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The White House’s Approach to the Colonial Pipeline Is Baffling

Holding tanks at Colonial Pipeline’s Linden Junction Tank Farm in Woodbridge, N.J., May 10, 2021 (Hussein Waaile/Reuters)

Sometimes I’m left unsure as to what progressives believe the government is for. In response to the news that the key energy pipeline on the East Coast had been hacked, the White House said this:

Earlier Monday, White House national security officials described the attack as financially motivated in nature. Biden administration officials, however, would not say if Colonial Pipeline agreed to pay the ransom.

“Typically that’s a private sector decision,” Anne Neuberger, deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technologies, told reporters at the White House when asked about the ransom payment.

“We recognize that victims of cyberattacks often face a very difficult situation and they have to just balance often the cost-benefit when they have no choice with regards to paying a ransom. Colonial is a private company and we’ll defer information regarding their decision on paying a ransom to them,” Neuberger said.

Really? I’m one of those guys who thinks that government should do very little — especially the federal government, which I think should do almost nothing. But in what universe is this primarily a “private sector decision”? And in what universe does the Biden administration, which seems to want pretty much every aspect of American life to fall under the purview of the state, believe that ransom demands made against core energy infrastructure is outside of its remit?

The Colonial pipeline, which runs through twelve states, is, by definition, a matter of “interstate commerce” — and it would have been perceived as such long before the New Deal redefined that term into open-ended meaninglessness (see: Gibbons v. Ogden). The pipeline is also extremely important. It supplies nearly half of the fuel that states on the East Coast use for driving and flying, and it is hooked up to a number of crucial airports, including the nation’s busiest, Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta (air travel is another intrinsically interstate concern). There can be no doubt about the federal government’s regulatory jurisdiction here, nor any doubt that it has an interest in keeping the pipeline safe. In addition, there are national security implications — and real ones, for once, rather than the usual “tax policy is a national security issue” guff to which we’re treated whenever politicians don’t get their own way.

This being so, one has to wonder why on earth the administration would be content to leave the issue to Colonial? Hacking, damaging interstate infrastructure, and demanding ransoms are all illegal under federal law — yes, even when the perpetrator is within the United States. Indeed, it is to step in when such eventualities arise that we have a federal government in the first place. If a person is kidnapped, the relevant authorities do not say, “well, families are private, so I guess we’ll just leave the cost-benefit balance to the parents.” If a train or steamboat is hijacked, the relevant authorities do not say, “well, the operators are privately owned, so I guess we’ll just leave the cost-benefit balance to the board.” They take over the response. So it should be here.

At the very least, the White House needs to work on its messaging. The administration has waived some transportation rules in order to help alleviate the resultant shortages, and it has now “convened the inter-agency principals leading the administration’s whole of government response.” But the nonchalance with which it has discussed the incident from the outset is jarring given that the president is currently trying to convince voters to let him spend two trillion dollars on . . . well, infrastructure. Thus far, Biden’s push has mostly taken the form of recasting anything that has ever been given a name as “infrastructure,” and then insisting that it is crucial to the nation’s future. And yet here we are, with a real infrastructure problem — a problem that is about as infrastructure-y as infrastructure gets — and his staff seem content to sound like Murray Rothbard.

Weird.

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