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Neocons Salivating Over Their Next Great Exaggerated "Threat": Electromagnetic Pulse Attack

A diverse array of rightwing factions have united behind the effort to promote the EMP threat thesis.

Last month, Christian conservatives’ favorite presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee, headlined a national conference in Niagara, New York, titled “Protecting America Against Permanent Continental Shutdown From Electromagnetic Pulse.”

Sponsored by EMPACT America, an organization allied with several leading rightwing advocacy groups, the conference drew some 800 people who came to hear about what organizers regard as a growing threat to the United States: an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that allegedly could destroy much of the country’s infrastructure and send it back to the 19th century. The conference represents the latest step in the effort to hype the supposed menace of EMP, as well as yet another angle on the purportedly diverse array of threats posed by “rogue” states like Iran and North Korea and transnational terrorist groups.

Also addressing the conference via video feed were Republican heavyhitter Newt Gingrich and conservative Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), who has been one of Congress’ loudest advocates of EMP awareness.

Despite the conference’s association with prominent Republicans, however, this quixotic threat-mongering project has yet to gain traction with the broader public.

Origins of the EMP Campaign

Electromagnetic pulse results from a nuclear detonation, and under certain conditions, it can damage electronic equipment in a wide radius from the blast. The EMP effect was first discovered in 1962, when an aerial nuclear weapon test over the Pacific Ocean affected electronic equipment in Hawaii. High-altitude nuclear detonations release gamma rays, which interact with air molecules to create an energy field that disrupts electronic equipment. At a high enough altitude, an EMP could affect a wide area. The resultant damage, it was believed, might in wartime sever command and communication links between military assets, as well as do significant harm to the civilian infrastructure and economy. The U.S. military took the threat of EMP seriously, and began in the 1960s to harden and shield its electronic equipment from such a blast.

Along with their Soviet and Chinese counterparts, U.S. military planners and scientists studied the potential dangers—and opportunities—presented by EMP. However, since only one nation, the United States, has ever attacked another country with an atomic bomb, the precise extent of EMP’s power to damage electronic-dependent infrastructures is not fully understood. Testing bans have also prevented the established nuclear powers from fully investigating the EMP effect (prompting some EMP awareness activists to argue for a resumption of nuclear testing).

Attention to EMPs waned with the end of the Cold War, and the apparent reduction of the Soviet nuclear threat. However, some influential figures still tried to keep the flame alive. In 1997, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) convened a Congressional hearing on the threat that an EMP attack presented to the United States. Minimal action resulted, but the 9/11 attacks helped spark a new wave of interest, and in 2001 Rep. Bartlett led a Congressional effort to create the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. In 2004, the commission’s first report on EMP preparedness concluded that the United States was vulnerable, and that the government should take steps to protect commercial electronics and expand missile defense.

A Network of Hawks

The EMPACT conference revealed the diverse array of rightwing factions that have united behind the effort to promote the EMP threat thesis. For example, several panels at the conference were led by missile-defense enthusiasts closely associated with neoconservatism, notably Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. Other presenters with a rightist ideological bent included Brigitte Gabriel and Guy Rodgers from Act for America, a hardline advocacy group preoccupied with “Islamofascism”; and Larry Greenfield from the rightwing Claremont Institute, which promotes “multi-layered” missile defense via a website called

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