Fear-mongering ignores facts: the case of a top newsman

Terrorism breeds fear-mongering. So does the presidential campaign.

Instilling fear in voters by attacking government actions, even without providing practical alternatives, seems to be good politics.

Candidates may threaten to seal off the country by immigration bans or walls. They engage in saber-rattling and suggest personal freedoms should be curtailed.

The media sometimes helps spread fear. One excited and exaggerated example of fear-mongering comes from former ABC newsman Ted Koppel in his best seller “Lights Out.” He warns that the American electric power system is so vulnerable to terrorist attack that the entire country could easily be brought to its knees.

He forecasts widespread, long-term outages with people going hungry and freezing in the dark. The country could become a lawless “Mad Max” wasteland. In short, Koppel tries to scare us into action.

During the Cold War, many assumed the almost perfect ability of the Soviet Union to attack a weak America almost unable to defend itself. Now, Koppel does much the same, giving relatively little credit to his country’s deterrent capacity or technological strength but attributing much power to the terrorists.

His solutions include increasing government control of utilities, adding restrictions on individual privacy rights, stockpiling survival supplies following the Mormon example, and saving a rural America where people can live off the grid. All of these are either drastic, impossible or unwarranted.

He laments that electric industry restructuring has resulted in hundreds of players – generators, high voltage transmission companies and local distributors. Formerly, only a few large utilities controlled the industry. He fails to recognize that with many independent participants, it is now more difficult for an opponent to bring down the entire system.

And he ignores completely the local, consumer-owned utilities, serving about a fifth of all customers.

He decries the existence of both state and federal jurisdiction over the electric industry. He fails to recognize that vulnerability exists almost entirely in the transmission grid, which is solely under federal jurisdiction.

Koppel sees the industry as being reluctant to take measures mandated by government to protect the system. Presumably, their profit motive outweighs security concerns.

While there may be some truth to this view, the government has not allowed itself to be pushed around as much as he claims. After the 2003 blackout, federal law was adopted to require, rather than encourage, reliability standards. Admittedly, there is a contest between the federal regulatory commission and the industry watchdog, but it is incorrect to imply nothing is happening.

In making his analysis, Koppel seems happy to rely on anybody who has had a high-ranking title in government or electric utilities. He gives no evidence of having spoken with any hands-on grid operator.

He reports that the vulnerability of the electric system results largely from its dependence on electronic technology, which can be hacked from almost anywhere. In fact, it seems reasonable to ask if it will ever be possible to provide complete security.

The problem, ignored by Koppel, is that like so much human activity on the computer, there is not enough back-up. If the grid is taken down by distant saboteurs, he makes it seem like there is no alternative.

The grid operated for decades without computers. Instead, human beings flipped switches or manually started generators. Operators today are reportedly unable to revert to past practices, because their operating manuals have been trashed.

It would be relatively easy and not very costly to bring back the capacity for manual operation. Managers would have be trained and manuals rewritten. The system would not operate nearly as well as its does today, but the desolate future Koppel forecasts would not happen.

He never mentions what the industry calls “distributed generation” – supplying power from small, local sources that can take blocks of customers off the grid. In that way, even urban customers could enjoy the benefits of independence Koppel found in rural Wyoming.

Without regard to the terrorist threat, distributed generation is on the way. It can help reduce the environmental impact of the traditional power system and produce greater efficiency. And it can make good use of small-scale renewable resources.

As much as his book might seem to make it so, the United States is not a pitiful, weak giant. It is moving in the right direction, though it certainly could move faster and more decisively.

Unlike some candidates, Koppel’s concerns seem to be sincere, if somewhat misguided. His big failure is how he investigated the story. He reveals clearly that we should be careful about letting fear prevail over facts.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.