Thursday, January 26, 2023
Jan. 26, 2023

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In Our View: Attacks on substations are domestic terrorism

The Columbian

It is too early to assess the motivations behind a series of attacks on power substations throughout the United States — including the Northwest. But it is past time for taking them seriously and regarding them as nothing less than domestic terrorism.

Following attacks in Pierce County and in North Carolina that drew national attention in December, The (Longview) Daily News reported this week on a pair of attacks in mid-November in Cowlitz County.

Those attacks caused relatively little damage, but they reflect a disturbing trend that has led a Department of Homeland Security official to say: “Domestic terror groups understand that citizens losing power from gunfire or sabotage is an easy way to receive media attention, which they crave.”

Following four attacks on Pierce County substations over Christmas weekend, two Puyallup men have been arrested. They face charges including conspiracy to damage energy facilities, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

“I commend the work by the FBI to quickly identify these suspects and disrupt any future attacks on the east Pierce County power grid,” U.S. Attorney Nick Brown said. “We have seen attacks such as these increase in Western Washington and throughout the country and must treat each incident seriously. The outages on Christmas left thousands in the dark and cold and put some who need power for medical devices at extreme risk.”

The larger danger can be found in the February 2022 guilty pleas of three men — one each from Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. As the Department of Justice reported at the time: “Three men pleaded guilty today to crimes related to a scheme to attack power grids in the United States in furtherance of white supremacist ideology.”

An assistant U.S. attorney general said: “These three defendants admitted to engaging in a disturbing plot, in furtherance of white supremacist ideology, to attack energy facilities in order to damage the economy and stoke division in our country.”

Such nefarious plots are increasing in frequency and intensity, with terrorists attacking substations with high-powered rifles. The impact can be devastating.

As a 2018 academic paper from Rutgers University titled “One terrorist attack away from a major national blackout” explains: “If enough transformers are taken out of service, the remaining transformers would be unable to supply enough power to load centers such as cities, towns, and manufacturers.”

Power substations are difficult to protect. They often are located in remote areas and have little on-site security. Terrorists have determined that they can sow chaos and draw attention with relatively little risk of being caught.

In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a review of security for the electric grid, and the situation highlights the need for robust infrastructure investment. While foreign terrorism requires continued diligence, we are increasingly presented with examples that domestic terrorism represents an even greater threat to our nation.

The motivations can vary. Whether out of a desire to generate discord, promote a particular ideology or simply draw attention, the impact on electricity customers can be enormous. And a coordinated attack could knock out power to large swaths of the country.

But the issue seems more complex than the prospect of losing power. Treating attacks on substations as domestic terrorism and investigating the underlying causes is necessary for protecting our nation.