Ex-Defense Chief William Perry On False Missile Warnings Following the false alarm in Hawaii, Steve Inskeep talks to former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who says the risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical. It's happened before.

Ex-Defense Chief William Perry On False Missile Warnings

Ex-Defense Chief William Perry On False Missile Warnings

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Following the false alarm in Hawaii, Steve Inskeep talks to former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who says the risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical. It's happened before.


When a false alarm spread across Hawaii last weekend, people were horrified. This is not a drill, the alarm said, warning of a missile attack. So people sought shelter, called their families and prayed. A former defense secretary, William Perry, knows the mistake was serious, but says it could have been worse.

FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE WILLIAM PERRY: A little silver lining around this dark cloud of the false alert in Hawaii is it may cause us to look more carefully at this issue - not just as it affects state alert systems but as it affects our military alert system where the consequences of a failure could be much, much greater.

INSKEEP: William Perry is 90 years old. He was a top Pentagon official during the Cold War in the 1960s and '70s and then defense secretary in the '90s under President Bill Clinton. He has seen a lot, and he's thinking of what would go wrong if a false alarm affected the military early warning system that advises the president. He's seen false alarms before.

PERRY: Well, in the United States, I know of three for sure. And I was personally involved actually in two of them. In one of them, the error was putting a training tape into the computer instead of an operating tape. What came through on the computer was a simulation of an actual attack. It looked very, very real.

INSKEEP: What did the simulations say was happening?

PERRY: It said there was 200 missiles on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States. This was during the Cold War. And it looked very real because it was designed to look real.

INSKEEP: How did people respond?

PERRY: Fortunately, that night the watch officer was a very intelligent and a very responsible person. He dug deeply. And instead of calling the president in the middle of the night, waking him up and giving him five to 10 minutes to make a decision to launch, he dug into it and concluded it was an error. I know about that because he called me in the middle of the night to tell me about it. So I'll never forget that night.

INSKEEP: Was it the almost heroism - or at least the thoughtfulness of a single person that saved the planet in that instance?

PERRY: Indeed, it was. In fact, in the Soviet Union, in 1982, they had a comparable false alarm. That's been documented in a movie called "The Man Who Saved The World," where the watch officer that night, like the American watch officer, sensed something was wrong. And he disobeyed his instructions and did not call up the president to let him know. Incidentally, in that case, the man was reprimanded for not having followed instructions.

INSKEEP: Is, so far as you know, that still the case - that one person could make the right or wrong decision, and it could decide everything in the U.S. military early warning system?

PERRY: One person makes the decision - the watch officer. That decision then - if there's time, there will be a conference of other people to give other judgments on it. But if there's not time, then it might go directly to the president. And then the president if he's woken in bed in the middle of the night, might have five to 10 minutes to decide whether he should launch our missiles in response to that. And if he launches them and if he then discovers a mistake, there's nothing he can do to recall them. There's nothing he can do to abort them in flight. He has mistakenly started World War III.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that. Is it really necessary for the president ever to have to decide in five minutes? I'm thinking there's only one other country on earth that conceivably has enough nuclear weapons to take out a lot of American nuclear weapons, and even they might not get them all. It's hard to imagine a situation where if you thought a North Korean missile was coming at the United States, that you would need to fire back within five minutes, isn't it?

PERRY: The reason we have a launch-on-warning policy is because we don't want to take the risk of losing our ICBMs. But that has to be balanced against the risk that if the decision is made incorrectly, that we have started World War III by mistake. That's the way we have our system set up. And that's the way it's been set up for many decades. And in my judgment, that's a bad system because it solves the problem of saving - being able to launch the ICBMs before they're struck. But it creates this terrible problem if the decision is wrong, we have accidentally started the war.

And therefore the alternative to that is to ride out the attack. And we have enough missiles in our submarines, and we could also launch our airplanes. But they don't - they can be called back. So the solution to the problem is to get away from the dependence on our ICBMs either by riding it out or by actually changing our deterrence forces, so that we only have submarine forces and airplanes.

INSKEEP: Oh, because submarines and airplanes move around, and you wouldn't be much less assured to be able to target them with anything.

PERRY: That's right. The problem with the ICBMs is they are on a fixed known location. And therefore, they would be targeted.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about Dean Acheson, who as you know, of course, was secretary of state after World War II. And I read the Dean Acheson said that the president of the United States, who makes the ultimate decision here, ought to sit quietly and think really hard about what his decision would be. Do you have any sense of how any particular president has thought about this possibility of launching a nuclear strike? And is there any president you can name who thought about it wisely?

PERRY: I think the most relevant comment on that situation came from Henry Kissinger who said that he thought the most terrible decision any president would have to make is whether to launch his nuclear weapons, particularly in the situation where there might be some uncertainty. No person - no person no matter how wise he is should have to make that decision. We should change our process so that no person has to make that decision. And we should also change our process, so that the decision made is made by more than one person - that there's consultation of advisers and so on. The problem with the ICBM attack is that the president may not have time to have that consultation.

INSKEEP: There have got to be people listening to us, Mr. Secretary, who have their hearts in their throats, shoulders are pulled up, their chests feel tight. This can be terrifying even to discuss. Does it terrify you?

PERRY: It does terrify me. In fact, what really terrifies me is that people really don't understand this issue. They don't understand that the problem we have today - the problem of starting a war by mistake is probably more greater today than it was during the Cold War because the things that can cause that false alert are not just a single person making the wrong judgment. It's not just a machine here. Now we have the possibility of malicious hacking into the system either by a malevolent individual or by an unfriendly government. So the problem today is much greater than it was during the Cold War.

INSKEEP: William Perry served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton. Mr. Perry, thanks very much.

PERRY: Thank you, Steve.


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