WASHINGTON – Was a sniper attack on a power station’s transformer in San Jose, Calif., last year a prelude to future, perhaps larger, terrorist attacks on the vulnerable U.S. grid system?
That appears to be the consensus emerging from the attack that included a professional cutting of fiber optic lines and then shooting AK-47 rounds into the transformer of a PG&E Metcalf substation in San Jose.
The goal apparently was to cause the coolant to drain and the substation’s transformers to burn up and create a major blackout in the area.
In the attack, one or two individuals went down manholes at the suburban San Jose facility and cut fiber cables that knocked out 9-1-1 and land-line service to the power station.
In addition, they fired more than 100 7.62mm x 39mm rounds into about 10 transformers, damaging a number of them.
The idea was to cause cooling oil to leak out and force the transformers to overheat and shut down, if not burn up altogether. Depending on their size, larger transformers are imported and are specially designed, which means they are not easily replaced. Some take up to three years to swap out under normal circumstances.
The attack last year did not affect the electrical flow, owing in part to the fact that it occurred at night, demand was low and emergency workers were able to respond to prevent any major shutdown.
However, the attack took place a day after the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombing by suspects from the Russian North Caucasus, which prompted federal investigators to get involved.
There is a large community of Chechen and North Caucasus immigrants in the San Jose area.
Chechens and North Caucasus fighters have been in the news recently due to ongoing terrorist attacks taking place in southern Russia. These attacks also have raised concerns over the safety of athletes and spectators who will be traveling to the region where the 2014 Winter Olympics are to take place in Sochi, Russia, beginning Feb. 7.
At the time of the sniper shots, the Federal Bureau of Investigation thought the Boston Marathon and the San Jose episode could be linked, since the attack at the time was described as “military style.”
Then the FBI said while it still was investigating the episode it did not believe it was a terrorist act.
In a Wall Street Journal interview, however, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghof said the attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” and opined that it was a “dress rehearsal to a larger terrorist attack.”
As WND reported last year, former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey said the San Jose incident was a terrorist attempt that could be replicated around the country by lone wolves or organized crime or terrorist groups to cripple the vulnerable national electrical grid system.
Woolsey’s reference to the San Jose episode was to show that a few determined individuals could attack the grid and affect critical life sustaining interdependent infrastructures that rely on it, thereby adversely affecting thousands, if not millions, of Americans.
In addition to the electrical grid, other impacted infrastructures include telecommunications, information networks and an extensive set of financial, banking and transportation systems, and the automated control systems that determine the U.S. society’s energy, food and water delivery systems, as well as emergency services.
Chad Sweet, a former Central Intelligence Agency official in the directorate of operations who served as chief of staff to former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, told Fox News “you can’t rule it out” that the San Jose attack was a “preparation for an act of war.”
Sweet, who is co-founder of the Chertoff Group, advises the electric power industry on security and believes it is “premature” to call it a terrorist attack, as does the FBI.
Sweet said it is possible that, given the sophistication of the attack, it could have been an “insider” attack, since it had to be known where the fiber phone lines were and where to shoot into the transformers from a distance.
If that’s the case, it would coincide with Woolsey’s concerns and with warnings the FBI has given separately to be aware of the prospect of “lone wolves” undertaking terrorist attacks in the future.
Sweet, however, expressed confidence that the electrical industry is prepared to deal with such episodes in which there would be a minimum of blackout time.
Regarding prevention of massive and cascading blackouts, however, Sweet said that there still is a need to harden chokepoints most vulnerable to blackouts, whether caused by natural or man-made attacks that would have the effect of knocking out the electrical grid over a wide geographical area.
This has been the concern raised by experts on the effects of an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, event, whether from solar flares or from a high-altitude nuclear explosion.
An EMP could knock out the vulnerable national grid for months, if not years, costing upward of trillions of dollars and affecting the lives of 90 percent of the U.S. population.