02/13/2014 09:01 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

Bureaucratic Ineptitude

Our critical infrastructure has not received the attention it needs for decades and as a result today our efforts to rejuvenate economic growth are compromised by clogged highways and railroads, unsafe bridges, inadequate airports and outmoded river locks and harbors that cannot handle essential traffic.

To all that we can now add another pressing challenge -- our vulnerable electric power grid. An incident last year at a transformer relay in Santa Clara, California, in which vandals shot up transformers, knocking them out of action, was not new. Shooting transformers and glass insulators on power lines has been a problem for at least 100 years. The miscreants have usually been young men with guns and too much time on their hands. They did damage but did not threaten the integrity of our economy.

But today most of our open wire lines with the glass insulators that people used to shoot for fun have been replaced by microwave or underground cable systems. So it would appear that target practice on glass insulators is increasingly being replaced by the thrill of taking potshots at transformers, and the incidence has been on the upswing since the events of 9/11.

This is serious business. It is scary how dependent we are on electricity. When harsh weather interrupts electricity flow, we are reminded of how tough life was without electric lights, machines, ovens, refrigerators and computers. It goes without saying that a prolonged interruption of electricity would have a devastating impact on our economy and our country.

Our response to the vandalism problem has been erratic and unfocused primarily because so many players are involved in it: the Justice Department, the FBI, The Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and of course the ever-present U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Where so many have responsibility, lines of authority are blurred and thus there is no focused plan of action. The lead responsibility should presumably fall somewhere within DHS, but only God knows where. Every day I see fresh reports of new offices and positions created in DHS with inflated titles and obscure lines of authority. I assume most of the incessant DHS changes reflect the normal give and take of bureaucratic turf battles of no interest to anyone outside the bureaucracy.

The irony is that it would cost us relatively little to make critical electric transformers safe from sabotage. There really aren't that many critical transformer installations to be protected. Rudimentary security procedures would make them safe. But sorting out the bureaucratic lines of authority and assigning responsibility for making it happen would tax the wisdom of Solomon.


Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.