The Campaign to Terrify You About EMP

From Newt Gingrich to a Congressional "EMP Caucus", some conservatives warn the electronics-frying blast could pose gravely underestimated dangers to the U.S.

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Still from the film "33 Minutes," produced by EMPact America, warning of an EMP blast against the U.S. / YouTube

In 2009, former House Speaker and current struggling GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich gave the keynote address at a conference in Niagara Falls organized by an obscure Washington advocacy group called EMPact America. The self-proclaimed Republican "ideas man" was there to raise awareness of a national security issue that few people outside of DC have even heard of: the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States.

According to Gingrich, EMP may be the greatest single threat facing America today. Such a blast, in theory, could shut down the continent's electrical grid. As he tells it, a terrorist group or rogue state could launch a nuclear missile against the American heartland, only instead of exploding it in the middle of a city as would be expected, the weapon would be designed to detonate miles in the atmosphere. The blast is too high to cause death or devastation on the ground, but the surge of electrical particles produced by the bomb scatters down to Earth and affects electronics like a giant bolt of lightning, crashing electrical gadgets for hundreds of miles. Cars, telephones, power stations: all silenced in a flash.

The scariness of the EMP threat comes from its falling dominoes nature: an electrical surge overloads a power transformer, which disables a regional grid; repairs are next to impossible because automobiles can also be affected. Fuel deliveries are held up. Food begins to spoil, and society starts to break down. If an EMP attack occurs in the right place -- say a nuclear bomb detonated over Nebraska -- the entire continental United States could feel the impact.
At least that's how the story goes.

As with many things in Washington, a cottage industry of lobbyists, specialists, and ex-government officials has come together to attest to the danger of an EMP attack. Ballistic missile defense seems to be the panacea for this group's concern, though a generous dose of preemption and war on terror are often prescribed as well. Congress even created a special EMP commission in 2001 to study the issue and make recommendations to government and industry. It seems the only ones who take the time to talk about EMP publicly, however, are those who believe it to be the paramount threat facing America. According to their warnings over the last decade, our vulnerability worsens every day, and that vulnerability invites an attack.

For example,  EMPact America, the group that hosted the conference at Niagara Falls, has been on a lobbying blitz in recent weeks to pass the SHIELD Act. The bill, which is backed by the Congressional "EMP Caucus" (yes, such a thing exists) is intended to protect the electrical grid of the continental United States from the effects of an EMP attack. EMPact America even produces a weekly, hour-long radio show devoted entirely to the issue, with recent guests including former CIA Director James Woolsey and Congressman Trent Franks. What sort of response have these warnings gotten so far? In Washington's nuclear arms control circles, where I've spent the past few months working as part of my research on the Iranian nuclear program, they're not really taken seriously.

Presented by

Patrick Disney is currently a graduate student focusing on Iran and nuclear nonproliferation at Yale University. He previously served as the Assistant Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council.

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