Government Grid Operator Scrambles After Security Risks Are Exposed

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Officials working for a government-run electric grid operator are scrambling to respond to a scathing Wall Street Journal expose on the poor security at critical electricity substations across the country.

“Today, the Wall Street Journal ran a long anticipated piece on grid security featuring Liberty Substation break-ins in 2013 and 2014,” Mark Gabriel, the CEO of the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), emailed staff after WSJ published its piece.

“Public Affairs is collaborating with [the Energy Department] on the responses,” he wrote in the email, obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

WSJ’s Rebecca Smith wrote a lengthy expose on the vulnerability of hundreds of electric substation used to move electricity across the U.S. WAPA operates and delivers electricity to customers in 15 western states and has been criticized for its lax security measures.

“The story discusses funding needs and features Director of Security Keith Cloud,” Gabriel wrote. “To ensure you have complete information, here are some additional facts,” he said, listing a few talking points.

“We spend more than $200 hundred million per year on capital improvements, including investments in security to meet the ever-growing demands to protect the nation’s electrical power grid,” he wrote in the email.

WAPA is one of four DOE-run electricity transmission providers and is responsible for more than 17,000 miles of transmission lines which provide power to 680 utility and power companies that operate 328 substations across the western U.S. — WAPA is one of the top 10 largest electrical transmission operators in the country.

Smith’s article mentions attacks on the Liberty substation near Phoenix, Arizona, which is operated by WAPA and owned by the federal government. Smith wrote Liberty “is a critical link in the southwest power corridor, delivering electricity to heat homes in northwestern states during winter and cool buildings in the southwest during summer.”

In November 2013, attackers slashed fiber-optic serving Liberty and a larger substation near the Hoover Dam. Smith noted it “took workers about two hours to re-establish proper communications and normal controls.”

Liberty substation was attacked again in 2014, and this time “two men with a satchel cut the gate lock and headed to the control building,” but “left after trying, unsuccessfully, to cut power to a security trailer outfitted with cameras and blinking lights.”

Cloud, who Gabriel mentioned in his email, said “16 of 18 security cameras had failed” at Liberty, according to WSJ. “Most were installed after the first break-in and hadn’t been properly programmed,” Smith reported. “Investigators retrieved a single fuzzy video from a thermal-imaging camera.”

Gabriel’s email claimed the “Liberty break-ins are a snapshot of where we were three years ago.”

“We have made progress,” he wrote. “Since then, we expanded the physical security office to provide more coverage and we conduct assessments at all of our 320 substations.”

“We are committed to continually improving our security posture,” he wrote. “This commitment is fundamental to delivering on mission and meets the ever-growing demands needed to protect the nation’s electrical power grid.”

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) inspector general released a report in April detailing how the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) “had not always established adequate physical security measures and practices for its critical assets, addressed physical security measures recommended in prior risk assessments, and conducted performance testing to ensure that security measures for physical assets were performing as designed.”

“The issues we identified occurred in large part because Western had not placed sufficient emphasis on physical security,” the IG’s office wrote in its report. “We also found that Western lacked specific policies and procedures for maintaining security equipment, controlling access keys, implementing risk assessment recommendations, and conducting performance tests.”

“These concerns are not merely theoretical,” the IG reported. “Western had experienced instances where its critical assets had been penetrated and, in some cases, Western did not have the physical security capabilities to promptly detect the intrusions.”

“One of the intrusions resulted in damage to the perimeter fence and control building door, and the theft of a security camera and tools,” according to the report.

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