The possibility that terrorists or a hostile foreign state could take down the American power grid either by a cyberattack or by an electromagnetic pulse attack is one of those haunting possibilities that keep strategic planners from sleeping peacefully at night. In “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” Ted Koppel, one of America’s most experienced and best-known journalists, has attempted to show readers why the danger is real, the degree to which the authorities are unprepared and the steps we can take now to be ready when the power goes down.
The combination of a sober establishment journalist looking into the heart of a national nightmare, warning us that our worst fears are better grounded than we think and taking us to visit people who are preparing their shelters against the prospect of a catastrophe that destroys modern civilization should be gripping to read. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Sloppy, self-indulgent and discursive, this is a book that winds around its subject, wanders off on unenlightening tangents, includes unnecessary anecdotes about the narrator’s uninteresting exploits in quest of the story and never really gets to the point.
Part of the problem is technique. To his credit, Koppel has chosen a complex and ambitious array of subjects: He looks at the danger of a major disaster caused by a long-term collapse in the electric grids on which we all rely, warns that the government agencies charged with protecting us from such catastrophes are in all likelihood woefully unprepared and takes us into the world of the “preppers” (people amassing supplies and building shelters so that they can survive such a collapse). Koppel wants to tell this story as a journalist rather than as an analyst. That is, he wants to mesh the journalistic process through which he learns about these truths with an exposition of his book’s larger themes and ideas.
The concept is admirable, the execution something else. When, for example, Koppel travels to Cody, Wyo., to interview preppers, he begins by telling us how Alan Simpson, a former Wyoming senator, woke him up on a Saturday morning and invited him to meet in front of the city’s Buffalo Bill Center. They meet (though Koppel had hoped to sleep later). They walk through the center. There is a holographic image of Buffalo Bill welcoming visitors. The original for the image is Simpson’s older brother. There is a Plains Indians section. The Plains Indians insisted on organizing this part of the exhibition themselves, as they object to white people telling their stories for them. There are Remington bronzes, and there is also a firearms museum.
Later, Koppel learns that Japanese- Americans were relocated to a camp near Cody during World War II. Fortunately, the members of a local Boy Scouts troop were urged by their parents and mentors to befriend the Japanese-American scouts interned in the camp. There is a memorial now, commemorating the relocation camp. Also, when Simpson was a boy scout, and he and a friend living in the camp (the future congressman and secretary of transportation Norman Mineta) shared a tent, they became angry with one of the other scouts. Since rain was forecast, and their tent was on higher ground, Simpson and his friend dug a trench around their tent that aimed the flow of water into the other boy’s shelter. That night, it rained and the other boy got very cold and wet.
At moments like this, and they are not rare in “Lights Out,” the reader feels more like someone looking for an excuse to get away from a talkative bore at a cocktail party than like a passenger on an exciting adventure of journalistic discovery. Worse, when we finally meet the preppers, it’s not very clear why we’re meeting them, or what they have to teach us. One is a Rockefeller descendant named Bob Model who is prepared to survive a breakdown of the electric grid — and civilization — on his enormous ranch. He has generators, hundreds of gallons of fuel and gravity-fed wells. He has stored ample supplies of flour and wood. And he can always hunt deer and elk. It sounds like an admirable plan, though, as Koppel sagely observes, “from the living room of Bob Model’s ranch these are all reasonable suggestions, but few, if any, would have an application in Manhattan or Chicago or Los Angeles.” Why, some readers will wonder, if Model’s approach has so little to do with the problem Koppel is addressing, has he written about the man at all, much less in so much detail? As is often the case in this book, such questions abound. For those who like this sort of thing, there is plenty to like in “Lights Out.” For anyone else, 250 pages of text will seem both light in content and hard to get through.
But if few readers make it to the end, fewer still will emerge from its pages with a clear sense of the dangers we face and the steps that we need to take. That is too bad. The questions of cybersecurity, cyberwar and the ability of our society to absorb the kind of destruction that, increasingly, relatively small groups of terrorists and hackers may be able to inflict are vital ones. If Koppel had suppressed the anecdotes and the garrulous interviews and simply offered up a clear, precise description of the threat — and of the inadequacy both of the measures to defend the grid and of the measures necessary to manage the catastrophic consequences of a collapse — he would have rendered a great service.
As it is, Koppel’s most successful passages come when he speaks as an analyst rather than a narrative journalist. At his best he is able to convey the complex nature of the obstacles in the way of defending the grid and cyberspace, including the crosscutting issues of privacy, federalism and the autonomy of business decisions in an increasingly decentralized electric industry. His concluding suggestion that the United States look back to the era of mass civil defense as a model for how we might start to make preparations is provocative and sobering at the same time. “Our points of vulnerable access are greater than in all of previous human history,” he writes, “yet we have barely begun to focus on the actual danger that cyberwarfare presents.” More such matter would have made this a better book.
In the acknowledgments, Koppel generously takes the blame for the book’s failings, writing that “to those who remain confused by one part or another of my book I can only explain that I did not always accept” the editor’s suggestions. Next time, we must hope that Koppel is more open to editorial recommendations.