The chance of a cyberattack on America’s power grids is high and the nation is ill-prepared to face the catastrophic consequences, writes Ted Koppel in his recently released book, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath” (Crown Publishing, $26, 288 pages).
Koppel, the longtime anchor for “Nightline,” begins “Lights Out” by posing a hypothetical situation where such a cyberattack has occurred, leaving parts of America in a state of complete darkness with rapidly depleting resources. Koppel later asserts in his book that Mormons are one of the most prepared groups to face such a grim scenario. He devotes three chapters to the LDS Church and its level of organization, which he calls “extraordinary.”
He flew to Utah to view firsthand the bishop’s storehouses and to talk with members of the church as part of the research for his book. Koppel was initially only seeking “a little church history” and “a quick visit to a local warehouse,” according to his book. A call from President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, changed this mindset.
“I didn’t really understand the full scope of the church’s preparations,” Koppel said in an interview with the Deseret News. “(President Eyring) knew, and I did not, the scope of the level of preparation. He wanted to be sure that I got a full flavor of just how multidimensional the preparation is.”
Koppel’s visit to Utah lasted three days. During that time, he met with several people, including LDS Church Historian Richard Turley; Bishop Gerald Causse, then-first counselor in the presiding bishopric; Don Johnson, director of the church’s welfare program; and a few Latter-day Saint families.
“I don’t want to leave the impression that I came away from Salt Lake City believing that the Latter-day Saints are preparing for a cyberattack on the power grid,” Koppel said. “There’s nothing specific about this at all. The church has just been preparing for generations for whatever disaster may come along. It has nothing to with any particular crisis.”
Koppel emphasized the LDS Church’s organizational discipline and self-sufficiency in his book.
“What really impressed me was the layering, which begins at the family level and moves on up to the very stages of the church hierarchy to the point where the church itself has branched industries,” Koppel said of his visit to Utah. “Quite literally, you have an organization that is capable of producing food, processing food and transporting food to the degree that it really amounts to an almost governmental-like organization — except more efficient.”
While Koppel said it would be nearly impossible for Americans in general to duplicate what the church has been establishing for generations, he did say that people could “learn from some of the more basic things that Mormon families do.”
Some of these “basic things” Koppel referred to included establishing a minimum of a two- to three-month supply of food and water, setting aside extra money for an emergency, and building relationships with the community where people could share their skills and resources.
Considering the vast majority of the nation would be in need of assistance if a cyberattack on any one of the nation’s three power grids were to occur, Koppel called it “disturbing” how lacking the government is in terms of readiness.
“This is something that should transcend any kind of politics,” Koppel said. “It is a function of preparing the American public for a catastrophe that will very likely happen.”
Koppel said that he first became invested in the subject of cyberattacks when then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave a speech in 2012 discussing how the collective result of cyberspace threats could lead to a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”
Koppel also mentioned that President Barack Obama made reference in two of his State of the Union addresses that enemies of the U.S. were already in the cyber grid.
Furthermore, Janet Napolitano, former secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, told Koppel that the danger of a successful cyber attack was extremely high — 80 to 90 percent.
“Somehow, you have to take that seriously,” Koppel said.
Writing “Lights Out” spanned over a year and a half, and about 60 people were interviewed in the process, Koppel said. The greatest challenge he said he faced in writing this book was that, as a reporter, he is a “generalist.”
“Very few (reporters) are genuine experts on any subject,” Koppel said. “I’m certainly not an expert on the power grid, nor am I an expert on the Internet or on cyber warfare.”
For Koppel, it came down to finding and talking to the best experts on the subject and then reaching a conclusion of his own. His conclusion is that the likelihood of a cyberattack on the power grid is high and the government has failed in terms of preparing the nation.
“I just began with the notion that I would like to know if the government has made any preparations,” Koppel said. “My instinct was that my answer was probably not much. What I discovered is that it’s way below not much.”
When asked about his personal preparations, Koppel said that he has always owned a couple of generators but that he and his wife now have a water supply and have ordered freeze-dried foods, not only for themselves but also for their children and grandchildren.
“I really want them to be able to survive this,” Koppel said. “I think there’s a real danger that many people will not.”
If you go
What: "Lights Out With Ted Koppel" with book signing to follow
When: Wednesday, Nov. 4, 3-4 p.m.
Where: Orson Spencer Hall Auditorium at the University of Utah, 260 Central Campus Drive, Salt Lake City
How much: Event is free and open to the public