Imagining a Cyber Attack on the Power Grid
Greg Kahn for The New York Times
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: September 10, 2013
WASHINGTON — It’s electrifying.
“Gridlock” imagines a blackout that continues for weeks.
Iran and Venezuela want to destroy the United States, so they conspire with a rogue Russian spy to launch a cyber attack on the North American power grid, beginning by electrocuting a lineman in North Dakota. Their main obstacle is a small-town sheriff in the state’s badlands, Nate Osborne, a former Marine Corps lieutenant in Afghanistan whose titanium leg ultimately saves the day.
That is more or less the plot of “Gridlock,” co-written by former Senator Byron L. Dorgan, the latest offering in a peculiar Washington genre.
“That’s my little niche, North Dakota energy thriller,” said Mr. Dorgan, a Democrat who represented North Dakota in the Senate and House for more than three decades.
But life is increasingly imitating Mr. Dorgan’s potboiler. More than 200 utilities and government agencies across the country, from Consolidated Edison to the Department of Homeland Security to Verizon, are now expected to sign up for the largest emergency drill to test the electricity sector’s preparation for cyber attack. The drill, scheduled for November, will simulate an attack by an adversary that takes down large sections of the power grid and knocks out vast areas of the continent for weeks.
The drill, organized by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, is to explore how the country would respond to an enormous grid failure that interrupts supplies of water, food and fuel and creates disruptions on a scale far beyond those of Sept. 11, 2001.
Although it’s potentially bad news for the country, it’s good news for Mr. Dorgan, who has been on an episodic book tour since “Gridlock,” written with David Hagberg, was published in July.
“It’s entertaining, it’s a thriller, but I hope it will get people to think about this some,” Mr. Dorgan said in a recent interview in his office at a Washington law firm overlooking K Street, the lobbyists’ corridor, and decorated with photos of himself with assorted presidents.
An attack on the grid could really happen, Mr. Dorgan said. “I think that we are vulnerable, and it’s not just me, it’s the National Science Foundation and a number of people in the energy industry. ‘Glass jaw’ is a pretty good description of the grid system, honestly.”
The book is a sequel to Mr. Dorgan and Mr. Hagberg’s first energy thriller, “Blowout,” in which Iran and Venezuela link up with shady hedge-fund types to destroy a super secret project that uses microbes to turn North Dakota coal into limitless, low-pollution electricity. In both books, many bad guys die, along with a few good ones, but enough survive to preserve the possibility of yet another sequel. Plots vary, but the characters are drawn from a familiar inventory of types, and the story lines have a certain predictability. They read a bit like treatments for action movies, the kind without much heavy dialogue.
“I know they’re not Shakespeare,” said Mr. Hagberg, who said he had written more than 80 novels under his own name and several pseudonyms.
Mr. Dorgan is not completely new to writing either, although his previous offerings have been nonfiction. “Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America,” was published in 2006, and “Reckless!,” on the perils of banking deregulation, was in print three years later.
Out of the blue, his agent came to him with an idea for fiction, and the notion that in a novel, “you can put important things into the public consciousness.”
A prominent local bookseller, Bradley Graham of Politics & Prose bookstore, put it slightly differently: Former spies and military officers often spin tales out of their experience, so why not legislators? In Mr. Dorgan’s case, it would be a former appropriator, since he headed a subcommittee in charge of energy spending.
The two-book collaboration got a boost, said Mr. Hagberg, because his publisher, Forge, which specializes in action titles, was “keen on more environmental stuff.”
Mr. Dorgan brought local color to both “Gridlock” and “Blowout.” The North Dakota characters, for example, make fun of characters from South Dakota. (“What does he know, he’s from South Dakota,” one says to another.)
Mr. Dorgan also contributed his knowledge of Washington’s energy bureaucracy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or Arpa-e, a new organization that finances high-risk energy projects and is modeled after the better-known Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa. In “Gridlock,” Arpa-e has provided the money for a top-secret Dakota District Initiative, modeled after the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.
The idea of giant secret projects are more fiction than readers may recognize. The real Arpa-e puts small sums into dozens of start-ups, and then publicizes the investments.
Mr. Dorgan, 71, said he got the idea of microbes that turn coal into natural gas from Craig Venter, the biologist who was one of the first to sequence the human genome. (Mr. Ventor had a contract with Exxon to research making oil from algae.)
Mr. Dorgan said he started his first book, “Take This Job and Ship It,” on a cruise with his extended family, using a 24-page guide to writing a book proposal that he found on the Internet. For the two thrillers, his agent paired him with Mr. Hagberg. (Mr. Hagberg, whose red-white-and-blue heroes tend toward conservative military or small-town types, described himself as a “raging Republican,” and called Mr. Dorgan “my token Democrat.”)
Mr. Dorgan and Mr. Hagberg would not discuss how “Gridlock” and “Blowout” were selling, although on Tuesday “Gridlock” was No. 94,180 on Amazon. Putting the name of a recently retired senator on the cover of a book does not make it sell any better, Mr. Hagberg said.