Ted Koppel (MJCCA Book Festival Nov 22) anticipates cyber-attack on electrical grid in book ‘Lights Out’

WASHINGTON - MAY 13: Journalist Ted Koppel speaks at a forum on HIV/AIDS on Capitol Hill on May 13, 2009 in Washington, DC. The forum was sponsored by Co-Sponsored by amfAR (the Foundation for AIDS Research) and Research!America. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – MAY 13: Journalist Ted Koppel speaks at a forum on HIV/AIDS on Capitol Hill on May 13, 2009 in Washington, DC. The forum was sponsored by Co-Sponsored by amfAR (the Foundation for AIDS Research) and Research!America. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Monday, November 16, 2015

Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s “Nightline” for a quarter century until 2005, was considered the paragon of sober-minded, straight-laced broadcasters from an era when gravitas was king.

So when Koppel raises a major alarmist flag in his New York Times bestseller”Lights Out” about how exposed the United States electrical grid is to cyber attack, he isn’t just trying to sell books.

“Going in, what I really wanted to do was make sure I wasn’t just spreading nasty rumors,” said Koppel in a phone interview Monday to promote his talk at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s Book Festival November 22. “After talking to all these people, I satisfied my own curiosity that this not just a likelihood but almost inevitable.”

He paints a gory picture in the opening pages of a grid attack that cuts electricity to multiple states. In a matter of days, a society inured to instant connectiveness would break down, leading to panic, violence and chaos.

What’s more disturbing, Koppel said, is that government officials in the know have raised the specter of cyberterrorism of this level but society has not compelled D.C. to take action in terms of creating real plans and educating the public on such a widespread disaster. He interviewed top officials for Homeland Security and the National Security Agency, among others.

“It’s analogous to telling people many years ago that cigarette smoking causes cancer and emphysema,” Koppel said. “For many generations, that made no impact at all. Sometimes, it takes a national discussion, a concentrated national campaign to get people’s attention.”

The problem: “Most people have enough problems in their daily lives that the idea of something like this is just too shattering to even be willing to confront.”

He thinks Homeland Security has not made it a major priority because they don’t want to overly worry the American public. “The public would have to understand it’s a plan that will work but if you don’t have a plan, that can be more worrisome. I just hope it becomes part of the national conversation during the presidential campaign.”

Koppel said this would require “different campaigns and candidates to offer solutions. That’s going to require more than just saying let’s build a wall along the Mexican border.” (He said so far in the debates, only former Democratic candidate Jim Webb even alluded to cyberwarfare and he dropped out of the race soon after.)

Then again, as Koppel noted in the book, many Americans remain fascinated by post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows such as “Mad Max” and “The Walking Dead” but are happy to keep such notions in fantasy land, not reality.

Koppel himself? Not so much. The man has never even seen an episode of “The Walking Dead.” “I worry enough about ISIS,” he said.

In fact, he sees groups such as ISIS as more likely to wage an electrical grid cyberattack on America than Russia or China because the repercussions for an independent terrorist group is far less than that of a nation state.

As for the Paris attacks on Friday, Koppel said the use of conventional weapons like suicide vests and AK47s is “small potatoes” compared to what the Islamic State could do via cyberterrorism.

ISIS, he said, doesn’t need a conventional military force. “They have growing efficiency in cyberwarfare,” he said. “We talk about the danger of ISIS members managing to get into the  United States but they don’t have to be here to launch a cyber attack.”

For his book, Koppel also talked to a range of “doomsday preppers” and the Mormon Church, which has an ultra-sophisticated disaster preparedness operation. “Top to bottom, the Mormons are incredibly organized,” he said.

The 75-year-old veteran journalist said he spent 18 months researching and writing his first book in 15 years. It was not easy. “It’s a subject I knew next to nothing about coming,” he said. “It’s kind of a technical subject. I’m not a technical kind of guy. In fact, I’m sure my former colleagues at ‘Nightline’ are amused. They may remember that I didn’t even give up the manual typewriter until I was 50!”

AUTHOR PREVIEW

Ted Koppel, “Lights Out”

7:30 p.m. Sunday

$18 members, $24 non-members

Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta

5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody

www.atlantajcc.org


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