WASHINGTON – Contrary to the findings of a 2008 commission mandated by Congress to consider a defense against an electromagnetic pulse attack and its effects on the national grid, a retired Air Force general who also headed the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency says that there isn’t a solution to an EMP attack.
Speaking before the Bipartisan Policy Center at a conference on the threats to the U.S. electrical grid, Michael Hayden also said the Obama administration has no plan to defend against an EMP.
The conference, however, focused more on the impact of cyber attacks on the national grid.
Experts say that protection against an EMP also would provide protection from a cyber attack.
Hayden said the administration isn’t doing anything to come up with a solution, even though scientists have said that proper hardening of the national grid would mitigate an EMP either from a direct hit from a solar flare or a man-made high altitude nuclear detonation that would emit a ruinous pulse.
An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy such as gamma rays, x-rays and microwaves caused by the rapid acceleration of super-charged particles.
As a modern technology-based society, the U.S. is heavily dependent on electric power, electronics, telecommunications, information networks and an extensive set of financial and transportation systems.
An EMP event not only would knock out the national grid but would have a cascading effect on all electronics and automated control systems that maintain the life-sustaining critical infrastructures that depend on the proper function of the electrical grid.
Hayden said that when he was in government there was agreement that the EMP issue was serious but would be difficult to solve in a timely fashion.
“I don’t mean to be so flippant, but there really aren’t any solutions to this, so I would just leave it at that,” Hayden said.
Retired Army Gen. Kenneth Chrosniak, who is on a congressional task force on preparation and response plans for EMP emergencies, however, takes exception to Hayden’s comments.
“Well, the general (Hayden) is right in that our government is not preparing to protect us from any of these truly catastrophic events. But, he is also wrong to relegate it to the ‘too hard’ column, Chrosniak said.
“True leadership wasn’t displayed at that time, and still isn’t,” he said. “He had the responsibility at that time to influence change, and he failed. So in actuality, he has no dog in this fight and no claim to any further ‘insights.’
Chrosniak said that as a military leader, he “learned the hard way the tried-and-true adage that you always ‘plan for the worse case situation.'”
He encouraged Hayden to read the EMP Commission reports, an EMP-preparedness law passed in Maine and the proposed SHIELD Act in Congress.
Chrosniak said “there are people out there that are leading the attack to preserve the homeland.”
“Then again, there are many who don’t have the best interest of the homeland at heart,” he said.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last week said that the Obama administration is more concerned about a cyber attack than an EMP to knock out the U.S. electric grid system.
“What I have to say is that the whole set of issues that could disrupt the grid are ones that we do look at,” Moniz said. “But our biggest focus, not surprisingly, is on cyber security in terms of disruption of the grid.”
Former CIA director Hayden’s comments are contrary to concerns from another former CIA director, James Woolsey, who is co-chairman of the EMP Coalition recently formed to pursue legislation to protect the grid.
That legislation is the Shield Act, recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
The bill would give the federal government authority over the utilities to harden the grid and the electric utilities against an EMP.
As of now, the federal government lacks that authority.
Woolsey said that there is a growing and imminent threat of a natural or man-made EMP on the U.S. electrical grid and other critical infrastructures that are largely unprotected.
In addition to the potential of a high-altitude nuclear burst over a highly populated region of the country, an EMP even from a solar storm maximum also would be devastating to the population over a wide geographical area.
Woolsey has warned that the sun can inflict such an EMP disaster, as it did in the 1989 Hydro-Quebec geomagnetic storm that blacked out eastern Canada, causing billions of dollars in economic losses.
Woolsey said that a recent study by the insurance industry leader Lloyds of London estimated that if that storm would strike the U.S. East Coast, some 20 to 40 million Americans could be without electricity for at least two years.
Scientists from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration say a solar storm maximum could hit earth this year or next, with subsequent solar storms into 2020, as a result of the sun peaking in its current 11-yer cycle of intensity.
If the earth is hit by a direct solar flare, some of which can be 14 times the size of the earth, scientists from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences say it would cost the nation alone up to $2 trillion in the first year. It could take four to 10 years to recover and affect 90 percent of the U.S. population, meaning widespread starvation and death.
Experts say the cost to harden the electrical grid would be no more than $2 billion, a fraction of the toll of an EMP.