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Ted Koppel warns of chance we truly could have ‘Lights Out’

Sometimes it’s the little things in the news business that can add up to what may become a major story. For veteran broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, that was what led him to write “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”

When the longtime ABC “Nightline” anchor called recently to discuss his book, Koppel explained, “Sometimes you hear something on the news that makes you say, ‘There may be a story here, somewhere.’ ”

For Koppel it was a series of what he called “repeated little items,” and he provided several examples.

“For instance, there was the time [former Defense Secretary and CIA director] Leon Panetta refered to a ‘cyber Pearl Harbor.’ Or when Janet Napolitano was leaving, after almost five years as secretary of Homeland Security. She gave a speech at the National Press Club in Washington — and way down at the bottom of the speech was this warning we were facing a cyber-attack on the power grid.

“Then President Obama in 2013 said something about foreign governments trying to break into our power grid with cyber techniques.”

While each piece wasn’t all that compelling, the combination of those mentions led Koppel to want to look into the potential threats to America. He thought initially that if all those “well-informed people are offering warnings about the likelihood of this happening, what is being done about it?”

Koppel first reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security — as well as private agencies like the Red Cross — to discover what kind of preparations were being done.

“If indeed there is a plan, then why haven’t we heard about it?” Koppel pondered.

To Koppel’s horror, he discovered there really wasn’t a plan in place to protect the American public in the event of a major cyberattack on both the Internet and our power grid across the country.

“When I asked about what people would need to do in the event of a major power outage lasting a very long time, I ended up getting people giving me a formula for a bad storm, or for a blizzard or an earthquake.

“Those are situations where you need to have enough food for two or three days — and enough water for a similar period of time. You’re told to have enough medicine and a radio with batteries. But that’s completely different from what I was asking about — a total shutdown of the world as we know it.”

As Koppel delved into this lack of preparedness, he talked to former Pennsylvania Gov. and U.S. Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge.

“We came to the conclusion that when people in government don’t have a ready-made solution, there’s not much point in directing people toward impending disaster. If all you do is that, without any kind of solution or even recommendations for what to do, you will find yourself merely causing panic and find yourself in political trouble.”

The lack of a national discussion on this topic is showcased by the various recent debates between the presidential candidates. According to Koppel, “only Jim Webb made a passing mention to the danger of a cyber attack, and now he’s out of the race. … That’s my point.”

The journalist already has heard criticism of the approach he’s taken in “Lights Out.”

“For some their objection is: A. You’re simply giving the terrorists an idea. Or B. You’re just scaring people.”

Koppel dismisses both because, “A. I think the terrorists already have the idea. And B. I think it’s better to scare people in the direction of being prepared for something, rather than treating them like a 7-year-old and being afraid of frightening them.

“Ultimately, in a democracy, the way to get things done is to making everyone aware of a problem. Then it’s about addressing what may be possible solutions. We haven’t yet come close to doing that first part — making people aware.”

Koppel next turned to a discussion of the Internet and noted that “it was designed with the most positive, the most affirmative motives.” He was reminded of what a fellow in military intelligence once told him: ‘The Internet was designed so professors could exchange good ideas. It was designed to be accessible. It was not designed to be defended, because nobody anticipated, with the initial design of the Internet, that the day would come when people would use it as a weapon, or as an instrument of crime, or as a means of vacuuming up gigantic quantities of intelligence information. None of that was anticipated.”

Ted Koppel will be in our area with three upcoming appearances: At 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, at Barnes & Noble, Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie; 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10, Union League Club of Chicago, in conversation with Peter Sagal; 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10, Institute of Politics, University of Chicago, in conversation with Chris Bury at the Quadrangle Club.