Is An Electromagnetic Pulse Attack A Threat?

At Tuesday night's GOP presidential candidate debate, the last question was: What national security issue do you worry about that nobody is asking about? Answers ranged from socialist rebels to communist China to cyber attacks to joblessness. But Newt Gingrich mentioned a threat that certainly has not been talked about this campaign season: an electromagnetic pulse attack. Guy Raz talks with Noah Shachtman, who writes on national security for Wired magazine, about this potential national security threat.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

At last night's GOP presidential debate, the final question was...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What national security issue do you worry about that nobody is asking about, either here or in any of the debates so far?

RAZ: Now, some of the candidates mentioned the rise of China, the threat of homegrown terrorism, cyber attacks. But former House speaker Newt Gingrich offered this...

NEWT GINGRICH: An electromagnetic pulse attack, which would literally destroy the country's capacity to function.

RAZ: An electromagnetic pulse attack, or EMP – now, it turns out that Gingrich has been talking about the EMP for many years now. And if you were wondering what an EMP attack does, well, Noah Shachtman, who writes on national security for Wired magazine, has the answer. Noah, what is an electromagnetic pulse attack?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: The idea would be that a country like Russia or China would fire a nuclear weapon at the U.S., but rather than use that nuclear weapon to blow up D.C or New York or Los Angeles, it would detonate the weapon high in our atmosphere that would release a big wave of electromagnetic radiation that would fry every piece of circuitry, you know, in the country and return us back to the Stone Age.

RAZ: Wow. That's pretty scary stuff. I mean, Gingrich said this is a pretty serious threat. This is something that we, as Americans, need to be aware of. I mean, is he right?

SHACHTMAN: I don't know about that.

RAZ: Why not?

SHACHTMAN: Well, first of all, a lot of people are talking about it. There's sort of a professional EMP, scare-monger, worrywart crowd out there, of which Gingrich is a charter member. So are many members of Congress. And there's actually an EMP caucus in Congress, there's been commissions to study it. So, this has been a national security threat – perceived, at least - since the early '60s, when the U.S. sent a nuclear weapon into space and detonated it. That experiment, which is called, awesomely enough, the Starfish Prime experiment, released such a big wave of electromagnetic radiation that several satellites became currently disabled. And so, that sort of started the freak out from there, because the thought is if you can fry satellites, well, maybe you can fry all kinds of stuff here at home.

RAZ: But it is, in theory, possible. You could detonate this thing high up in the atmosphere and it would knock out all these electric grids and it could completely shut down or wipe out commerce and electricity and communications in big parts of America. I mean, it is a possibility, right?

SHACHTMAN: Right. It is a possibility, but does it make any sense is the question. And I'm not sure it does. I mean, you know, the idea that Iran or North Korea or some other country is going to be so mad at us that they're going to, you know, try to nuke us, but instead of actually nuking us, they're going to just turn off our electricity – I don't know.

RAZ: Thank, Noah.

SHACHTMAN: Yep.

RAZ: That's Noah Shachtman. He's a contributing editor for Wired magazine, explaining electromagnetic pulse attacks. By the way, a paperback thriller that takes place against the backdrop of an EMP attack came out earlier this year. It's called "One Second After," by William Forstchen. And the foreword, it was written by none other than Newt Gingrich.

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