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Sniper Attack On Calif. Power Station Raises Terrorism Fears

Feb 5, 2014
Originally published on February 6, 2014 12:30 pm

Was an attack last April on an electric power station near San Jose, Calif., the work of vandals or something far more dangerous — domestic terrorism or a trial run by an individual or organization bent on damaging the nation's electric grid?

The Wall Street Journal, picking up from an earlier report by Foreign Policy magazine, explores that question Wednesday in a long account about what happened at PG&E Corp.'s Metcalf transmission substation — an event that has received relatively little attention until now.

The top of the Journal's story grabs your attention:

"The attack began just before 1 a.m. on April 16 last year, when someone slipped into an underground vault not far from a busy freeway and cut telephone cables.

"Within half an hour, snipers opened fire on a nearby electrical substation. Shooting for 19 minutes, they surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley. A minute before a police car arrived, the shooters disappeared into the night.

"To avoid a blackout, electric-grid officials rerouted power around the site and asked power plants in Silicon Valley to produce more electricity. But it took utility workers 27 days to make repairs and bring the substation back to life."

According to Foreign Policy, which was less definitive about whether the attack was the work of more than one person, at least 100 rounds were fired from at least one high-powered rifle.

No one has been arrested in connection with the attack.

An FBI spokesman, without going into details, tells the Journal that the agency does not believe a terrorist organization was responsible.

But, as Foreign Policy reported, a former PG&E vice president for transmission operations said at a conference last November that "these were not amateurs taking potshots."

"My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal" for future attacks, added Mark Johnson, the former PG&E executive, according to Foreign Policy.

The Journal quotes Jon Wellinghoff — chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time of the attack — as saying it was "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred" in the U.S.

Whether it was or wasn't an act of terrorism, the Journal says that "as word of the attack spread through the utility industry, some companies moved swiftly to review their security efforts. 'We're looking at things differently now,' said Michele Campanella, an FBI veteran who is director of security for Consolidated Edison Inc. in New York. For example, she said, Con Ed changed the angles of some of its 1,200 security cameras 'so we don't have any blind spots.' "

AT&T has offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the damage done to its cables near the substation.

Meanwhile, there's another mysterious detail to report. According to the San Jose Mercury News, about 3:00 one morning a month after the attack, "a man dressed in all black was spotted ... in a field next to the property, setting off a large search by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office. ... Sheriff's deputies searched the area but did not locate the man."

Later today, All Things Considered hopes to speak with Journal reporter Rebecca Smith. We'll add the audio from that conversation after it is broadcast. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Update at 1:50 p.m. ET: Attackers Appeared To Know What They Were Doing:

The attack "seems to have been the work of people who knew what they were doing," the Journal's Rebecca Smith just told NPR's Audie Cornish. The evidence, Smith said, indicates that the sniper or snipers "methodically" shot at equipment that would disable the substation if damaged — but also would not explode. Then, "one minute before police arrived, they faded into the night."

Regarding the FBI's view about who's responsible, "we don't know why the FBI feels it was not a terrorist attack," she added.

As we said earlier, the conversation with Smith is due on today's broadcast of All Things Considered.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


California power provider PG&E described it as an act of vandals in a press release. But the incident, detailed in today's Wall Street Journal, sounds far worse than simple vandalism. In April of last year, in the middle of the night, sniper fire erupted outside a Northern California substation. Seventeen transformers were disabled, transformers that carry power to Silicon Valley. Residents were none the wiser because power was rerouted. But the attackers escaped and no one has been arrested.

It wasn't until months later that news began to slip out in energy industry briefings and congressional hearings, like this one with California Congressman Henry Waxman.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: And my understating is that this was a sophisticated attack, using military-style weapons. And real damage was done and the consequences could have been far worse.

CORNISH: The Wall Street Journal reports today that the incident has raised real concerns about the vulnerability of the nation's power grid. And reporter Rebecca Smith joins us now. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So what more can you tell us about how this attack unfolded? From the details you include in your reporting, it doesn't necessarily sound like it was an amateur operation.

SMITH: No, it seems to have been the work of people who knew what they were doing. They used sharpshooter-like precision to hit certain pieces of electrical equipment inside the substation. They very methodically shot more than a hundred rounds into pieces of equipment in a certain way that showed that they had some knowledge of what the consequence would be.

In other words, if a person just went in and began randomly shooting up the substation, the result would be massive explosions and fires. In this case, they targeted equipment that they knew could be disabled without causing fires or explosions. It took them nearly 20 minutes, and one minute before police arrived, they faded into the night.

CORNISH: Now, the FBI is investigating this incident and they've said it was not a terrorist attack. What is known about who was behind this?

SMITH: We don't know who was behind it and we don't know why the FBI feels that it was not a terrorist attack. I mean, I think that until they have suspects in custody and are able to question them about the motivation, it's hard to know why this attack was launched.

CORNISH: Now, in your story, you talk with the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, John Wellinghoff. He's made this physical security of the grid something of a cause. Talk a little bit about his concerns.

SMITH: Well, Mr. Wellinghoff has chaired a federal agency - it's not very well known to most people - called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And it is responsible for the bulk power system in the United States, in other words, the big movement of electricity on transmission lines. He already felt that we were not doing enough to protect the electric grid and then this attack happened, which really alarmed him.

So in the subsequent months, he tried to get traction on this issue, going around to various high levels of different federal agencies to try to get someone to act on it. And he decided, after leaving Washington and after concluding that nothing had happened, that he needed to speak out about this incident.

CORNISH: At the same time, in this case, there was no blackout. PG&E rerouted power. How vulnerable is the grid really to physical attacks like this? It seems like there wasn't much consequence here.

SMITH: In this case, they hit one substation, but they did it at a time of year when there isn't much demand for electricity. It happened, after all, in the middle of the night in April. So had this attack happened on a summer afternoon, the situation might have been very different. There might actually have been a blackout. This is just one little substation.

The problem is that if someone in an orchestrated effort were to hit multiple more important substations, the result could be widespread blackouts and no one seems to really disagree with this. So there's a basic vulnerability.

CORNISH: Rebecca Smith, is part of the reason this hasn't been getting very much attention because the industry has been quite focused on cyber attacks?

SMITH: I think that's part of it. Certainly the industry's been very worried about cyber attacks and millions and millions of dollars has been spent. In addition, we have federal standards now for cyber security. We have nothing equivalent on the physical side. I think the Metcalf substation attack is really a wakeup call that says, hey, maybe we need to pay more attention to physical security and maybe we need to have federal standards.

In order to get this, though, we would need to give a federal agency authority to create these standards and we don't even have that right now. We're not talking about protections that are needed for every substation in America - that would be thousands. We're talking about a couple dozen, three dozen, four dozen, a very small number, and it's certainly within our ability to create these protections and to do it now.

CORNISH: Rebecca Smith, she's a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SMITH: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.