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How New Federal Agency Handled News of Outage

A Homeland Security crisis unit took 45 minutes to analyze the blackout for signs of a terrorist attack.

August 15, 2003|Mark Fineman And Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As the first reports of the blackout flooded the operations center at the Department of Homeland Security in northwestern Washington, a crisis action team was mobilized within minutes.

What was happening? Could it be a strike by terrorists?

Instant messages flashed on computer screens throughout the building, summoning intelligence analysts, scientists, computer experts and officials responsible for the nation's borders, airports and seaports to a large first-floor conference room with secure telephone and computer lines and a series of large display screens.

From an incident-management room, about 30 of those officials monitored the nation, searching for unusual surges in Internet traffic, contacting governors' offices from coast to coast, plugging into state and local fire departments, networking with power companies and scouring intelligence reports from a variety of agencies for any signs of attacks or patterns linked to the outage.

After about 45 minutes, one senior department official said, the group determined that no such patterns were emerging. And at a closed-door briefing attended by Secretary Tom Ridge, the department decided to issue a public statement that appeared to rule out terrorism.

"Initial reports indicate that this was a power system failure not related to terrorism," the statement said. "We encourage all of those that may be affected to listen and heed the advice of their local authorities."

Later, a senior department official added: "It's not a for-sure thing that it's not terrorism. It's just that initial reports show nothing indicating that it was."

The official, who asked not to be identified by name, said the crisis action team was meeting for a second time Thursday night and would continue monitoring the country.

An FBI spokesman in Washington said specialists in counter-terrorism and cyber crimes at bureau field offices in the Northeast spent part of the afternoon contacting power companies and other sources to check for the possibility of terrorist involvement in the blackouts -- and quickly determined that there wasn't any.

The FBI formerly operated a center that helped monitor security problems at computer networks and so-called critical infrastructure, such as the power grids. Those functions were transferred to the Homeland Security Department this spring, turning the outages into a sort of trial run for the agency.

A key division of the department is responsible for the protection of the critical infrastructure -- keeping energy producers, transportation, computer and water systems safe from terrorist attack and massive technical failure.

In March, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate committee with oversight responsibility for the department, wrote a letter to Ridge asking for an update on the agency's work in this area.

He has received no response.

"It's impossible to know where they are [on infrastructure protection] because they haven't told us," said Leslie Phillips, Lieberman's spokesman on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

In congressional hearings, interviews and speeches, Ridge has noted that 85% of the nation's critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector. As a result, he said, the government's protection and strengthening of such infrastructure would require new levels of cooperation and information-sharing between private industry and government officials.

Some industry officials have resisted, however, saying that information they would give the government could help their competitors and that conducting vulnerability assessments and beefing up security systems would be costly.

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