Did President Biden start breaking his promise to reduce America’s reliance on dangerous foreign suppliers of critical goods on his very first day in office? It sure looks that way, judging from his January 20 executive order that included suspending a Trump administration directive last May barring U.S. government or private sector acquisitions of equipment used for the nation’s bulk power system (BPS) that comes from “persons owned by, controlled by, or subject to the jurisdiction or direction of a foreign adversary” and that pose “an undue risk of sabotage to or subversion….”
The idea behind the Trump order was clear and shouldn’t be the slightest bit controversial. The BPS, as it noted, “provides the electricity that supports our national defense, vital emergency services, critical infrastructure, economy, and way of life.” In other words, it’s the nation’s electric power grid.
Therefore, the use of any inputs to this system that originate from hostile or otherwise unreliable countries exposes these power networks to “malicious cyber activities” and other threats (e.g., faulty goods whose malfunction or failure could produce major breakdowns and supply interruptions). And of course, even though it wasn’t explicitly stated, the main concerns centered on equipment produced in China.
The new Trump policy was still a work in progress, as it recognized that the Secretary of Energy and the heads of other relevant federal agencies needed to determine which products and transactions satisfied these criteria, and figure out how to monitor or replace potentially worrisome products that have been installed already.
But this work was cut off, for 90 days, by Mr. Biden’s Inauguration Day order suspending a wide variety of Trump administration executive actions that may fail to:
“listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”
Whatever you think of these goals, it’s difficult to understand why an administration that claims to be determined to improve the security of such critical systems and therefore their supply chains would single out the BPS executive order for suspension. Why couldn’t it be kept in effect while its consistency with the above objectives was being studied?
Sure, the new President can ultimately decide to keep the BPS order in place, including in full. But for now, the only certain impact of outright suspension is to permit BPS agencies and companies to keep buying products that may cause problems in the future, and thereby make the task of of finding and eliminating vulnerabilities that much harder.
In this vein, it was good to see a reporter ask White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on January 25 why her boss made this decision “especially related to something so critical to our national security as the power grid?” Psaki said she would “check on that specific piece, and we’ll — we’ll circle back with you directly.” Clearly it’s time for a follow-up question and a real answer.