Although the fact that the still-unsolved attack on a power station near San Jose occurred just a handful of hours after the Boston Marathon bombing — and apparently raised a few eyebrows initially — its ride in the public eye has been decidedly under the radar to date.
But that may be changing.
Now that the ranking member of the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee is decrying the incident as possibly indicative of a wider security issue, the brazen attack is getting a bit more attention, noted Foreign Policy.
"It is clear that the electric grid is not adequately protected from physical or cyber attacks," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) at a hearing on regulatory issues earlier this month, Foreign Policy noted.
Image source: Surveillance video of substation attack
Here's what went down: Around 1 a.m. on April 16, two manholes were entered and fiber cables cut around the PG&E Metcalf substation, which killed some local 911 services, landline service to the substation, and cell phone service in the area, a senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy.
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The intruder(s) then fired more than 100 rounds from what two officials described as a high-powered rifle at several transformers in the facility. Ten transformers were damaged in one area of the facility, and three transformer banks -- or groups of transformers -- were hit in another, according to a PG&E spokesman.
Cooling oil then leaked from a transformer bank, causing the transformers to overheat and shut down. State regulators urged customers in the area to conserve energy over the following days, but there was no long-term damage reported at the facility and there were no major power outages. There were no injuries reported.
Waxman called the incident "an unprecedented and sophisticated attack on an electric grid substation with military-style weapons" and that "under slightly different conditions, there could have been serious power outages or worse."
"Initially, the attack was being treated as vandalism and handled by local law enforcement," the senior intelligence official told Foreign Policy. "However, investigators have been quoted in the press expressing opinions that there are indications that the timing of the attacks and target selection indicate a higher level of planning and sophistication."
The FBI is on the case but has no evidence that the attack was related to terrorism and seems to believe at this point that it's an isolated incident, Peter Lee, a spokesman for the FBI field office in San Francisco, which is leading the investigation, told Foreign Policy. The intel official added that there's also no known motive, and no one has claimed credit; the FBI said there have been no tips from the public.
"These were not amateurs taking potshots," Mark Johnson, a former vice president for transmission operations at PG&E, said last month at a conference on grid security held in Philadelphia, Foreign Policy noted. "My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal" for future attacks.
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At least one senior official thinks the government is focusing too heavily on cyber attacks. Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said last month that an attack by intruders with guns and rifles could be just as devastating as a cyber attack.
A shooter "could get 200 yards away with a .22 rifle and take the whole thing out," Wellinghoff said last month at a conference sponsored by Bloomberg. His proposed defense: A metal sheet that would block the transformer from view. "If you can't see through the fence, you can't figure out where to shoot anymore," Wellinghoff said. Price tag? A "couple hundred bucks." A lot cheaper than the billions the administration has spent in the past four years beefing up cyber security of critical infrastructure in the United States and on government computer networks.
"There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid," Wellinghoff told Foreign Policy. "I don't think we have the level of physical security we need."
[UPDATE 2/6/14: From the Wall Street Journal: "The attack was 'the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred' in the U.S., said Jon Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time."]