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White supremacists might be to blame for an uptick in power grid attacks in the PNW

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the Pacific Northwest, there were more attacks on the power grid last year than in the previous six years combined. Now, it is not clear who is behind most of the incidents or if they are indeed connected. But the FBI has been warning utilities of white supremacist plans for such attacks. That is according to an investigation by Conrad Wilson from Oregon Public Broadcasting and John Ryan from member station KUOW in Seattle.

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: After a series of power outages on Christmas Day on the outskirts of Tacoma, Wash., the 911 calls poured in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 911, what are you reporting?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The power station over here off of Kapowsin Highway, and it's on fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Three of the transformers are burning on top.

RYAN: Power substations convert high voltages into the lower voltages that keep America's lights on and appliances running. Somebody had cut their way into four substations and sabotaged the equipment inside. They knocked out power to more than 10,000 people. Tacoma Public Utility officials called for emergency help.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The reason for the large power outage down there is we had someone break into our substation and open the circuit breakers and pry open boxes. So I was trying to get someone to respond to the substation.

RYAN: The Christmas attacks were just the latest of 15 grid attacks in the northwest since June. In most cases, the motives aren't known. By New Year's Eve, two local men had been arrested for the Christmas crimes. Prosecutors say the men didn't appear to have political motives. They aimed to knock out power so they could rob local businesses undetected.

DOUG JOHNSON: The arrests are encouraging, but we believe that the threat still exists.

RYAN: Doug Johnson is a spokesperson for the Bonneville Power Administration. The federal agency sells hydropower in the Northwest.

JOHNSON: We have not slowed down our efforts to further harden our substations and protect them in a physical manner.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: In November and early December of last year, as the attacks accelerated, the FBI warned utilities of an increase in threats from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists. That's government speak for neo-Nazis. The FBI bulletin say extremist calls to sabotage the grid were possibly to blame for the attacks in the Northwest prior to the ones on Christmas Day.

MARY MCCORD: We're in a real wave of domestic extremist violence right now that's been increasing for several years.

WILSON: Mary McCord is a former top national security official at the Department of Justice. McCord says it doesn't matter to extremist groups who actually carries out the attacks. Just the fact that the attacks are happening contributes to their goal of sowing discord.

MCCORD: White supremacists and others who are seeking to advance their own causes for ideological reasons can use that to sort of advance their purported goals of causing the chaos, undermining the government, undermining general stability.

WILSON: Neo-Nazi groups have launched several plots to take out the U.S. grid in recent years. They've even put out how-to manuals to make it easier to attack vulnerable parts of the nation's critical infrastructure. Joshua Fisher-Birch is a researcher with the Counter Extremism Project, which tracks these groups' online activities.

JOSHUA FISHER-BIRCH: The recent substation attacks have been spoken about in glowing terms by certain members of the extreme right and particularly by neo-Nazi accelerationists.

RYAN: Whoever is behind these attacks, energy experts say they're playing with fire. Ian Cope is a spokesperson for the Grays Harbor Public Utility District in Southwest Washington. His utility was targeted three times last year.

IAN COPE: You're talking about thousands of megawatts of electricity coming through these highly sensitive pieces of equipment. And it's somewhat miraculous that this hasn't led to a fatality yet.

RYAN: Federal energy officials in December launched a four-month study of ways to protect America's far-flung electrical grid from bad actors. For now, much of the system is so fragile that it doesn't take sophisticated conspiracies to do major damage. For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle.

WILSON: And I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ryan
Year started with KUOW: 2009
Conrad Wilson / OPB