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Electromagnetic Pulse Theatre: Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Time

"[An electromagnetic pulse attack is] a giant time machine that would move us back in technology a century," opined Congressman Roscoe Bartlett before the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology yesterday.

It was part of a long meeting convened to discuss "Securing the Modern Electric Grid from Physical and Cyber Attacks."

However, little of the three and a half hour long meeting (with the middle hour taken up by an extended break) actually discussed securing the grid from cyberattack.

This was because it was time for a showing of Electromagnetic Pulse Theatre.

Electromagnetic Pulse Theatre is defined as a show in which only a couple people take the stage to warn of a threat everyone else in attendance takes to be of little or no importance.

In this case, the principals were "Dr. William Graham, Chairman, Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse" and Congressman Roscoe Bartlett. Both have made notifying the country of threat of electromagnetic pulse attack into careers spanning almost a couple decades.

Now, just In case you haven't been following the issue, let's define what electromagnetic pulse attack is.

"The nightmare scenario of [EMP attack] is this: A rogue nation like North Korea or a stateless terrorist like Bin Laden gets hold of a nuclear weapon and decides not to drive it into a large city but rather to launch it on a Scud-type missile straight into the atmosphere from a barge off the East Coast," wrote someone at Slate a couple years ago.

In perhaps much less time than it takes to fry an egg, an electromagnetic pulse spreading out from high above the center of the country disrupts and destroys our electrical and electronic infrastructure. Lo, the country has been returned to the time of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance!

In another manner of speaking, Electromagnetic Pulse Theatre has always been immortal Fortress American paranoid voodoo. Crap -- in other words -- a threat which is to be glued on anyone: Russia, Cuba, China, North Korea, Iran, al Qaeda, plus miscellaneous other suspects and a half dozen enemies we have yet to find and publicly vilify.

Here is one video encapsulating the crazed aspect of it:

EMP Theatre is frequently used by hawks to justify increased spending on missile defense or by Republicans to beat Democrats and the current administration over the head about how the entire civilian population is being put at risk. (Here is another current working example of it in action.)

"It's horror theater ... trying to scare Americans into doing something which a rational analysis would stop them from doing," Joe Cirincione, a nuclear weapons expert, told The New Republic a little over a month ago. While the electromagnetic pulse effect in a nuclear explosion is real, few "analysts take the threat very seriously."

This was apparent at the Congressional committee meeting. Graham and Roscoe Bartlett dominated the first half of it, with cursory time given to other panelists for discussion of the cybersecurity risk profile associated with the North American electrical distribution system. For most of it, the electrical reliability people were basically bullied over their seeming inattention to the catastrophic electromagnetic pulse menace. They sat and took it gamely, waiting for the inquisition to end.

Electromagnetic pulse vulnerability "can invite and reward attack" said Graham during his initial testimony. EMP is "an implicit invitation to adversaries ... the logic of the position is upside down in often made statements about it being improbable ... by ignoring large scale vulnerabilities we invite adversaries to attack us where we are weak ..."

In this, he was repeating an argument made for years, one given whenever the electromagnetic pulse defense lobby secures a hearing.

And the response has generally always been the same -- a silent brush off, one which "invites" and furnishes further opportunity for recrimination over inaction when the next showing of Electromagnetic Pulse Theatre is inevitably scheduled.

"We have done nothing to make us whole should this happen," warned Bartlett.

Finally, Laura Richardson volunteered to try and connect William Graham with the Department of Homeland Security. This link-up needed, it was said, because he had an "unsuccessful engagement" with DHS over the matter of electromagnetic pulsation.


The producers of Electromagnetic Pulse Theatre are nothing if not dogged. Although pushed to the fringe, they continue to make their case on a weekly basis in various publications.

Electromagnetic pulse vulnerability is weakness and weakness invites attack from enemies. Shockingly, there are many among us, ignorant and blinkered, who dismiss and ignore the threat of electromagnetic pulsing. And they put us in peril, continues the argument.

"Only the Amish and others not reliant on late 20th -- much less our 21st -- century technology would escape unscathed," writes someone at US News & World Report, invoking a variation on how EMP will return us to the time of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Except without the amusing movie trailer this writer linked to for this article.

"[Public] discussion of EMP has all but dried up," frets the reporter.

George Smith also blogs here.

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