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.
But how can one side of a debate claim something threatens the very fiber of U.S. civilization, without getting so much as a nod in return? Serious public figures have taken up the cause: Congressmen, generals, scientists and strategists, all without much policy movement to show for their efforts.
It may be that a terrorist, after going through the trouble of acquiring a nuclear warhead and a missile capable of delivering it to America's shores, would be a fool to employ the ultimate weapon in such a cockamamie fashion. The effects of an EMP are far from universal; according to one commissioned study, a best-case scenario would impact 70 percent of electronics, while a worst-case estimate could be as low as 5 percent. Far better from the terrorist's perspective to deliver the bomb as it was intended, rather than hang his hopes on a series of unpredictable events and second- or third-order consequences. After all, a nuclear bomb need not be made any more devastating to serve a terrorist's purposes.