The Trump administration has been dinged by critics at nearly every turn for its response to Russian meddling in affairs at home.
Yesterday, Rick Perry got his turn.
The head of the Energy Department has an often overlooked but critical role in protecting the U.S. energy sector from digital attacks. And senators gave Perry an earful after a recent report that Russians nuzzled their way into computer systems controlling energy infrastructure in the United States.
Perry responded that he is taking the threat so seriously, he is creating a whole new office within the Energy Department to handle it.
The new Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response (CESER) will coordinate efforts to protect the electric grid -- and should the worst happen, respond to compromises.
Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election through cyberattacks and fake news have been the subject of numerous news stories for more than a year. Less publicized, but also serious, are a series of remote intrusions Russians have made into U.S. power plants, which have been confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
“Our energy infrastructure is under attack,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who over the past several months has been loudly beating the drum on the Russian threat to the grid. “It’s under cyberattack and we need to do much more to protect it as a national critical asset. Russia has proven its ability to disrupt the grid.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the committee, backed her Democratic colleague: “Know I share Senator Cantwell’s concern on this. I want to make sure that DOE is cooperating with DHS and the FBI with implementation of actions in response.”
After first alerting utility companies last June, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI last week reported that Russian agents had gained the access needed to shut down or otherwise sabotage power plants. It was the first time the Trump administration, which issued new sanctions against Russians in the wake of the revelations, pointed the finger squarely at Russia for the energy infrastructure hacks.
Perry tried to reassure the senators the threat was on his radar. “There is a clear role DOE plays on cyber,” Perry said. “We are committed to being as technically advanced as possible.”
Even before the blockbuster report, the Energy Department has begun to lay the groundwork for the creation of a new office meant to address the heightened natural and man-made threats to the U.S. electric grid.
The department first announced it was creating CESER last month. To ensure the office works with scientists at the Energy Department's national laboratories dotted across the country, CESER will report directly to Mark Menezes, who as undersecretary of energy is the No. 3 official in the department. Perry said Tuesday that reporting relationship creates a “direct pipeline of information” back to him.
The Energy Department, already designated by Congress as the lead federal agency to work with utilities on making sure their systems protect against intrusion, can establish the new office and assistant secretary post to run it without additional congressional approval.
Now, the Trump administration is asking for $470 million to prevent and address cyberattacks on the energy sector, $93 million of which would be injected into the new office.
On Tuesday, Cantwell countered that is not enough. "I’ve called for a doubling," she said, "but I can see where I am wildly underfunding what is one of the most serious threats to us as a nation right now."
At least three times over the past year, Cantwell has called on the Trump administration to produce a risk assessment on Russia's capability to hack the grid.. “We are deeply concerned that your administration has not backed up a verbal commitment prioritizing cybersecurity of energy networks and fighting cyber aggression with any meaningful action,” Cantwell and other Democratic senators wrote to President Trump last June.
At least three times over the past year, Cantwell has called on the Trump administration to produce a risk assessment on Russia's capability to hack the grid. So far there has been silence from the Trump administration on the request, her office said.
"Do you believe that we need a risk assessment as a nation?" Cantwell finally asked Perry at the hearing.
"I think that’s going on as we speak," Perry responded. "We have three different areas in DOE that are focused on cyber and have been meeting and having these conversations."
Yet just last week, Perry expressed doubts the federal government as a whole is doing enough to check the threat.
"I’m not confident that the federal government has a broad strategy in place that is not duplicating," Perry told the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water issues, "or is least duplicative as it can be."
Concerns over Russian cyberattacks have animated congressional hearings recently. Facing intense grilling from Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who heads both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, bluntly admitted "we’re probably not doing enough" to counter Russia online.
“They haven’t paid a price at least that’s sufficient to get them to change their behavior,” Rogers said. He added the president has not yet ordered Cyber Command to try to disrupt Russian threats.
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— One more time: Perry again repeated his reassurance that he’s “not going anywhere” after reports last week that Trump was considering the energy chief to replace embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. Perry told the Senate energy panel Tuesday that he plans to stay in his role.
— Trump’s Arctic refuge story: During a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser yesterday, Trump explained how he lifted a ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and told the story of how he realized the issue was “a big deal.”
Trump said a friend in the oil business called him following the passage of the Republican tax bill, which included a provision for Arctic refuge drilling. "Is it true that you have ANWR in the bill?'" Trump said his friend asked. "I said: 'I don't know. Who cares? What is that? What does that mean?' ... What's the big deal if they did put it in?'"
Trump recalled his friend telling him “every single president” including former president Ronald Reagan had attempted to open up drilling there. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding, I love it now.' And after that, we fought like hell to get ANWR."
The truth: After Trump told the same tale at a congressional Republican retreat in February, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) countered by recalling exactly how he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) made their pitch early in Trump's tenure. “We had the opportunity to brief the president last year," Sullivan told The Post's Paul Kane and Erica Werner last month. "It was early, like February or March. Over an hour, in the Oval, you know, that’s a lot of time." He added that Trump was familiar with Alaskan issues because his grandfather worked on Chilkoot Trail, an 1890s route that led to the Yukon gold fields.
— BLM vs. NPS: The Bureau of Land Management did not comply with a request from the National Park Service to hold off on a lease sale planned for Tuesday. An Oct. 23 letter outlined concerns that oil and gas drilling activities near two national monuments (Hovenweep and Natural Bridges) and two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands) could adversely affect views and air, groundwater and sound quality. All 13 parcels were sold online as part of a broader sale, with the lease prices ranging from $3 to roughly $91 an acre, The Post's Juliet Eilperin reported.
— Pruitt’s pricey travel: Two groups investigating Scott Pruitt’s travel spending both released more details about how much the Environmental Protection Agency chief spent in past months on hotels and airfare. The travel costs for Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail exceeded $30,000 during his trip to Italy last year, according to documents the EPA released to the nonprofit watchdog Environmental Integrity Project. And the EPA turned over documents to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) late Tuesday detailing nearly $68,000 in newly disclosed travel costs, including for stays at high-priced hotels in New York City and Paris.
— A call for a workforce analysis: Other Republican lawmakers called on Pruitt to schedule a briefing with congressional staff on the EPA’s plans to make cuts and reorganize the agency. Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) sent a letter to Pruitt urging him “to assist us in understanding more about EPA’s plans to reorganize the agency and how workforce analysis will factor into those plans." The letter also noted that the agency had not conducted a workforce analysis in more than two decades.
— Snow day: On the first official day of spring, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast had yet another major nor’easter in the forecast, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. And in Washington, with the “biggest snowstorm of winter” expected to begin Wednesday morning, federal offices in D.C. are closed.
— McDonald’s is trying to boost its brand by promising to go green: The restaurant chain — famous for slinging beef, one of the most carbon-intensive meats out there — is adding LED lights and efficient kitchen equipment to its restaurants and offices with the aim of reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent compared with 2015 levels by the year 2030, Bloomberg News reports.
— Tariffs' toll: Trump's tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel will add thousands of jobs at domestic producers, helping to offset labor losses in other industries, according to a new study from the Coalition for a Prosperous America. Yet the nonprofit group, which shares Trump's skepticism toward free trade, admitted the tariffs would slow the growth of the U.S. economy has a whole, shrinking it by "8/1000th of 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product," according to Bloomberg News.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works holds a hearing on oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
- The American Coalition for Ethanol holds the 10th annual DC Fly-In & Government Affairs Summit
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a hearing.
- The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup on various bills.
- The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the 2019 budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- The House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security holds a hearing on bureaucratic challenges to hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the 2018 Western Water Supply Outlook and Bills Related to Water Infrastructure and Drought Resiliency on Thursday.
- The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on the future of infrastructure policy under Trump on Thursday.
- USTR Robert Lighthizer will testify before the Senate Finance Committee on the president’s 2018 trade policy agenda on Thursday.
- The Wilson Center holds an event on “Linking China’s Domestic and Global Energy Ambitions” on Thursday.
- Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas holds its annual POWER Conference on Energy Research and Policy on Friday.
— The brink of extinction: Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, was euthanized Monday by a veterinary team in Kenya. Now just two female northern white rhinos remain, The Post’s Max Bearak reports — Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter. The rhino’s death puts the species on the brink of extinction.