The Fear Factor

A new film aims to be the Inconvenient Truth for the nuclear danger. But is terrifying people the only way to get the message across?

Just after 2:26 a.m., on June 3, 1980, computer screens at the command post of the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska suddenly indicated that two submarine-launched ballistic missiles were headed toward the United States. Eighteen seconds after the first signals, the displays showed even more launches. The duty commander ordered B-52 and FB-111 bomber pilots to their planes and told them to start their engines.

The duty officers checked with the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado, which mans the satellites and radars that monitor North American airspace. At this moment, the NORAD command said the radars and satellites showed no incoming missiles. Then the Strategic Air Command screens also cleared, showing no threats. The pilots were told to shut down their engines, but remain in their planes.

After a brief period, the Strategic Air Command warning display again lit up, this time showing that intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched toward the United States. And soon after that, a similar warning appeared on the screens of the Pentagon's National Military Command Center in Washington, D.C. The duty officers in each location suspected the warning was in error. In the Pentagon command center, a threat assessment conference was called, and all locations were then assured that there were no real signs of missile attack. The pilots returned to their barracks. The alert was ended.

But what happened? Three days later, on June 6, 1980, at 3:38 p.m., the same error occurred again. Again, no missiles were seen by satellites and radar, only on the NORAD data link.

It turned out the false alarm had been caused by the failure of a computer chip in one of NORAD's communications devices. The peacetime message was supposed to continuously broadcast the digits 000, indicating there were no attacking missiles. The failed chip began inserting random 2s into the message, so it came out showing that 200 or 2,000 missiles were in flight. The chip was about the size of a dime and cost 46 cents.

This is just one of the harrowing tales of the nuclear age thrust back into the limelight this summer in a new documentary film, Countdown to Zero, which opens in theaters July 23. The 91-minute film, written and directed by Lucy Walker and produced by Lawrence Bender, is intended to startle us out of complacency about nuclear dangers. It is a cauldron of stark, unsettling scenes, ending with an appeal for the Global Zero movement to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

The 1980 incident has long been known, but there is still something surprising about it, perhaps because it so vividly captures the tense, hair-trigger mentality of the Cold War. In the film, the episode is recalled by Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute in Washington, who served as a launch officer for Minuteman missiles in the 1970s and is an executive producer of the film. The false alarm, he says, led to "eight minutes of nuclear-launch preparations that were triggered by a malfunctioning computer chip that costs less than a dollar."

Countdown is full of such moments. Atomic bombs fall off airplanes by mistake; desperate men peddle uranium across borders; nuclear-weapons technology is spread by master proliferator A.Q. Khan of Pakistan. Perhaps the most unsettling and still little-understood episode was the launch of a four-stage rocket, Black Brant, from Norway as part of a scientific experiment on the morning of Jan. 25, 1995. The launch triggered confusion in the Kremlin about whether it was an intercontinental ballistic missile attack. The paperwork announcing the planned rocket launch got lost. When radars spotted the rocket and reported up the chain of command, it was considered serious enough to trigger the first-ever use of the nuclear briefcase by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin was not at this point close to issuing a launch order; the most he could have done would have been to authorize a possible launch later if the attack proved real. We don't know much about what Yeltsin said in those minutes when the briefcase was opened. Did he panic, or keep his cool? But it became evident soon enough that the rocket was headed toward the North Pole. It was not an intercontinental ballistic missile, nor was it aimed at Moscow. Twenty-two minutes after the launch, it splashed into the ocean. Yeltsin took no action.

Moments like this need no embellishment. The evidence of nuclear peril is, by itself, jolting enough. But Countdown adds a dose of hype. In the Norwegian rocket episode, for example, the audience is told that "according to Russian military doctrine, Boris Yeltsin should have launched all-out nuclear attack on the United States that morning. We don't know what happened in the Kremlin. All we know is that he didn't." True, during the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States relied on a hair-trigger concept known as "launch on warning," which might have led to a decision to retaliate based on signs of an incoming attack. But the Norwegian rocket was launched three years after the Soviet collapse, and it is not at all certain that Yeltsin should have responded with an order to attack the United States. Whatever his other failings, Yeltsin did the right thing.

In making a film that seeks to galvanize support for a cause -- the elimination of all nuclear weapons -- the creators of Countdown realized that they needed to stimulate a sense of urgency and anxiety, and there is no hotter button today than the fear of terrorism. The film opens with familiar yet haunting images of terrorist attacks around the world in the last decade: buildings, glass, and concrete crumpled from New York to Mumbai. For all the emotional freight these images convey, however, none of the blasts involved a nuclear device. Having grabbed our attention, the film shifts immediately to the hypothetical. A voice says there is "no doubt in my mind that if terrorists had acquired a nuclear weapon they would not have hesitated to use it. So I guess the question is: Could they ever get one?"

Could they? The answer provided by Countdown is yes. The film argues that highly enriched uranium could be easily smuggled into the United States through seaports, shielded in a lead pipe and buried in a shipping container. The design of a crude bomb is no longer secret. The film suggests that building a bomb is not rocket science.

But audiences will surely wonder: If it is so easy, why have we been spared nuclear terror? Why have more than six decades passed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki without a nuclear weapon again being used in war? Countdown leaves us hanging on these questions. The documentary would have been stronger if it had faced them squarely, perhaps offering a tip of the hat to deterrence during the Cold War. Instead, the filmmakers have rung all the alarms without addressing why we have survived so long without catastrophe.

The strongest part of Countdown is the focus on individuals in the great drama of nuclear danger. Blair recalls how a 12-digit code was supposed to be set for the Minuteman nuclear missiles in the 1970s to prevent unauthorized fiddling with the launch controls. But, he says, the Strategic Air Command didn't want the extra trouble, so they set all the codes at zero. Matthew Bunn of Harvard University, who annually compiles a detailed report on nuclear security around the globe, tells of Russians who broke into a toolshed on a naval base trying to steal nuclear fuel rods, and he quotes a military prosecutor as saying "potatoes were guarded better." We hear from two men accused of nuclear smuggling in Russia and Georgia. One of them, a worker at Luch, a fuel fabrication facility, skimmed off a kilo and a half of highly enriched uranium, taking small amounts each day so no one would notice. Why did he do it? He needed money for a new refrigerator and a gas stove. "I wanted to buy a few essentials, then work honestly," he says.

Perhaps the supreme example of individual vision and political daring came when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan almost reached agreement on eliminating nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit in October 1986. Gorbachev says in the film that he looks back at this lost opportunity in sadness. "In Reykjavik, we truly opened the door and peeked beyond the horizon," he says.

The makers of this documentary hope to do for nuclear danger what An Inconvenient Truth did for global climate change. Bender also produced An Inconvenient Truth, and both films were backed by Participant Media, the production company founded by Jeff Skoll, which attempts to build social action around its films.

In Countdown, the imagery and soundtrack hammer relentlessly at nuclear peril. But the film only briefly touches upon remedies, at the very end: taking missiles off launch-ready alert, establishing a joint warning center with Moscow, sharing nuclear safeguards, and phased reductions in remaining arsenals. At the close, the audience is urged: "Demand zero."

It feels good, but is simplistic. There are still 23,000 nuclear weapons, 95 percent held by the United States and Russia. The film should have devoted a few more minutes to the complex and long-overdue business of reducing these arsenals. The U.S. Senate will soon have an important debate about one aspect of it: the new strategic arms treaty with Russia. Perhaps it is not the stuff of entertainment: nuclear doctrines, policy, negotiations, verification, science, and diplomacy. But those who feel a jolt from Countdown will realize, hopefully, that the answer to nuclear dangers is not as simple as just demanding zero. That's the finish line, but getting there is extremely difficult. Just look at how much fright and worry accumulated in the first six decades of the nuclear age. Many people devoted their lives to reining in the danger, and it is still with us, filling up our theater screen and making us feel uncomfortable.

Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


These People Don't Agree on Anything!

I read 627 pages of Gaza war reports so you don't have to.

For three weeks in the winter of 2008 to 2009, Israel assaulted the Gaza Strip and went after the Hamas operatives who rule the area. But the military struggle, code-named Operation Cast Lead, would become a mere prelude for the drawn-out political and legal struggle to follow.

In September 2009, the U.N. Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission, led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, released a scathing report accusing Israel of violating humanitarian law in its attack -- in essence, not merely targeting the Hamas militants who threatened Israel, but practicing a form of collective punishment against all Palestinians living in Gaza. The report found that the actions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) "constitute[s] grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of willful killings and willfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility."

The report's findings stoked outrage in the Arab world, threatened to isolate Israeli internationally -- and raised the specter of prosecution in foreign criminal courts for some of Israel's leading politicians. Benjamin Netanyahu's government reacted with equal anger, accusing its critics of distorting the record of the Israeli armed forces and of bias against the Jewish people. Defense Minister Ehud Barak referred to the report as "false, distorted, and irresponsible," while Information Minister Yuli Edelstein described it as "simply a type of anti-Semitism."

On Jan. 29, the Israeli government fired back with a comprehensive defense of its conduct during Operation Cast Lead. On virtually every aspect of the Gaza war -- including Israeli intentions, the efficacy of Israel's own investigations, and specific events that occurred during the war -- these two competing reports paint a picture of conflicts that are essentially unrecognizable from each other. Here's a guide to the most explosive disagreements between the two documents.


The Use of White Phosphorous

White phosphorous is a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air, burning fiercely. Used as an incendiary weapon, white phosphorous sticks to clothes and skin and causes gruesome chemical burns. However, the substance also quickly creates a smokescreen. For this reason, it is favored by armies, including the IDF, for concealing their armored units from enemy anti-tank teams. The Goldstone report accuses Israel of using white phosphorous munitions with a reckless disregard for the civilian population in Gaza; Israel insists that it only used white phosphorous to shield ground units from attack.


  • [T]he Mission, while accepting that white phosphorous is not at this stage proscribed under international law, finds that the Israeli armed forces were systematically reckless in determining its use in built-up areas. Moreover, doctors who treated patients with white phosphorous wounds spoke about the severity and sometimes untreatable nature of the burns caused by the substance. The Mission believes that serious consideration should be given to banning the use of white phosphorous in built-up areas.
  • On 15 January 2009, the UNRWA field office compound in Gaza City came under shelling with high explosive and white phosphorous munitions. The Mission notes that the attack was extremely dangerous, as the compound offered shelter to between 600 and 700 civilians and contained a huge fuel depot. The Israeli forces continued the attack over several hours in spite of having been fully alerted to the risks they created.


  • With respect to smoke projectiles, the Military Advocate General found that international law does not prohibit use of smoke projectiles containing phosphorous. Specifically, such projectiles are not 'incendiary weapons.'
  • The Military Advocate General further determined that during the Gaza Operation, the IDF used such smoke projectiles for military purposes only, for instance to camouflage IDF armor forces from Hamas's anti-tank units by creating smoke screens.


Al-Bader Flour Mill

As Israeli ground forces moved into Gaza, they attempted to surround the Shati refugee camp in the northern part of the disputed territory. Edging closer to the camp, they fought Hamas militants near the al-Bader flour mill, Gaza's only operational flour mill at the time. Key details about the assault are disputed: The Goldstone report states that the Israeli Air Force purposefully destroyed key machinery within the factory, whereas the Israeli government says that, despite its intentions to leave the flour mill unharmed, it was hit by tank shells during the fierce fighting in the surrounding area.


  • The flour mill was hit by a series of air strikes on 9 January 2009 after several false warnings had been issued on previous days. The Mission finds that its destruction had no military justification. The nature of the strikes, in particular the precise targeting of crucial machinery, suggests that the intention was to disable the factory in terms of its productive capacity. 
  • [T]he flour mill was hit by an air strike, possibly by an F-16. The missile struck the floor that housed one of the machines indispensable to the mill's functioning, completely destroying it. The guard who was on duty at the time called Mr. Hamada to inform him that the building had been hit and was on fire. He was unhurt. In the next 60 to 90 minutes the mill was hit several times by missiles fired from an Apache helicopter.
  • The Mission also finds that the destruction of the mill was carried out for the purposes of denying sustenance to the civilian population, which is a violation of customary international law and may constitute a war crime.


  • In the course of the operation, IDF troops came under intense fire from different Hamas positions in the vicinity of the flour mill. The IDF forces fired back towards the sources of fire and threatening locations. As the IDF returned fire, the upper floor of the flour mill was hit by tank shells.
  • [T]he immediate area in which the flour mill was located was used by enemy armed forces as a defensive zone, due to its proximity to Hamas's stronghold in the Shati refugee camp. Hamas had fortified this area with tunnels and booby-trapped houses, and deployed its forces to attack IDF troops operating there.
  • The Military Advocate General did not accept the allegation in the Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Report that the purpose of the strike was to deprive the civilian population of Gaza of food. In this regard, he noted the fact that shortly after the incident, the IDF allowed Palestinian fire trucks to reach the area and extinguish the flames, as well as the extensive amount of food and flour that entered Gaza through Israel during the Gaza Operation.
Tim Russo/Getty Images

Attack on the Namar Well Group

The airstrike on Dec. 27, 2008, is described by the Goldstone report as the willful destruction of one of Gaza's best sources of clean water, and by Israeli sources as an assault on a guarded Hamas "regional command and control center." Israel insists that it was not informed that there was a wells complex on the site and contends that the entire installation was being used by Hamas for military training and weapons storage. The Goldstone report makes no mention of the site's use for military purposes  and notes that Israel refused permission to municipality workers to enter the area to repair the damage.


  • The Mission considers it unlikely that a target the size of the Namar Wells could have been hit by multiple strikes in error. It found no grounds to suggest that there was any military advantage to be had by hitting the wells and noted that there was no suggestion that Palestinian armed groups had used the wells for any purpose.
  • Mr. Ramadan Nai'm told the Mission how proud CMWU [Coastal Municipalities Water Utility] had been of this water well which produced more than 200 cubic metres per hour of the best-quality water in the area. The operator, Mr. Abdullah Ismail al-Zein, was killed in the air strike. ... [h]e was blown to pieces and his identity was established when his shoes were found three days later.
  • Considering that the right to drinking water is part of the right to adequate food, the Mission makes the same legal findings as in the case of the Al Bader flour mill.


  • According to the findings of the command investigation, the CMWU provided coordinates located within a closed military compound of Hamas. This compound served as a regional command and control center and was used for military training and weapons storage. Guards manned the entry to the compound and prohibited entry by unauthorized civilians.
  • [The IDF] had no information about the Namar water wells before the operation. ... [H]ad the CLA [Coordination and Liaison Administration] received such information before the operation, it would have been immediately reported to all relevant IDF units.
  • The Military Advocate General ... found no credible basis for the allegation that the strike was intended to deprive the civilian population of Gaza of water.


Destruction of the House of Abu Askar and the Death of His Two Sons

In the dead of night on Jan. 6, 2009, Muhammed Fouad Abu Askar received a call from the IDF warning that his house, where 40 members of his extended family were living, would be destroyed. Abu Askar says that he quickly evacuated his family and that his house was destroyed by a missile fired from an F-16 seven minutes later. Later in the day, as Abu Askar attempted to recover material from his destroyed house and find new lodging for his family, mortar fire on his crowded street claimed the lives of his brother and two teenage sons, the youngest of whom was only 13. The Goldstone report accuses Israel of reckless disregard for civilian life in firing mortars into a crowded urban area. Israel counters that Abu Askar's house was a legitimate military target and that his two sons were well-known Hamas operatives working in a rocket-firing team.


  • Mr. Abu Askar was in the street at around 4 p.m. [hours after the attack], when several mortars landed. ... Among those killed immediately were two sons of Mr. Abu Askar, Imad, aged 13, and Khaled Abu Askar, aged 19. Mr. Abu Askar's brother Arafat was also killed.
  • [T]he Israeli armed forces directly called Mr. Abu Askar early in the morning of 6 January notifying him that his house would be attacked imminently. If Imad Abu Askar was as notorious and important as alleged, despite his young age, the Mission presumes that the Israeli authorities would have known where he lived and, in particular, that he lived in the very house they were about to destroy. It is extremely doubtful that the Israeli armed forces, having identified the house where alleged Hamas militants of some significance lived, would warn them so that they may escape and then bomb the house.
  • The Mission does not deny the possibility of children being recruited by Palestinian armed groups. However, in the case of Imad Abu Askar, the Mission is satisfied that he was not a Hamas operative.


  • According to the findings of the command investigation, the cellar and other parts of Mr. Abu-Askar's house were used to store weapons and ammunitions, including Grad rockets.
  • The sole basis for the claim in the Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Report that the house was a civilian target was Mr. Abu-Askar's testimony before the Fact-Finding Mission. The Mission, however, did not ask Mr. Abu-Askar any questions about the potential use of his house for military purposes.
  • Shortly after the strike, two sons of Mr. Abu-Askar, both Hamas military operatives, were killed while they were involved in launching mortars at IDF forces.