Monday, June 04, 2007

Soft Targets?

I was flying back from the west coast when news of the plot to blow up the JFK airport jet fuel system broke. Other than noting the distinctly different coverage by the two cable news channels available on Jet Blue, I had plenty of time to think about the implications of such an attack. As the authorities have stressed repeatedly, it's highly unlikely that the plotters could have produced the carnage they desired, though they might have disrupted air travel across the eastern seaboard for days. This story serves as a useful reminder that energy infrastructure remains an attractive, and in many cases "soft" target for terrorists. While noting the success of law enforcement at unraveling this particular scheme, it's equally important to ensure that the operators of such infrastructure have contingency plans in place to deal with the consequences of an actual attack.

As the story in the Washington Post notes, the built-in safeguards of the airport's fuel distribution system would have prevented any explosion or fire in the pipeline or tank farm from spreading to the terminal area. Like many large airports, JFK has a hydrant system, which delivers jet fuel from an underground pipeline directly "into wing", minimizing the number of trucks carrying fuel on airport premises. Instead, refueling trucks just carry a pump and the requisite hoses to connect aircraft to the hydrant valve. However, while this approach reduces the risk of fuel-related accidents on the tarmac, it also increases the system's vulnerability to disruptions at the airport's tank farm.

Destroying all the fuel at JFK--an act apparently beyond the competence of this daft-sounding group--would have dried up the hydrants and forced suppliers to bring both fuel and refueling trucks in from other nearby airports. Doing that on short notice would be a lot more effective if someone has spent time in advance identifying where all those trucks are, who owns them, and what else would be required to pull it off. I'd like to think all this was done right after 9/11, but I'll bet there's a flurry of activity this week, as Homeland Security officials, airport authorities and jet fuel providers review their procedures, in light of this scheme.

The most worrying aspect of this story is its reminder of the human element in infrastructure security. The key to this plot was a former airport employee with knowledge of the fuel system at JFK. The petroleum products industry alone has many thousands of current and former employees who possess this kind of information. Add the natural gas and utility industries, and even if only a small fraction of these personnel have the motivation and inclination to turn what they know to mischief, the number of potential threats is large enough to be worrisome. At a minimum, facility operators should make sure that flow diagrams, plot plans, and aerial photography that would be useful to anyone planning an infrastructure attack are not widely available.

No comments: