On Sunday, the Baltimore Sun reported that the NSA is running out of electricity, on account of the vast power needs of its armada of supercomputers. For the second time in less than a month, equipment failures disrupted travel at Los Angeles International Airport. And on Monday, BP announced that it would need to shut down much of Prudhoe Bay because of pipeline corrosion, causing a spike in oil prices.
What do these three events have in common? They all involve outcomes that a terrorist group would aspire to achieve. If a terrorist group were able to knock the NSA off-line, or disrupt one of the nation’s busiest airports, or shut down the most important oil pipeline in the nation, the impact would be perceived as devastating. And yet, we’ve essentially let these things happen (or almost happen) to ourselves. The same thing could be said of the destruction of the city of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. The damage from the hurricane could have been mitigated if the city’s levees had been managed effectively over the last several decades.
We’ve invested tens of billions of dollars in improving the security of the nation’s critical infrastructure over the past five years, measures that I have by and large supported. But when I see events like these transpire, I become concerned that we’ve lost focus on the core operational functionality of the nation’s infrastructure, and are becoming a fragile nation, which is just as bad (if not worse) as being an insecure nation.
For example, we’re spending approx. $5 billion a year on aviation security, as an operational and psychological tool to keep the system running. But are we spending enough on the other foundations of the aviation system (e.g. air traffic control), which are also need to keep it running? If not, the system is at risk of becoming fragile.
The same logic applies to the Alaska pipeline. A lot of attention has been paid to the issue of pipeline security over the last few years, and a debate has simmered over the security of Alaska’s pipeline, which remains relatively unprotected as it courses down from Prudhoe Bay across the Alaska permafrost. But it was not a terrorist bomb that brought down the pipeline, but poor maintenance, again exposing our fragility.
We still need to focus on the security of the nation’s critical infrastructure. In fact,if carried out appropriately, security activities should increase awareness about potential natural vulnerabilities and improve the operational performance and resilience of the infrastructure. But there needs to be more attention paid in the debate over critical infrastructure protection to the condition and sustainability of the underlying infrastructure. Otherwise we risk becoming an armored weakling, the modern-day equivalent of the walled medieval city that responds to the arrival of the Black Death by widening the moat.