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The Next Fake Threat

A congressionally-mandated commission with ties to the defense industry is pushing a fake threat -- electromagnetic pulse attacks -- when the Pentagon can hardly conduct one itself.
 
 
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Cars won't start. The electricity and phone lines go out. Electronic devices have their circuits fried. When the aliens first appear in this summer's remake of the 1950s sci-fi flick War of the Worlds , they are accompanied by an intense electrical storm that generates what is known as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Of course, the aliens then proceed to wreak further havoc slaughtering humans from their towering, spider-like machines.

However, EMP itself is not science fiction. A congressionally-mandated commission last summer went public with their unclassified executive summary that envisions terrorists detonating a nuclear warhead above the continental United States, unleashing an EMP of catastrophic proportions and thrusting our 21st century information society into darkness. Their report's main recommendation is to spend anywhere from $20-200 billion in the next twenty years to "harden" America's critical infrastructure (e.g. the power industry, telecommunications) from EMP.

Another one of their recommendations is that the United States should "have vigorous interdiction and interception efforts to thwart delivery." Acting Commission Chairman physicist Lowell Wood confirmed that the recommendation included a national missile defense. As the Commission argues, one missile could shut-down the entire United States, which is a powerful argument for missile defense.

The members of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (EMP Commission) have impressive credentials, yet they are also deeply tangled up with pro-missile defense organizations and the defense industry. Given their conflicts of interest and the controversial assumptions behind their report, questions about their credibility arise. Is the EMP Commission's scenario realistic or is it scare mongering to rally support for a pro-missile defense agenda?

According to Charles Ferguson, a nuclear terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, terrorists would have trouble obtaining a nuclear weapon or the fissile material needed. Moreover, terrorists would likely use simple delivery means like a truck and just blow up a city to produce mass casualties, rather than launching a warhead into the sky hoping to produce EMP. (The EMP Commission vastly understates the price of a SCUD missile, which they tout as a possible delivery means. They have publicly stated that SCUDs can be purchased for $100,000. Steve Zaloga, a missile expert at the Teal Corporation, a defense consulting firm, says for a working model it would cost at least $1 million, and more for the launch system.)

The Commission has also spotlighted Iran as contemplating an EMP attack on the United States. Before Congress, EMP Commission senior staff member and ex-CIA analyst Peter Pry refers to an Iranian political military journal article translated by the CIA to support this allegation. He employs ellipses in an artful, but deceitful way to weave together quotes from this article. Problem is that this journal article doesn't mention EMP or nuclear weapons at all. It discusses attacks on communications, but by computer attacks, not by EMP -- a blatant misuse of documentation to support the EMP Commission's case.

Perhaps the most controversial of the EMP Commission's claims is their insistence that a Hiroshima-sized nuclear detonation (10-20 kilotons) could produce enough EMP to fry circuits across a continent. The EMP Commission points to one of the few case studies available -- the Starfish Prime atmospheric nuclear test of 1962. A 1.4 megaton thermonuclear weapon detonated 250 miles above Johnston Island in the Pacific affected street lamps, circuit breakers, cars and radio stations in Hawaiian, 800 miles to the north. Still, even there the effect was far from comprehensive. Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Michael P. Bernardin said that "the 30 strings of failed streetlights [from Starfish Prime's EMP] represented only about one percent of the streetlamps on Oahu at the time." And noted physicist Richard Garwin said the Starfish detonation "had barely noticeable effects on military systems."

But Starfish Prime was a thermonuclear device with a yield over a hundred times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Experts including Garwin and Philip Coyle, former Pentagon director of operational test and evaluation, have expressed skepticism about the EMP Commission's claim that a 10-20 kiloton nuclear device could produce EMP on par with that of a thermonuclear weapon. Both have extensive experience studying EMP.

Coyle has written that even "the U.S. military does not know how to [create thermonuclear-scale EMP from a Hiroshima-sized weapon] today, and has no way of demonstrating the capability in the future without returning to nuclear testing," he said by e-mail to Global Security Newswire . When the United States does not have this ability, needless to say, it's unlikely that terrorist or "rogue" states could easily accomplish such a technological feat. Coyle also wrote in July, 2004 that the Commission's report seems to "extrapolate calculations of extreme weapons effects as if they were a proven fact, and further to puff up rogue nations and terrorists with the capabilities of giants."

Commission member Lowell Wood refused to answer questions on whether rogue states or terrorists could possibly build Super-EMP devices. "You seriously don't expect answers in an unclassified [setting] to those sorts of questions?" he asked in the Newswire e-mail. What isn't classified, however, are the numerous ties between the EMP Commission, pro-missile defense groups and the defense industry. The International Relations Center, a left-leaning organization that tracks the right wing, has even gone as far as saying that EMP Commission chairman William R. Graham "personifies the military-industrial complex." Graham is the former science advisor to and director of President Reagan's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Besides current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Graham was the only other person to be involved in both Rumsfeld Commissions, which explored the threat to the United States from ballistic missiles and in space. Both EMP Commission reports have echoed the alarmism used to justify missile defense and the proposed militarization of space supported by right-wing think tanks like the Center for Security Policy. (CSP is funded, in part, by missile defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, TRW, and others, according to a July 2002 report by the World Policy Institute.)

It also happens that Graham and his supporters in Congress, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., are all members of the Center for Security Policy's National Security Advisory Council. Last March, Kyl raised the specter of EMP by holding a hearing and writing an eyebrow-raising op-ed for the Washington Post on the subject. Although Weldon didn't become chair of the House Homeland Security Committee last week, he was touting a classified memo Rumsfeld wrote on Weldon's efforts on EMP to try and support his campaign for the position, according to The Hill newspaper. CSP President Frank Gaffney Jr. has been communicating the EMP Commission's stance to papers such as the Dallas Morning News .

Other connections to Graham include Charles Kupperman. Kupperman is Vice President of Strategic Integration and Operations at Boeing's Missile Defense Systems division. Kupperman, Graham and Professor William Van Cleave all taught at Southwest Missouri State University's defense studies department. They are also on the CSP National Security Advisory Council and the board of advisors to pro-missile defense think tank the National Institute of Public Policy.

Kupperman also worked for Graham at Xsirius Superconductivity for the Missile Defense Agency in the 1990s. Because he was chairman of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (renamed the Ballistic Missle Defense Organization under President Clinton) at the time, he faced questions about conflicts of interest. In 1991, Graham told the Los Angeles Business Journal that "We [at Xsirius] don't do any SDI work, and I'm certainly excluded from any role, or from gaining any information for us."

But this isn't the only time Graham has been misleading about profiting from policies he's helped craft. Aside from sitting on the board of directors of companies like Swales Aerospace that have recently won Missile Defense Agency contracts, Graham has been president and CEO of a small, but thriving company called National Security Research, Inc. (NSR) since 1997.

In October 1999, Graham testified before the House Armed Services Committee on the threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. In a statement, in accordance with House rules, Graham said that he had "not received any Federal grants, subgrants thereof, contracts, or subcontracts thereof during the current fiscal year or the two previous fiscal years, and he does not represent any entity in his appearance today before the House of Representatives." Yet, in National Security Research received part of a $250 million GSA contract "to protect the nation's critical infrastructure against physical and cyber attack," as reported by Federal Times in April 1999. Intentionally or not, Graham violated a House rule.

But overall, NSR is not shy about advertising its tight connections with the Pentagon and Congress. More recently, NSR has won missile defense contracts. On its website, National Security Research announced "that it is part of the winning SPARTA Team to provide Scientific Engineering and Technical Assistance (SETA) support to the Missile Defense Agency's Battle Management/Command and Control Directorate (MDA/BC). ... The task order started on July 1st 2005."

NSR was profiled in the March small business newsletter of the Missile Defense Agency. It seems that Graham isn't just borrowed to work on congressional commissions, but that he makes it his business as well. From the MDA newsletter:

NSR senior staff members under Dr. Graham's leadership continue to be involved with seminal, high-level advisory groups and congressionally mandated commissions influential in the development of missile defense policy and planning, architectures and technical concepts, and threat and countermeasure assessments including:

  • The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States;
  • The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization; and,
  • The Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.

It should be troubling that a private company with a profit motive is influencing public policy on questions of scientific and technical complexity, while national laboratories like Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore may have been left out. According to a July 2004 news clip in the newsletter Space Security Update , published by the non-partisan Center for Defense Information, "It is unclear, however, that the commission's calculations of the nuclear design work behind the EMPs postulated in their study have been properly scientifically peer reviewed -- for example, by the nation's nuclear laboratories."

The EMP Commission is a case study in the revolving door between industry, pro-industry non-profits and the Pentagon. Of course, incorporating persons with niche expertise from industry can be a good thing; and experts' affiliations with agenda-driven organizations do not have to affect their analysis. But at the very least, questions can and should be raised about the integrity of their conclusions and the analysis.

In a world where anything can be a threat, and where only limited resources are available to us, the public needs its government to provide assessments and actions unclouded by parochial interests.

Nick Schwellenbach is an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight .