OPEC supplies about a third of the U.S.’s oil. In trade with this oil, the U.S. borrows more than $1 billion a day in order to import oil.

He said to solve this problem, many people suggest buying oil from Canada instead of, say, Saudi Arabia. This would solve nothing, he said, as there’s only one world oil trade. If the U.S. bought from Canada, everyone else would buy from Saudi Arabia.

Another suggestion, he said, is for the U.S. to pump its own oil and to only pump what it uses. That way, the U.S. would not partake in the world oil market. Great Britain, he said, is almost at that point — but oil is still expensive there.

“The problem can’t be solved that way,” Woolsey said. “The problem has to be solved by breaking oil’s monopoly over transportation and breaking OPEC.”

A security problem, nonetheless, lies in America’s dependence on oil, he said. Al-Qaida has been saying for years that it is very important to attack the infrastructure of the Middle East oil trade.

Furthermore, he said, entrenching and strengthening occurs in any dictatorial or autocratic government that becomes the owner of a large portion of a commodity.

Of the top 10 oil-exporting countries in the world, eight are dictatorships, Woolsey said. Of the top 22 countries dependent on exporting oil for their national economies, all of them are either dictatorships or autocratic kingdoms.

The unsafe energy

As suggested by his story, Woolsey said, terrorists have the means to cut power to many Americans. This is mostly because the means to controlling power now lie on the Internet — meaning hackers can access it with the right skill.

“We’ve got 18 critical infrastructures in the U.S. — water, food, sewage, electricity, gas pipe lines, etcetera,” Woolsey said. “All 17 of the others (aside from electricity) depend on electricity.”

If the power grid was to go down because of an attack, it wouldn’t just be electricity Americans would be without, he said. It would be like dropping to the 1870s in an instant.

He said it’s important to remember it was a single teenager who gave hundreds of thousands of secret cables to WikiLeaks.

Another issue that faces the electrical grid is that of the electromagnetic pulse. EMPs are emitted from nuclear bombs and other high-energy explosions. They can affect the ground even if the bombs are detonated at very high altitudes.

EMPs can travel along electrical wiring, Woolsey said, disrupting and destroying transformers and other electrical devices as they go.

Even though the U.S. has been aware of EMPs since the Cold War, Woolsey is concerned because he believes the U.S. has not done enough to protect its electronics. The technology to shield from EMPs has been developed but has been largely neglected.

If North Korea or Iran launched a relatively small scud missile, Woolsey said the bomb could do “a pretty brutal job” against shares of America’s important electronics.

As a result of the advent of terrorism, Woolsey said, attacks can now be completely unidentified, be it because of suicide missions or computer-based attacks from other countries.

Furthermore, the designs of those grids lie in wait on the Internet, Woolsey said. On these maps, the most “sensitive areas” are marked with “Danger” and “High Voltage” signs to make maintenance easier.

“The transformers are well protected — they’re 30 yards from the side of the highway; they’re well fenced-in by cyclone fences and by big signs that point to the transformers and say, ‘Danger! Do not touch,’” Woolsey said. “Well, the system is pretty well-designed to keep out, let’s say, a drunk teenager on Saturday night.”

The problem here is that the transformers were designed before terrorism, when the U.S. never expected to be attacked at home, he said.

“We don’t have (an energy protection) problem that we can solve with better intelligence,” Woolsey said. “We don’t have a problem we can solve with better weapons. We have got to begin to have our electricity system evolve into something that is a lot more resilient.”

Q: If you think back to 2006 — when the report was given about the status of the Iranian nuclear capacities — how did the DCI and the CIA get that assessment so terribly wrong?

A: Well, the short answer is, “I don’t know,” but let me explain how I think it was wrong. This was the assessment in December of ’06 that said that the Iranians, two years before, had stopped their nuclear weapons program, and that was the headline, and then buried down in a footnote, it said, “Oh, and by the way, they’re continuing with their uranium enrichment.” Now, the long pole in the tent in a simple, sort of straightforward nuclear weapon, the simplest kind, so-called “shotgun” design, just blasts highly enriched uranium down into a socket, essentially, that is also highly enriched uranium, and the mass goes critical, and you have a nuclear explosion. It was what we used at Hiroshima without one having been tested ever in the history of the world. We were so clear it would work. What we tested at Alamogordo was a plutonium bomb, which is very different, but the very simple, highly-enriched uranium bomb, we used in combat without it ever having been tested in the history of the world. We were so sure it would work, and the designs for it are all over the Internet. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about anything that’s very hard to do. What’s hard to do, to get a nuclear weapon, is to get the highly enriched uranium. You only need uranium enriched up to about 3 percent, U-235, to run a power plant, and you need one that is enriched up to about 90 percent for weapons-grade. Now it seems like there’s a big gap there, but in fact, there’s not. The way the curves work: Essentially, once you have enriched uranium, enough to use it in a power plant, you’ve done about, let’s say, 70 percent of the work necessary to get it up to 90 percent, so that’s what North Korea did; it said, “Nobody here but us electricity generators,” and they enriched enough to make bomb-grade and have had one, maybe two, tests. That’s what Iran is doing; it is enriching enough to get up to 20 percent with a medical justification, and that means at that point they’re about 80 percent of the way toward getting weapons-grade. And then in some place, either after they withdraw from the treaty or before, they’ll go ahead and have a bomb. So that estimate took a relatively minor and easy thing to do — design the weapon itself — probably had good information that it had been halted for some reason. But it’s easily started up again, and it’s unfortunately not too big a deal. They made that the headline, and then the footnote that the Iranians were carrying on with their enrichment program; they put in the footnote what should have been the headline and put in the headline what should have been in the footnote. I don’t know the people who actually wrote that, but I’ve got to say, I’ve been reading National Intelligent Estimates since 1968, and that’s the worse and most intellectually dishonest estimate I’ve ever seen. It had the effect of having the country say, “Well, gee, we can’t do anything about this; and we don’t need to do anything about this, because they’ve stopped.” And that was the general impression in the press, and the general impression for a lot of people in the government. Maybe the authors wanted to make sure that George W. Bush didn’t go bomb Iran; I don’t know. I don’t know why they did it, but this is not a small mistake. This was not a misunderstanding. This was a really, really terrible job.

Q: What magnitude of resources are being allocated to revising the grid structure currently, and what sort of timeline is realistic for significantly hardening its defenses?

A: Let’s talk about distributed generation, and what you’d do. There’s a pretty simple tool. It’s called a C.L.E.A.N., for a lot of organizations, and C.L.E.A.N. means “Clean Local Energy Accessible Now.” The older term derived from the German is feed-in tariff, which nobody likes; it’s translated directly from the German, and it sounds like it might be an import duty on animal feed or something, but what both of those mean is that the government will pass a law telling the utility that they have to give you, if you want to produce electricity at under 20 megawatts from renewables, they will see that you are given a 20-year contract to sell that to the electric grid. It’s called wholesale distributed because you’re selling it to the grid; it’s not just going on your roof to reduce your own personal electrical bill. It seems like it ought to be very expensive. I mean, my gosh, aren’t these renewable systems extremely expensive? Well, they’re getting cheaper all the time, especially solar, especially in sunny places, and today, at a cost for the solar part of their feed-in tariff in Germany, it costs about one euro per month per family because you spread the cost over all rate payers, about one euro per month, and Germany has the skies that are the equivalent, essentially of those over northern Alaska, not even southern Alaska. And Germany has 18 times per capita more solar than the United States. There’s more solar on one building in downtown Munich, a big building, two megawatts, than there is in the entire state of Texas. And the reason is the feed-in tariff. Utilities fight it. They fight it hard because each dollar of electricity that you’re paid for having, let’s say you’ve got a farm, you’ve got an acre of solar out there and you’re making a few thousand dollars a year by shipping it to the utility, and they have to take it because of the feed-in tariff law; utilities don’t like that. They’d rather build a big utilities scale plant of some kind and keep the money themselves. So it’s a pretty straightforward fight. So far there are two states in the United States, Vermont and Hawaii, and a few local areas, a few towns, that have feed-in tariffs. But since 40 countries have followed Germany, Spain did and kind of fouled it up, and the people who don’t like feed-in tariffs always point to Spain, but pretty much every place else has done it well. You have 40 countries following Germany. You have India, China and Japan all in the process of adopting a feed-in tariff. Probably the United States will be one of the last, but it would be good if on a local basis, people started generating it, because it does wonders in terms of increasing renewables, and furthermore, renewables under 20 megawatts, so they fit into the distribution grid; so they’re distributed; they don’t have anything to do with the transmission lines.

Q: Are young computer hackers being recruited into the intelligence community, and are they an asset?

A: Well, they would be; I mean, they would be a huge asset, but I don’t think they are being. The community has always had difficulty with things like internships because of classification. It’s hard to give somebody a full background investigation to have a small summer job or something, so they start mainly working with people when they’re — especially in the computer areas — when they’re in college, or often graduate school. And there are several graduate schools around the country that supply a lot of people to NSA, and on that side of things, there’s a fair amount of interaction. But at the really talented 14-year-old stage, we’ve got to wait till they get to college or graduate school.

– Transcribed by Aaron Krumheuer