GAO Report: US Still Not Prepared for Possible EMP Attack

Barbara Hollingsworth | May 3, 2016 | 4:20pm EDT
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A contractor walks through an electrical transmission substation in Ohio. (AP photo)



( –  Two weeks after North Korea threatened to launch nuclear strikes against the U.S., the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the federal government has still not implemented all of the recommendations made eight years ago to prevent catastrophic blackouts caused by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.

The recommendations were made in 2008 by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electro-Magnetic Pulse Attack (EMP Commission).

Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Energy (DOE) have taken actions to prepare against an EMP attack, they “have not established a coordinated approach to identifying and implementing key risk management activities to address EMP risks,” concluded a March 24 GAO report.

In addition, “DHS has not fully leveraged opportunities to collect key risk inputs – namely threat, vulnerability, and consequence information – to inform comprehensive risk assessments of electromagnetic events,” even though such events “pose great risk to the security of the nation.”

The report was requested last July by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee as it was looking into the EMP threat posed by Iran and North Korea.

In 2008, the commission warned that “a high altitude nuclear explosion is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences.” If such an attack were to cause a nationwide blackout lasting as long as a year, up to 90 percent of the American people could die due to starvation, disease and societal collapse.

That apocalyptic scenario is not as far-fetched as it might seem, according to former CIA director James Woolsey.

“On March 9, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a paranoid psychopath, displayed a nuclear missile warhead he threatens to launch against the Unites States and its allies.

“The public is being misled by the White House, some so-called ‘experts’ and mainstream media casting doubt on whether the Great Leader’s threat is real,” Woolsey and Peter Vincent Pry, a former CIA analyst and executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, wrote in an April 24th oped published in the Washington Times.

“The president and the press is missing, or ignoring, the biggest threat from North Korea – their satellites,” which are “now in south polar orbits, evading many U.S. missile defense radars and flying over the United States from the south, where our defenses are limited.

“Both satellites – if nuclear armed – could make an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that could black out the U.S. electric grid for months or years, thereby killing millions.”

“Congress has known for over a decade, since 2004 when the EMP Commission delivered its first report, about the existential threat to the United States from electric grid vulnerability. Yet nothing has been done to protect the grid,” Pry wrote in a March 28 blog post.

The GAO report noted that besides an EMP attack, naturally occurring geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) could also severely damage the nation’s electrical grid.

Since it is “not feasible or cost-effective to protect all infrastructure assets across the electricity sector,” the commission “specifically recommended that DHS and DOE prioritize nodes that are critical for the rapid recovery of other key sectors that rely upon electricity to function, including those assets that must remain in service or be restored within hours of an EMP attack,” the report stated.

However, “DHS and DOE have not taken actions to identify key electrical infrastructure assets as required given their respective critical infrastructure responsibilities under the NIPP [National Infrastructure Protection Plan],” according to GAO.

After interviewing federal employees and industry experts, GAO auditors concluded that securing the grid is not a top federal priority even though the consequences of an EMP/GMD even could be catastrophic nationwide.

“According to officials within the DHS Office of Policy, addressing EMP risks has generally been a lower priority compared to other risks due to a combination of differing opinions on the likelihood of these events and their expectation that other federal agencies will be involved in responding,” such as the Department of Defense.

Counterterrorism and counterdrug efforts “remain higher priorities for the department,” the GAO report noted, even though “not securing the electric grid from electromagnetic events could result in the loss of electrical services essential to maintaining our national economy and security.”


The report noted that 85 percent of the grid is owned by private companies and “few U.S. utilities have implemented EMP/GMD protective technologies to date,” largely due to cost and liability issues.

“Because federal agencies generally do not own electric grid infrastructure, federal actions to address ... risks are more indirect though such things as developing standards and guidelines, and conducting research that could benefit electric grid owners and operators.”  

The EMP Commission “recommended that DHS make clear its authority and responsibilities, as well as delineate the functioning interfaces with other governmental institutions, regarding EMP response efforts,” GAO reported.

But “DHS has not clearly identified internal roles and responsibilities for addressing electromagnetic risks to the electric grid or communicated these to external federal and industry partners.”

GAO recommended that DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson designate specific “roles and responsibilities” within his department to address potential EMP/GMD risks and work with industry stakeholders and other government officials to identify and implement strategies to protect the grid.

“There is no one in charge,” George Baker, professor emeritus at James Madison University, testified at a congressional hearing on May 13, 2015. “EMP protection has become a finger-pointing ‘ring around the rosey’, duck-and-cover game.”

Baker told Congress that it would cost about $30 billion to harden power plants, electrical transmission and distribution lines, and their critical telecommunications and transportation systems against an EMP/GMD event. 

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