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A Conversation With Ted Koppel

The former 'Nightline' anchor talks about cyberterrorism and lessons learned over his long career

Veteran news anchor Ted Koppel at AARP studios in Washington, DC, July 2015. — Stephen Voss

What prompted you to write a book about the risks and consequences of a cyberattack on the nation's power grid?

I had just read an article on a major power outage and realized I was totally unprepared for surviving one. The more I looked into it, the more I came to the conclusion that the federal and state governments have done little or nothing to prepare for anything other than the natural disasters we experience every year and that a cyberattack would potentially be far, far worse.

You call the Internet a weapon of mass destruction.

The Internet obviously has millions of positive applications, but it is also a means by which a skillful hacker has the capability, anonymously from anywhere in the world, to interrupt much of the infrastructure procedure in this country, whether that applies to the banking system or a water system or the electric power system.

Describe the consequences of a cyberattack on the power grid.

Potentially it could cover many states — tens of millions of people — and last for weeks if not months. Once a power outage lasts more than three or four days, you're in deep trouble. You have no flowing water, you have no waste disposal, and unless you have food supplies that can last without refrigeration, you're going to run out of food very, very quickly. Without electricity, we're essentially thrown back into the middle of the 19th century.

Do you have a survival plan of your own now?

I'm 75. I don't see my wife and me sitting behind barred doors with our storehouse of food and water, each of us armed with a shotgun, waiting for starving hordes to descend on the house. "We know Koppel's got food, let's go get it." But I fear that scenes like that could very likely happen.

How likely is a major attack?

We have so many interlocking interests with the Russians, Chinese and Iranians that they're probably unlikely to launch a truly devastating cyberattack.

But the North Koreans have shown themselves to be quite reckless in the past. Might they do it? Possibly. Does an outfit like ISIS, which has acquired something like $2 billion, have the capability of hiring the sort of expertise that would be required to launch this kind of a cyberattack? The experts tell me "absolutely."

How optimistic are you that this book will make a difference?

Not very. It might cause a little bit of shouting back and forth. In the final analysis, those who say "Koppel is wrong" will probably win because saying that I'm right requires action.

What kind of action?

Meals ready-to-eat, which is the standard government fallback position, are only good for five years. With tens of millions of people without food over an extended period, you'd quickly get into the hundreds of millions of meals ready-to-eat. The government is not going to spend billions of dollars for a warehouse full of food that can't be used after five years. I recommend in the book that we focus more on freeze-dried food, which has a shelf life of 25 to 30 years.

What do you think of the news media today?

Too much of the media looks upon their goal as giving the public what it wants. The television networks do it because they are desperately trying to hold on to an audience, and the way to hold on to an audience is to give it what we think they want to hear. That's not doing democracy any favors.

What are some of the stories that are not covered adequately?

Where do you want to begin? Foreign policy stories, events overseas other than some big explosion that causes a lot of deaths. We're still pretty good at covering stories that have already broken, but not in giving people a heads up as to what's looming. For example, what's going to happen when the water runs out, as it is doing in parts of this country, in many parts of the world? The next war, if there is a war in the traditional sense, is probably going to be over water rights.

You've been married for 50-plus years. What's the secret?

An extremely strong wife. My wife is an exceedingly accomplished woman who was a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford when I met her and got her law degree while raising four children. In my profession, if you're not married to a remarkable human being like that, chances are the marriage won't last.

You come across as a pretty serious guy. What might surprise people about you?

That I'm not a pretty serious guy. I've been going to the same dry cleaners for years, and there are probably better dry cleaners, but they tell good jokes and are an appreciative audience for jokes. Coming up with a new joke makes my day.

Ted Koppel is the author of the upcoming book Lights Out.

Charles Green, a former editor of National Journal, is a freelance writer.