Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Mystery of Metcalf

It's so easy anyone can do it
Two years ago today, something very weird happened at a PG&E power sub-station in San Jose California. It's a total mystery, and it's therefore one of the most important harbingers of the future of American infrastructure imaginable or it's a bizarre one-off rage event.  At any rate, at midnight a person or persons unknown opened a cable vault next to highway 101 and cut fiber optic cables serving AT&T and Level 3 customers. A few minutes later they opened fire through the chain-link fence on the substation equipment with an automatic rifle chambered in 7.65x39, likely an AK-47 or one its clones.

17 transformers were destroyed when 52,000 gallons of cooling oil leaked out and one after the other they overheated. By the time San Jose PD responded to reports of shots fired, the attackers were long gone, leaving behind a pile of spent brass and a major electrical distribution facility serving a major city crippled for months. It eventually cost $15.4 million to clean up the mess and replace the destroyed equipment.

PG&E was able to prevent long-term outages by re-routing power, but the obvious implication was that such a simple, low tech attack could have been replicated simultaneously at several primary points on the grid and there would be no power to re-route.

No arrests have been made, and no organization has taken credit for the attack, leaving many questions outstanding. Was it a trial run by a 'sleeper cell', verifying the theory that you could cripple the grid without explosives and without ever penetrating the physical security provisions in place?  Or was it a disgruntled employee who sought revenge for some kind of employment setback by imposing millions of dollars in damage? The FBI says - probably correctly - that the attack doesn't meet the definition of terrorism, because it wasn't (to anyone's knowledge) carried out in furtherance of a political or social agenda.

There is debate about the professionalism of the attackers. Much of the media portrayed it as a highly professional sniper attack, but the evidence runs both ways. The evidence the shooter had trouble hitting what he was shooting at - or perhaps just wasn't sure what precise part of the equipment would cause the most damage - but he/they were thoughtful enough that none of the spent casings had fingerprints or have been traceable.

In the most important sense, it really doesn't matter. No matter the reason for the attack two years ago, it served as a proof of concept for a simple approach to taking down a large segment of the electrical grid. No hacking, no bombs, no highly trained specops warriors disabling cameras and cutting through fences - just a dozen guys with a half dozen rifles and a thousand rounds of ammunition. And anybody concerned with such an attack now knows exactly how to do it.

Metcalf appears poised to remain a mystery forever, but it may ultimately be the most important terror attack you never heard about.

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