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Forbes: US cyberattack against Venezuela power grid very possible

Forbes Magazine published a news and analysis piece on March 9th, speculating on the possibility that Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s accusations that the crippling power outages in his country are the product of a cyberattack conducted by the United States.

The article’s writer, Kalev Leetaru, says a great deal in a report notably cautious of making a claim that this is what is in fact taking place, but he gives some very good explanation as to how it could be so.

Before exploring Mr. Leetaru’s thoughts in depth, it is worth mentioning that thus far, neither the press agencies of the US nor the Russian Federation have said much on this theme. It is certainly a known quantity that Venezuela is the present focus of a major tug-of-war between the two powers. Venezuela has the richest known oil reserves on the planet, and it relatively close proximity to the United States makes it strategically important to the interests of that nation. Yet, the country has long received much of its support from the Russian Federation.

Following a still hotly-contested election in which the two sides deepened the conflict through their own rhetoric, with President Trump taking a loud and proud stance with Juan Guaido and Russian President Vladimir Putin remaining supportive of Mr. Maduro, much of the rhetoric seemed to be plateauing.

And then the lights went out in Venezuela. Not just sporadic power outages, but an astounding event, leaving the capital city of Caracas and 20 of the nation’s 23 regions with no power, starting March 7th. Other statistics set the affected area as 70 percent of the country of 31.6 million people.

Venezuela, despite its wealth of oil, gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric sources, the main source being the power station in Guri, in Bolivar, one of Venezuela’s southern states. This one station is responsible for providing about 70 percent of the country’s energy.

According to a CNN report, the outage at the power station was likely the result of old equipment and bad maintenance.

This may be clear, but the reasons why this was not taken care of are less clear. The American media point of view about why this situation is the way it is is corruption and terrible leadership and management starting with Socialist president Hugo Chavez, and continuing through Nicolas Maduro. However, the depth and scope of the country’s economic – and now utility – crisis is astounding, considering the country’s resources and the ability of its people. It is easy to speculate, and some have gone much farther than mere speculation, that the United States is trying to unseat the government through a citizens’ revolt. If so, that revolt seems to have hit a snag because supposed pro-US candidate Guaido did not win a victory decisive enough to take power without controversy.

This crisis appears to many to be an engineered one, and it is easy to understand why, placing the circumstantial dominoes in a row. Now we come to the writer from Forbes, who explains here how it is possible that what we are watching is a real live cyberattack in progress. We have added emphasis.

As Venezuela endured one of its worst blackouts in recent memory this week, the government repeatedly claimed the widespread outage of power, phone and internet was due to a foreign cyberattack attempting to unseat its president. While the reality is that Venezuela’s blackout was most likely due to chronic underfunding of its electrical infrastructure and deferred maintenance, the idea of a foreign nation state manipulating an adversary’s power grid to force a governmental transition is very real.

In 2015 I explored the concept of “cyber first strike” in which governments would increasingly turn to cyberwarfare either on its own or as part of hybrid warfare to weaken an adversary prior to conventional invasion or to forcibly and deniably effect a transition in a foreign government.

Interrupting power and water supplies, disrupting traffic patterns, slowing or interfering with internet access, causing smart homes to go haywire and even remotely triggering meltdowns at nuclear power plants were all topics increasingly being discussed in the national security community at the time as legitimate and legal tactics to undermine a foreign state.

In the case of Venezuela, the idea of a government like the United States remotely interfering with its power grid is actually quite realistic. Remote cyber operations rarely require a significant ground presence, making them the ideal deniable influence operation. Given the U.S. government’s longstanding concern with Venezuela’s government, it is likely that the U.S. already maintains a deep presence within the country’s national infrastructure grid, making it relatively straightforward to interfere with grid operations. The country’s outdated internet and power infrastructure present few formidable challenges to such operations and make it relatively easy to remove any traces of foreign intervention.

Widespread power and connectivity outages like the one Venezuela experienced last week are also straight from the modern cyber playbook. Cutting power at rush hour, ensuring maximal impact on civilian society and plenty of mediagenic post-apocalyptic imagery, fits squarely into the mold of a traditional influence operation. Timing such an outage to occur at a moment of societal upheaval in a way that delegitimizes the current government exactly as a government-in-waiting has presented itself as a ready alternative is actually one of the tactics outlined in my 2015 summary.

But, here, Mr. Leetaru does give pause, noting that although the circumstances do line up, it ain’t necessarily so…

On the other hand, outages are commonplace in Venezuela due to years of grid mismanagement. The country’s power grid does not need the help of the NSA to experience yet another shutdown. Indeed, last week’s outage was far more likely to have been just the natural result of poorly maintained generation and distribution equipment than to have been a targeted U.S. cyberattack.

But he seems at least somewhat convinced since the pattern and results match so well:

Yet, this is precisely why cyberwarfare is so powerful as an influence tool. Most countries, including the U.S., have experienced concerns over their aging and increasingly overloaded utilities infrastructure. A power plant shutting down due to a malfunctioning piece of equipment or an overloaded transmission line failing are more likely to be chalked up to underinvestment than to a foreign cyberattack. A failed power line sparking a massive wildfire would be dismissed as poor preventive maintenance rather than deliberate foreign sabotage.

Influence operations are designed to silently nudge a country towards a particular outcome. Aging utilities infrastructures offer a perfect vehicle for such operations, since the blame for grid failures typically falls upon government officials for failing to adequately oversee that infrastructure, even when it is owned and maintained by private companies. Cyberattacks against utilities have the ability to disrupt all facets of modern life and generate mediagenic imagery without undue risk to the initiating country, making them an almost perfect weapon.

Putting this all together, it is extremely likely that this past week’s blackout in Venezuela was the simple result of the country’s own infrastructure problems rather than a targeted cyber action by the United States designed to oust President Maduro. Yet, the inability to definitively discount U.S. or other foreign intervention, whether deliberate or accidental, demonstrates the incredible power of using cyberattacks to target utilities. Such outages can quickly turn a population against its government while making it almost impossible to definitively prove foreign intervention.

Again, Russia seems to have stopped short of blatantly accusing the Americans of conducting this attack. However, the news agency TASS, which is one of the least opinion heavy news outlets anywhere, in a press review made note of the Izvestia news agency’s article that precisely does blame the US for this situation. TASS press review makes the following points from the Izvestia piece:

A cyber attack against Venezuela’s power facilities, which Caracas has blamed on the US, was designed to create intolerable living conditions throughout the Latin American country, Izvestia writes. According to Washington strategists, the power outage was aimed at whipping up protest sentiment to topple Venezuela’s legitimate President Nicolas Maduro. On March 7, state power corporation Corpoelec reported an act of sabotage at the country’s major Guri hydroelectric plant, which supplies power to the capital and 70% of Venezuela. Since Thursday afternoon, 21 out of 23 states across the country have been without electricity.

According to an expert from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Igor Pshenichnikov, Washington is trying to paint the Venezuela blackout as though absolute chaos is reigning throughout the country and all Venezuelan economic sectors, including critical ones such as power supply, have been shaken to the core by the crisis. The country’s TV channel, Telesur, reported that the US is using this “economic crisis” plotline as another pretext for its planned military intervention into the country under the slogans of “establishing democracy and order.”

Apparently, the masterminds of this attack sought to target sensitive social infrastructure facilities, primarily hospitals, to disrupt life-supporting equipment that requires uninterrupted power supply. The major goal was to spark mass public discontent. Meanwhile, the organizers of this cyber attack and those in the mass media covering it made a blunder, the expert noted. All these “dramatic” articles and Twitter reports about power cuts in hospitals and even the death of 79 patients turned out to be fake news, the paper writes. Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the masterminds of this cyber attack and their accomplices in Venezuela did not take into account that under President Maduro’s initiative all hospitals across the country had been equipped with reserve power generators and not a single hospital faced power cuts nor did anyone die. Local media reports said the power supply is being restored across the country and “peace and calm are prevailing in Venezuela.”

Izvestia, or TASS then make a mistake in referring to Mike Pompeo as “Vice President” of the US. (He is Secretary of State.)

This is not to say that the information coming out of TASS and Izvestia is wrong, but it is probable that the potential this situation has to escalate into a major row between the US and the Russian Federation has instilled a bit of caution. The circumstantial evidence appears to be present, but it is actually exceedingly difficult to get real solid and independently verifiable information when there is so much political at stake.

One can only watch, pray and hope.

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