WASHINGTON – Extremist groups in the United States increasingly appear to view attacking the power grid as a way to disrupt the country, according to a government report for law enforcement and utility operators.
Domestic extremists “have developed credible and specific plans to attack electrical infrastructure since at least 2020,” according to the report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. The document, dated Monday, was obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
The report warns that extremists “adhering to a range of ideologies will likely continue to plot and encourage physical attacks on power infrastructure”, which includes more than 6,400 power stations and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that cross the country.
In the past, U.S. power grid experts have pointed out that shutting off the country’s power would be difficult given the size and decentralized nature of the grid. The DHS report also notes that extremist attackers, without at least inside help, are unlikely to cause widespread blackouts in multiple states.
The FBI and DHS have repeatedly warned in recent months that the United States faces an increased threat from domestic extremists. The report notes that an attack on the network could still result in injury and damage even without causing a major outage.
The network is seen as a target, based on a series of incidents over the past few years as well as online discussions in extremist and conspiratorial forums, as transmission lines and substations are often found in Remote rural areas and cause blackouts can cause further frustration and division within American society, a federal law enforcement official said.
“They believe the disruption in the power supply will disrupt the government’s ability to function,” the official said on condition of anonymity to discuss a report that has not been made public. “And second, by carrying out attacks on communications and electrical infrastructure, it will actually hasten the coming civil war that they anticipate, because it will disrupt the lives of so many people that they will lose faith in the government.”
Some of these concerns go back nearly a decade. In 2014, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered grid operators to tighten security following a sniper attack on Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf transmission substation in an isolated area to the south -east of San Jose, California. No arrests were ever made in an assault that stunned authorities and could have disrupted Silicon Valley’s power supply.
DHS noted the Metcalf incident in the report as more recent incidents, including an alleged plot by white supremacist extremists to attack power plants in the southeastern United States as part of an effort to to wreak havoc if they did not agree with the November 2020 election result.
Asked about the report, the Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents companies that provide electricity to about 70% of the US population, said it had worked for years with the government to respond to a series of potential hazards.
“Our industry constantly strives to adapt to new and evolving threats to the network, whether protecting against malicious threats such as cyberattacks and physical attacks or meeting the challenges of extreme weather conditions caused by climate change,” said Scott Aaronson, the association’s senior vice president. for safety and preparation, said via email.
The report also mentions that four suspected extremists were charged in October 2020 with a conspiracy to damage transformers in Idaho and neighboring states and the May 2020 arrest of three suspected militia extremists, linked to the anti-government movement. Boogaloo, who were charged with conspiring to attack an electrical substation in Las Vegas.
“Electric companies and state and local law enforcement must be aware of this and must take action,” the federal law enforcement official said.
Associated Press writer Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.
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