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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Transformer Attack

Last week, SF Gate reported:
Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff said Wednesday an April attack on Silicon Valley's phone lines and power grid was terrorism — despite repeated FBI statements that it had found no indications to back that up.

Wellinghoff, who was in office during the incident, said he reached his conclusion after consulting with Defense Department experts about the attack that involved snipping AT&T fiber-optic lines to knock out phone and 911 service, and firing shots into a PG&E substation, causing outages.

"This is the most sophisticated and extensive attack that's ever occurred on the grid to my knowledge," Wellinghoff told The Associated Press. Similar statements were published on Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal.

FBI spokesman Peter Lee said Wednesday that at this point "we don't believe it's an act of terror, international or domestic."

The FBI is the lead agency in the investigation, and Lee said the agency has specific definitions of terrorism that involve motive, intent and political ideology. He said the investigation is ongoing and urged people not to jump to conclusions.
More details were published in today's Los Angeles Times:
... Utility officials quickly rerouted power around the site, and nearby power plants picked up the slack, so there was no major blackout. And no one was injured. But it took utility crews nearly a month to repair the damage.

... Counter-terrorism officials have repeatedly warned of a potential cyberattack that could disable or crash electric grids, causing outages and billions of dollars in damage, and federal authorities and utilities have rushed to beef up their digital defenses. But the assault 15 miles southeast of San Jose was decidedly low-tech.
 
Law enforcement sources and others briefed on the investigation say the gunmen fired 120 rounds from a high-powered rifle and that nearly every shot hit the transformers 40 yards away in a 20-minute period. 
The transformers began to leak tens of thousands of gallons of oil. They overheated and shut down, but did not explode. 
The attackers managed "to disable these transformers without blowing them up and attracting attention," Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said on "Fox News Sunday."
Officials say the attackers brought night-vision scopes for their weapons, used heavy wire cutters to snip fiber-optic cables in a below-ground bunker and knew the specific manholes to open to reach the right cables.
 
The team briefly disabled the 911 emergency system and phone lines. They set off a motion detector by the fence before leaving, but the facility sits beside U.S. 101, a convenient escape route. 
They were "clearly knowledgeable" about the layout of the substation and its communication systems, said one federal official, who, like others, was speaking confidentially because the investigation is continuing. 
The perpetrators arrived shortly before 1 a.m. and were gone 52 minutes later. Apparently the first call to authorities came from a driver speeding by on U.S. 101. He alerted police in Gilroy, about 20 miles south. "Fireworks" were coming from the substation, he said.
An operator at the Metcalf Energy Center, beside the substation, placed an emergency call about the same time.
 
Then the trail went dry.
Theories mentioned in the article range from eco-terrorists, to political terrorists, to someone trying to take down Google servers, to a disgruntled utility worker.

The Captain's Journal and Bob Owen's Blog had both previously noted the ease with which transformers could be destroyed, even with rifle fire. (Bob Owen's muses about why the law enforcement continues to dribble out information on the attack here).

I think what has officials flustered, and worried, is that this attack shows a level of forethought and planning that is absent from Muslim terrorists or your typical Skin Head gang. As the SF Gate article further notes:
In October, former CIA director Jim Woolsey said in a Commonwealth Club appearance that video from the incident showed a group of three or four men, in a "disciplined military fashion," had conducted the attacks. He provided details about how they systematically fired their weapons, and said they "quickly and professionally disposed of everything they had."

"This wasn't hooliganism," he said. "This was a systematic attempt to take down the electric grid."

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