The Boogeyman Bomb

How afraid should we be of electromagnetic pulse weapons?

It's a scene fit for a Hollywood movie: A terrorist group launches a nuclear weapon from a ship off the coast of the United States. But instead of directly hitting a city or military installation, it detonates miles above the ground, seemingly causing no damage. Almost instantaneously, the lights darken over a large portion of the United States, cars stop in the middle of the road, and computers go dead. Panic ensues and the nation is soon economically and militarily crippled, sent back to the pre-modern era.

This is the catastrophic scenario depicted in the opening scene of a 1980s-style public service announcement released last year by EMPACT America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "protecting the American People from a nuclear or natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP) catastrophe."

First observed in a 1962 high-altitude nuclear weapons test over the South Pacific, EMP is an intense burst of electromagnetic radiation resulting from a large explosion that can potentially wipe out all unprotected electronics. During the Cold War, strategists worried about EMP primarily as part of a larger nuclear scenario: Military hardware needed to be hardened against the pulses' effects to be able to survive a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

In recent years, however, and particularly after 9/11, EMP has emerged as the latest fear factor-type threat among Washington's doomsday crowd. "A single EMP attack may seriously degrade or shut down a large part of the electric power grid in the geographic area of EMP exposure effectively instantaneously," the congressionally mandated EMP commission concluded in its 2008 report. In recent months, EMP fears have resurfaced as Iran hawks like Newt Gingrich and Daniel Pipes have suggested that the Islamic Republic could use an EMP against the United States.

There have been any number of dire scenarios -- of varying degrees of probability -- that have caught Washington's attention over the years: The threat of nuclear Armageddon drove U.S. policy during the Cold War; "Y2K" led to a national campaign to fix computer bugs; and the threat of terrorist attacks post-9/11 has led to two wars and billions in new spending for intelligence and counterterrorism efforts. Cybersecurity and the concept of a "digital Pearl Harbor" are now gaining traction, with the director of national intelligence warning that cyberattacks could "wreak havoc" on the United States.

One of the most outspoken prophets of EMP doom has been physicist Lowell Wood, the brain behind such Reagan-era Star Wars weapons as Project Excalibur, the plan to create a hydrogen-bomb-pumped X-ray laser to shoot down enemy missiles; and Brilliant Pebbles, the concept of deploying thousands of anti-missile satellites in orbit over the United States. Wood famously called EMP "a continental-scale time machine" in a 1999 hearing to discuss the threat.

"We essentially pick up the continent and move it back in time by about one century," Wood warned. "And you live like our grandfather[s] and great-grandfathers and so on did in the 1890s, until you rebuild. You do without telephones, you do without television, and you do without electric power."

The EMP threat has, so far, not sent Middle America scrambling to the store to stock up on aluminum foil, a potential home defense against the pulses' electronic-frying effect. (Though in this case, the stereotypical conspiracy theorists in tinfoil hats might actually have the right idea.)

But unlike some of the other national security threats on the horizon, the "e-bomb" has emerged as a partisan issue, with a core group of conservative supporters. Gingrich has been among the most outspoken. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) has been one of the most ardent supporters of those pushing for an EMP defense, establishing the investigatory commission, and warning of a catastrophe "on a scale far greater than Hurricane Katrina."

Despite EMPACT's claims of nonpartisanship, liberals have largely dismissed the idea as conservative fear-mongering. EMPs were even derisively labeled "the Newt Bomb" by New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley.

The real debate is not so much over whether EMP is a real phenomenon -- even critics of the commission's findings agree it exists --  but how much of a threat it poses to the nation's infrastructure, how likely it is that a group or country might build and use such a weapon, and what should be done about it.

Philip Coyle, a former top Pentagon official and current nominee for associate director of national security for the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, has in the past criticized some of the EMP defense advocates for exaggerating the capabilities of a potential EMP attack. "The commission deliberately wrote their report the way they did because they wanted to call attention to it; they didn't want it just to get buried and lost," Coyle told me in an interview in 2005. "So, some of this inflammatory language they use about the 'end of life as we know it,' this rhetoric, was to try to get people's interest and attention."

There has long been debate about just how devastating an EMP weapon would be on the United States. After reviewing the possible effects of EMP and comparing it to natural lightning, Mario Rabinowitz of the Electric Power Research Institute wrote back in 1987 that an EMP burst could never take out the entire U.S. power grid. "It would be practically impossible for the EMP to cause widespread damage to the U.S. transmission line system," he concluded. "With the exception of isolated cases, it appears highly unlikely that EMP could produce extensive damage to the U.S. distribution grid."

For critics of the EMP threat, the problems with the e-bomb are both practical and technical. If a country has the capability to launch a nuclear bomb that could wreak immediate massive devastation, why settle for something that would merely shut the lights out? The argument, according to EMP-defense advocates, is that terrorists or rogue states might prefer to attack with an EMP weapon because it hits at the United States's most vulnerable point -- its infrastructure -- while reducing the threat of nuclear retaliation. "EMPs could be used to circumvent America's superior con­ventional military power while reducing vulnerabil­ity to retaliation in kind," Jena Baker McNeill and Richard Weitz argued in a Heritage Foundation paper.

Similarly, as in the case of EMPACT's scenario, rogue states might choose to provide an EMP weapon to a terrorist group, thus making attribution all the more difficult, if not impossible.

Therein lies part of the problem. Yousaf Butt, a staff scientist in the High Energy Astrophysics Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, argued persuasively in a recent article for The Space Review that under this scenario -- an attack from a rogue state or terrorist group -- it is unlikely that an EMP weapon could wreak total havoc. (Ironically, Butt has some common ground with those arguing for EMP defenses; he agrees that geomagnetic storms pose a similar threat and is in favor of hardening the grid to protect against them.)

If the primary threat is from a crudely constructed EMP weapon launched from a Scud-type missile, that sort of weapon wouldn't have nearly the capabilities needed to take out U.S. infrastructure, he argues. Butt estimates that such a device, with a one-kiloton yield, would have to be launched much lower in the atmosphere, and thus would have more localized effects. "Serious long-lasting consequences of a one-kiloton EMP strike would likely be limited to a state-sized region of the country," he writes.

True, an EMP that affected even a single state would be, no doubt, traumatic and disruptive, but it would also be recoverable, and more importantly, fall far short of a "continental-scale time machine."

In the end, advocates for EMP preparation could end up being their own worst enemy. The unlikely scenarios they peddle lend themselves to caricature. And though there are certainly some intellectual heavyweights among those who have warned about the effects of EMP -- like Johnny Foster, the former head of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- critics have derided EMP defense supporters for relying on the likes of science fiction writer William R. Forstchen to help bolster their case.

By talking about "time machines" and turning the EMP bomb into something that goes bump in the night, those advocating for better defenses risk pushing the issue further into the margins of science fiction.

Image: Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack


Is Barack Obama More AIPAC Than J Street?

The U.S. president is showing that he's hardly a leftist ideologue when it comes to Middle East peace -- and Israelis are starting to notice.

Anxiety about Barack Obama has afflicted Israelis since his meteoric rise to the White House. Here was an untested president, one whose agenda in the Middle East could only be imagined. Would Obama's America be Israel's lifeline in a dangerous and often hostile world? Or would this American president experiment with mistaken or even unfriendly ideas that could wreak havoc for Israeli security?

Israeli anxiety was particularly visible in the circle around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took office two months after Obama in March 2009. The new prime minister and his aides were hearing a stream of worrying reports from Republican friends in the United States, some of whom who painted Obama as a closet Marxist or a confirmed radical with Muslim roots pursuing a Third World leftist agenda. Would Obama waste precious time chasing illusory "openings" for engagement with Iran while the Islamic Republic completed its final sprint to nuclear weapons? Would Obama be open to the dangerous advice of the pressure-on-Israel crowd and try to impose unacceptable terms for a Palestinian state, terms that the Israeli public and national security leadership believe would lead Israel to war and insecurity, not peace? Would he cluelessly undermine the broader strategic balance on which Israeli and regional security depends?

Israel's anxieties deepened in May 2009. Barely eight weeks after Netanyahu took office, Obama turned global attention to the most divisive issue in the U.S.-Israel relationship: Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell announced loudly that Obama wanted a total freeze on construction of Jewish homes, even in Jerusalem, and that Obama did not consider himself bound by earlier compromises about settlement issues.

Many Israelis, even some who despise the settlements, saw this heavy-handed approach as artless at best, if not downright antagonistic. The episode reinforced the perception that Obama was naïve about the Middle East and easily swayed by the left -- a decision-maker who could be erratic, unpredictable, and dangerous. A theory emerged that placed much of the blame on White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Advisor David Axelrod, two American Jews from Chicago. Some of Netanyahu's people painted them as devotees of the strain of Middle East diplomacy that views Israel as the obstacle to peace.

Various acolytes of the American Democratic left, occasionally presenting themselves as representing the true Obama worldview only intensified the impression that Obama's team was unsympathetic to Israel. One after another argued that if only Obama acted to coerce Israel into accepting some perfectly reasonable agreements such as replacing Israeli security personnel in the West Bank with international peacekeepers, peace would be possible.

J Street advisor and former Council on Foreign Relations fellow Henry Siegman, for example, wrote that Israel is no longer a true democracy but an "apartheid regime" under "the influence of Israel's settler-security-industrial complex" that wants to "retain Israeli control of Palestine from the river to the sea." America's "special relationship with Israel is sustaining a colonial enterprise." But "President Obama is uniquely positioned to help Israel reclaim Jewish and democratic ideals on which the state was founded." This will, of course, require "forceful outside intervention." M.J. Rosenberg, formerly of the Israel Policy Forum, wrote that, "No matter who heads Israel's ... government, it is President Barack Obama who holds 51 cards in the deck." FP contributor Stephen M. Walt added, "Unless the U.S. president is willing and able to push Israel ... peace will simply not happen."

This chorus of voices from the Democratic left strengthened the impression in Israel that Obama, or at least some of his top officials, must agree. However, over the past 12 months, some counterevidence has begun to suggest that Obama and his top advisors are not in fact believers in the catechism of the ideological left.

Yes, Obama is drawing down in Iraq, as he pledged in his campaign. But this is a policy embraced by many in the center, not just the left. At the same time, he is greatly increasing the deployment of American soldiers in Afghanistan from 38,000 to 100,000.

Another important part of progressives' agenda is to cut what they saw as bloated budgets for national security, redirecting allocations to underfunded domestic programs. But Obama has rejected this advice and instead increased the Bush defense budget from $513 billion in fiscal year 2009 to $537 billion for fiscal year 2010 and $549 for 2011. If defense budgets are one of the best indicators of the direction of policy, Obama's defense budgets mark him as no leftist.

Another key indicator of foreign policy direction is a president's willingness to accept human life costs for national security goals. Obama is putting American soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, and he seems to accept that some level of civilian casualties is a regrettable but unavoidable reality if global security objectives are to be achieved. Obama has greatly increased drone strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan, undeterred by frequent reports of civilian casualties. In December, the president personally issued the order for U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, killing 35 suspected Al Qaeda agents but also, collaterally, dozens of civilians.

Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a form of encouragement by European liberals. But his Dec. 10 Nobel acceptance speech could have been written by a conservative: "Nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified," he said in Oslo.

On issues that touch Israel more directly, Obama's choices actually align him more closely with Israel than with his progressive colleagues. Many on the left continue to believe that the United States has not made a good-faith effort at diplomatic outreach toward Iran. But Obama said on Feb. 9, "We have bent over backward to say to the Islamic Republic of Iran that we are willing to have a constructive conversation.... We gave them an offer.... They rejected it.... They in fact continue to pursue a course that would lead to [nuclear] weapons." The intelligence community is producing a new National Intelligence Estimate reportedly assessing a much greater threat from Iran than the 2007 document.

On Israeli-Palestinian issues, Obama and his team have changed the pitch, if not the words to the song, after his initial stumble on the settlements freeze. He has, to the consternation of the J Street left, accepted Netanyahu's compromise and moved on. Mitchell said on Nov. 25, "We believe the steps [toward a partial settlements freeze] announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact." In a Jan. 7 interview with Charlie Rose, Mitchell said, "The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in or construction in East Jerusalem. They don't regard that as a settlement because they think it's part of Israel." Mitchell had the unusual task of explaining to European allies on Jan. 12 why it is unrealistic to expect a freeze on construction in Jerusalem -- a freeze that he himself had demanded just months earlier.

Obama is also unyielding in the face of demands that he open relations with Hamas. He says this would undermine the peace process as long as Hamas continues to reject the existence of Israel, and it would undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. And he is striking a more realistic general tone about the prospects for radical change in the region. In an interview with Time on Jan. 21, he said, "If we had anticipated some of [the] political problems [in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations earlier] we might not have raised expectations as high."

In a series of recent statements, Obama has tried repeatedly to define himself as a man of the center, not the left. At a Jan. 29 meeting with House Republicans, he maintained, "I am not an ideologue." In a Feb. 9 interview with Bloomberg News, he said he is pursuing a "fundamentally business-friendly" agenda and is a "fierce advocate" for the free market. "The irony is that on the left we are perceived as being in the pockets of big business; and then on the business side, we are perceived as being anti-business."

The lesson Obama and his key advisers took from the Jan. 19 Republican upset victory in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race is very different from the one that is popular among progressives. MoveOn and two allied groups commissioned a poll to show that Massachusetts voters actually wanted a stronger health-care bill than the one Obama was supporting. But Emanuel and Axelrod paid more attention to the fact that the independents and swing voters who voted for Obama in 2008 deserted him in droves, including suburban union members who also helped Republicans win formerly Democratic offices in New Jersey and Virginia. The Obama team is worried that independents and Democratic centrists are fleeing to the GOP. It is not the progressives that they want to woo.

Meanwhile, on the unhappy left, many now think that Obama merely postured as a progressive candidate in 2008 to outflank Clinton in the Democratic primaries. The Nation says he was never "a movement Progressive the way Reagan was a movement Conservative." Emanuel is the new whipping boy for many on the left, who say he cares more about the imperiled reelection prospects of "Blue Dog" Democrats in Congress than he does about scoring policy victories for the progressive agenda.

Of course, this could all be tactical, and not the true measure of Obama's ultimate intentions. But, at least for the moment, the anxiety in Israel is subsiding, and people are taking a more positive view of this president than they did a year ago.