Doomsday preppers or congressional visionaries?
A small but growing cadre of House members is set to relaunch efforts to protect the nation against what they say is a very real threat: the unleashing of an electromagnetic pulse either by a solar storm or a nuclear-armed foe that could cripple much of the nation’s electrical infrastructure.
“I realize there is skepticism, and I understand it’s easy to dismiss this as something coming from people who might go around wearing tinfoil hats,” said Rep. Trent Franks , R-Ariz. , one of the leaders of the little-known bipartisan congressional Electromagnetic Pulse Caucus.
But Franks said that he and other members of the caucus—which has seen its roster grow to at least 18 members from 11 last session—will keep pressing “in a low-key way so as not to try to scare people” to show that the dangers are legitimate. Now is the time to take steps to protect the nation’s electric grid, said Franks, a House Armed Services Committee member who is also cochairman of the 39-member Missile Defense Caucus.
At the top of this effort is the belief that every facet of routine life could be at risk for a short or even long period of time with the disabling of key parts of the nation’s infrastructure. Computers and circuits of homes, hospitals, supermarkets, water-treatment facilities, and banks would be fried; telecommunications and transportation systems would grind to a halt; and public safety and even national security could be compromised.
Some of those concerned envision scenarios in which terrorists or some hostile or rogue state, such as Iran or North Korea, might someday build or acquire and then launch and detonate a nuclear warhead above the United States with the intent of triggering such a devastating electromagnetic pulse.
Aside from such an above-atmosphere detonation of a nuclear bomb to carry out this havoc, there are concerns that electromagnetic energy from a massive geomagnetic storm from the sun or a comet might do the same.
The upshot is that Franks and others believe that the nation’s electrical infrastructure should be “hardened” with protected key circuitry and other equipment against such an EMP burst, which might be likened to a super powerful voltage surge or lightning strike. That would entail making some changes, including installation of strong current blockers, and power producers having backup transformers ready to go.
Both Franks and another leading EMP Caucus member, Rep. Yvette Clark, D-N.Y. , are the organizing cochairs of the upcoming Fourth Annual World Summit on Infrastructure Security to be held May 20-21 in Washington . Clark is the ranking member of the Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee.
But perhaps the most recognized American politician to embrace the view that there is an EMP threat worth worrying about is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He even wrote the forward to a 2009 apocalyptic science-fiction thriller, One Second After, by a friend and sometimes coauthor, William R. Forstchen, about terrorists detonating a high-altitude nuclear bomb over the United States to unleash an electromagnetic pulse that disables the electrical system.
Last year, during weather-related power outages in the Washington area, Gingrich tweeted, “Friend and coauthor bill forstchen notes washington-baltimore blackout mild taste of what an emp (electromagnetic pulse) attack would do.”
But the push for congressional action remains an uphill one, partly because the debate over the urgency remains stuck in a theoretical realm.
Franks’ bill itself quotes directly from the work of a little-publicized government commission, titled “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States From Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.” That congressionally created panel released its executive report in 2004 and a final version in 2008, concluding that the threat of an electromagnetic pulse is very real and that “the current vulnerability of our critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected.”
That commission’s chairman was William Graham, a science adviser to former President Reagan. He also had chaired the Committee on the Strategic Defense Initiative, known also as the “Star Wars” program, intended to develop a sophisticated system to prevent missile attacks from other countries. In his written testimony about the electromagnetic-threat report to the House Armed Services Committee on July 10, 2008, Graham said, “Terrorists or state actors that possess one or a few relatively unsophisticated nuclear-armed missiles may well calculate that, instead of or in addition to destroying a city or military base, they could obtain the greatest economic-political-military utility from conducting an EMP attack.”