Dominion Energy engineers, analysts and technicians monitor the energy grid 24 hours a day. Courtesy of Dominion Energy.

A real danger of war has now emerged in Europe. Russia has built up troops, warships and warplanes along its borders with Ukraine. It is plain to me that Vladimir Putin has decided that the path to Russian greatness is to upset the existing order in Europe and he believes that starts with the domination of Ukraine, a sovereign country that only wants to be a friend of the United States and a part of the West. 

With the very real danger of war ahead, I recently met with Adam Lee, the chief security officer at Dominion Energy to discuss the significant investments that Dominion has taken to protect Virginia’s energy grid from a deliberate attack that might cut off power to many thousands of households. Lee came to Dominion Energy from the FBI, one of the national security organizations responsible for counterintelligence efforts. Adam Lee brings a wealth of experience and a sophisticated team devoted to safeguarding Dominion’s electric grid from attack, not only by a national adversary, but also by criminals disabling the power grid, and then demanding ransom to start the computers back up again 

America’s infrastructure is made up of gas pipelines, telecommunications, transportation, and power systems. An attack on any of them would disrupt America during an attack, and make it difficult for our country to respond. Adversaries now have the ability to attack those systems. Adam Lee informs me that Dominion is probed thousands of times a day, as adversaries seek weaknesses in the security systems put in place to protect the grid. 

As was said in the popular movie “Apollo 13”, power is everything. Dominion is very aware of the central role it plays in our community and the essential necessity of protecting its capacity to provide power here in Virginia and beyond. 

We have all experienced power outages due to snow or wind storms. We customers lose light, the power to cook and often heat for our homes. When this occurs, we are patient, expecting the Dominion will repair the lines and restore power to our homes and businesses. A deliberate attack on our power sources intended to disrupt our society would be more difficult to repair without serious, even life-threatening consequences. 

From 1998 to 2003 I served as Chairman of the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities involving Terrorism involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (The Gilmore Commission). This Advisory Panel reported to Congress in 1998 that a conventional attack on our homeland by a bomb, hijacking or a cyber attack was highly likely. This early conclusion sadly came true with the 9-11-2001 attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by terrorist hi-jacking of airlines and turning them into flying bombs. As Governor, I had to deal with the consequences of the attack our Panel had predicted.

The Gilmore Commission addressed the challenge of asymmetric warfare, whereby an attack is made at a society’s most vulnerable target, at low cost but maximum disruption. The 9-11 attack was an asymmetric attack, costing the terrorists little to perform, but subsequently costing our country trillions of dollars to protect our homeland. A future cyber attack on a power system would cost an attacker virtually nothing, but would likewise disrupt our entire community and create the most chaos. 

In 2015 Russian hackers worked to disable the electric grid in a portion of Ukraine, In 2016 another attack occurred around the capital of Kyiv. Another attack has occurred in the last several weeks in a lead-up to the present likely invasion of Ukraine right now. Because they are cyber attacks, responsibility can often be denied. As Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, Austria, I often confronted my Russian counterpart about the Russian practice of “hybrid warfare”, which is a cyber assault on an adversary. The Russians refused to even discuss what they were doing. 

Cyber attacks continue in America. On May 7, 2021 a cyber attack occurred on the Colonial Pipeline, an essential part of America’s energy infrastructure. The result was massive fuel shortages, price spikes and long lines at the pump. Air travel was delayed. Cyber gangs in Russia were later determined to be involved. 

Here at home in Virginia, on December 12, 2021, the Virginia Fusion Center , which coordinates the state emergency response reported a cyber attack on the Virginia Legislative Automated System, the General Assembly’s information technology. The assault disabled the electronic system for drafting new legislation. Criminals were reportedly behind that attack. 

We live in dangerous times threatened by cyber criminals and now by international instability. I am glad that Dominion Energy has made the significant investment to protect the electric grid they operate in our community. Dominion provides us an example of what all operators of American infrastructure must do to protect us in this dangerous world. In the days ahead, those investments may pay off for all of us.

(Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but under our rules, donors have no influence on news decisions, or decisions as to which opinion pieces to run. We welcome opinion pieces on Virginia-related topics from all current or former state office-holders, among others.)

James S. Gilmore III

James S. Gilmore III was the 68th Governor of Virginia. He was the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2019-2021.