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Does Blackout Create Blueprint for Future Catastrophe?

Aired August 18, 2003 - 20:13   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: From the West Coast to the East Coast. The lights are back on. The air conditioners are humming. But last week's massive blackout across much of the country's Northeast and Midwest showed just how vulnerable the U.S. may be.
And now some are asking whether the power outage was an invitation to terrorists and a blueprint for catastrophe. This week's issue of "TIME" magazine looks at those questions.

I'm joined now by "TIME" magazine senior Washington correspondent Michael Weisskopf.

Always good to see you. Welcome.

MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, "TIME": Hi, Paula.

ZAHN: Hi.

So let's talk about what happened within the first few hours of this blackout. We heard government officials at first say terrorists were not involved. Then we saw finger-pointing going back and forth from Canada and the United States and now uncertainty as to exactly what happened. Are you 100 percent certain that terrorists had nothing to do with this blackout? Have you seen any evidence that would make you come to that conclusion?

WEISSKOPF: Well, nobody should be 100 percent sure of anything, Paula, but there are very few fingerprints here of terrorism.

There was -- there were no physical signs of it, in terms of cutting of plant gates or doors downed or people injured. And the utility executives, who are very familiar with their control systems, don't detect any kind of tampering through digital attack or through computer work.

ZAHN: Let's talk about how vulnerable the system could potentially be to digital attack. How sophisticated would a terrorist need to be to crack into this system, the grid, after all, controlled by computer software?

WEISSKOPF: Well, there is no certainty at this point that terrorists have any computers sophistication. However, it is not very difficult, in the minds of many experts, to break into systems that were built to be usable, not impregnable.

The main device that controls power flow, for instance, much of it -- much of the knowledge of the technology of it is on the Internet. And, of course, terrorists do have access to the Internet, so they could learn a great deal that way. The big question, though, Paula, is whether or not there is enough real fallout from a terrorist attack in this area, whether or not terrorists gain enough of a spectacular effect by a day or two-day blackout, compared to some of the horror, bloody things they've done around the world.

ZAHN: But, in your piece, you write about this being -- quote -- "an invitation to terrorists." Has a blueprint been handed to them?

WEISSKOPF: Well, certainly, they know the vulnerability of the system and how quickly large swathes of the country can be taken out and how easily.

And the real fear of counterterrorism experts is -- not that they cause an orchestrated blackout, but that they use it as a diversion. While they are distracting emergency care people, for instance, media, and large attention of the political figures, they could be in other parts of the region or other parts of the city doing something far more destructive and violent, such as a car bomb, so that what you we face on an urban level is a war of two fronts. That's the thing that keeps our experts up at night.

ZAHN: So let's talk about how they specifically confront some of their fears. What is the first thing they have to do?

WEISSKOPF: Well, certainly, security of the plants is first. And, since 9/11, there have been lots of improvements and protections added to the plants themselves.

At the same time, the control systems, which are really in the kind of blood system or brains of these utilities, have got to build greater fire walls. And on a very high classified level, both the government and industry are working to provide some of those. The banking industry, interestingly enough, a few years ago, put hundreds of millions of dollars into this to prevent identity theft. Utilities, oil companies, public service companies are far behind in this area.

ZAHN: You have spent a lot of time in New York City and other parts of the country. How shocking was it to you that some 50 million Americans went without power during this blackout?

WEISSKOPF: Well, it just shows the interconnectedness of life today and the extent to which something relatively small in Ohio can affect really two countries and eight states. It shows how easy it is to trip up the society we live in now.

ZAHN: Michael Weisskopf, thanks for sharing your piece with us this evening.

WEISSKOPF: Pleasure.

ZAHN: Always good to have you drop by.

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