Making the grid safe for democracy


One hundred years ago last month, in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked the United States Congress to declare war on Germany to “make the world safe for democracy.” But if secret intelligence had been shared earlier, might a different outcome have been possible?

Months earlier, in January 1917, British intelligence had intercepted and decoded a secret telegram written by the German foreign minister to the German ambassador in Mexico. It stated that Germany would soon resume submarine warfare against non-military vessels, and speculated that this action, which was certain to result in American civilian casualties, would likely draw the United States into the war. Germany offered Mexico the states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico if they would join them in war against the United States.

Surprisingly, the British did not immediately share this information. They withheld their knowledge of the telegram for security reasons to avoid revealing their advanced decoding capabilities to the enemy. They also did not want to reveal to the United States that they had wiretapped our undersea cable — their source for the message.

Might President Wilson have used the contents of this message to pursue a diplomatic solution to hostilities, as he had hoped? Historians debate the wisdom of the British decision and whether lives were saved or lost by their inaction.

When the British finally decided to share, they had to construct a “fake news” story, planting and then “discovering” the message in Mexico to avoid revealing their wiretap activity. By then, submarine attacks on civilian vessels had already begun. War was all but inevitable.

Fake news. Wiretapping. One hundred years later the headlines haven’t changed.

Today, we face a similar dilemma: Our critical infrastructure — utilities, financial systems, telecommunications, oil and gas — is at the front lines of international warfare, with our electronic systems facing near-constant cyber-attack by foreign enemies.
The national security agencies have valuable intelligence that might prevent the next cyber- or physical attack, and are working to communicate the threats to industry leaders, but sometimes key intelligence information is not shared for fear of revealing intelligence sources and capabilities.

I serve as the co-chair of a nationwide group representing utility CEOs who meet regularly in confidential briefings with our counterparts at the highest levels of the federal government, from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Energy (DOE), the FBI, the White House, the National Security Agency (NSA) and others. Our objective is to work together to share information as broadly as possible to protect our electric grid from attack. In partnership with the government we have developed tools to facilitate and automate the sharing of threat information. But despite our noble intentions, I sometimes still learn that our government has withheld information about a critical vulnerability, which was not shared because of national security concerns. This is an unacceptable situation that we are working hard to overcome, lest we find ourselves recovering from a cyber-attack that could have been prevented.

Our group recently met with the new leadership at DOE, DHS and the White House to confirm their commitment to maintaining the programs we had initiated with the preceding administration. We were assured that cybersecurity and information sharing will remain top priorities for those agencies.

One hundred years ago, it was difficult to share intelligence information in a timely manner. Today, our adversary moves at the speed of light, but with strong cooperation between government and industry we can secure our infrastructure against the newest cyber threats.