US Senator Schumer to introduce legislation requiring utilities to run background checks on power plant workers

Source: US Senator Charles Schumer

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer revealed that despite a recent report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) showing that insider sabotage at electric, gas, and water utilities is a ‘significant threat’ to U.S. national security, only nuclear power plants are currently required to conduct FBI background checks on employees. The DHS report noted that extremists have gained insider access to critical utility infrastructure and have worked to recruit utility employees to help execute terrorist attacks. While nuclear power plants are currently required to conduct FBI background checks on all employees with unescorted access to facilities, no other power plants are. In light of the findings from DHS, Schumer is introducing legislation to close this major security loophole that would make it mandatory for all major utilities and critical infrastructure plants to run FBI background checks on employees with access to the most sensitive areas of utilities.

“Power plants and utilities present a tempting and potentially catastrophic target to extremists who are bent on wreaking havoc on the United States, which is why thorough background checks on all workers with access to the most sensitive areas of these operations are a must,” said Senator Schumer. “The DHS report is a wake-up call that we must ensure those with access to our most critical infrastructure – and our power supplies – are not compromised by extremist influences.”

In July, DHS released a report entitled Insider Threat to Utilities in which they expressed “high confidence” in their judgment that insiders pose a “significant threat” to utilities and their infrastructure. DHS cited past instances of utility-sector employees using insider knowledge to damage facilities and disrupt site operations, including an example of a water treatment plant employee in Arizona who attempted to cause a buildup of methane gas by shutting down operating systems in April of this year. Additionally, the report cited a January 2011 incident in which a fired employee from a natural gas plant broke into a monitoring station and closed off a valve, cutting off service to 3,000 customers.

The report also cited the increasing threats from Al-Qaeda to these facilities. In the fall of 2010 an Al-Qaeda’s propaganda newsletter urged recruits to work in sensitive locations to conduct attacks, and senior Al-Qaeda officials have also urged members to do the same. It specifically noted the case of Sharif Mobley, an American citizen who worked at five nuclear power plants in the United States between 2002 and 2008 and was later arrested in Yemen in a March of 2010 roundup of suspected Al-Qaeda members. According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report prepared at the request of Schumer, Mobley spoke openly of his militant views while working at the nuclear plants. In the wake of Mobley’s arrest, Schumer successfully advocated for tighter regulations at nuclear facilities, including more stringent FBI background checks. With the exception of nuclear facilities, however, power plants and other key utilities are not authorized or required to perform FBI background checks on their employees – a major security loophole for potential terror threats.

In light of the report, security experts raised concerns that major utilities could be a top terror target for any terrorists around the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Chad Sweet, former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, noted that only through an attack on U.S. utilities could Al-Qaeda inflict the massive amount of damage that documents found at Bin Laden’s compound indicate he was planning. And Richard Clarke, former White House counter-terrorism advisor, pointed out that after gaining access to sensitive facilities, causing a massive amount of destruction is relatively easy.

In the wake of these revelations, Schumer is introducing legislation that would require major utilities and critical infrastructure facilities to vet employees with access to the most sensitive areas of utilities against the FBI’s criminal history record repository, the Interstate Identification Index (Triple I) system, that contains fingerprint records from all states, U.S. territories, federal, and international criminal justice agencies. Employees working at nuclear facilities are already checked against the Triple I system, but employees at other major utilities are not. Schumer noted that the cost of conducting the background checks is financed through user-fees and allows the FBI to easily handle an increase in the number of necessary background checks.

“In the face of the intelligence we’ve recovered from Afghanistan, this Homeland Security report, and the domestic incidents of sabotage, it would be irresponsible not to use the resources already available to us from the FBI to ensure security threats don’t have access to control rooms where, with the press of a few buttons, massive terror can be unleashed,” continued Schumer.

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