WASHINGTON (AP) — Extremist groups in the United States appear to increasingly view attacking the power grid as a means of disrupting the country, according to a government report aimed at law enforcement agencies and utility operators.
Domestic extremists “have developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity 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 against electrical infrastructure,” which includes more than 6,400 power plants and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that span the country.
Experts on the U.S. power grid in the past have pointed out that it would be difficult to knock out power to the nation given the size and decentralized nature of the grid. The DHS report also notes that extremist attackers, without inside help at least, would be unlikely to cause widespread, multistate outages.
Both the FBI and DHS have repeatedly warned in recent months that the U.S. faces a heightened threat from domestic extremists. The report notes that an attack on the grid could still result in injuries and damage even without causing a major outage.
The grid is viewed as a target, based on a series of incidents in recent years as well as online discussions in extremist and conspiracy-minded forums, because transmission lines and substations are often in remote, rural areas and causing outages may cause further frustration and divisions within American society, a federal law enforcement official said.
“They feel that disrupting the electrical supply will disrupt the ability of government to operate,” the official said on condition of anonymity to discuss a report that has not been publicly released. “And, secondly, by conducting attacks against the communications and electrical infrastructure, it will actually accelerate the coming civil war that they anticipate because it will disrupt the lives of so many people that they will lose faith in government.”
Some of these concerns are nearly a decade old. In 2014, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered grid operators to increase security following a sniper attack on the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation in an isolated area southeast of San Jose, California. No arrests have ever been made in an assault that stunned authorities and could have disrupted power to Silicon Valley.
DHS noted the Metcalf incident in the report as more recent incidents, including a suspected plot by white supremacist extremists to attack power stations in the southeastern U.S. as part of an effort to cause havoc if they disagreed with the outcome of the November 2020 election.
Asked about the report, the Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents companies that provide power to about 70% of the U.S. population, said it has been working for years with the government to respond to a range of potential dangers.
“Our industry is working constantly to adapt to new and evolving threats to the grid, whether that’s by protecting against malicious threats like cyber and physical attacks or addressing the challenges of extreme weather caused by climate change,” Scott Aaronson, the association’s senior vice president for security and preparedness, said by email.
The report also mentioned that four suspected extremists were accused in October 2020 of a plot to damage transformers in Idaho and nearby states and the arrest in May 2020 of three alleged militia extremists, tied to the antigovernment Boogaloo movement, who were charged in a conspiracy to attack an electrical substation in Las Vegas.
“The electrical companies and state and local law enforcement need to be aware of this and need to take steps," said the federal law enforcement official.