Recently a Senate Judiciary subcommittee of which I am chairman held a hearing on a major threat to the American people, one that could come not only from terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda but from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the American homeland, said one of the distinguished scientists who testified at the hearing, is one of only a few ways that the United States could be defeated by its enemies -- terrorist or otherwise. And it is probably the easiest. A single Scud missile, carrying a single nuclear weapon, detonated at the appropriate altitude, would interact with the Earth's atmosphere, producing an electromagnetic pulse radiating down to the surface at the speed of light. Depending on the location and size of the blast, the effect would be to knock out already stressed power grids and other electrical systems across much or even all of the continental United States, for months if not years.
Few if any people would die right away. But the loss of power would have a cascading effect on all aspects of U.S. society. Communication would be largely impossible. Lack of refrigeration would leave food rotting in warehouses, exacerbated by a lack of transportation as those vehicles still working simply ran out of gas (which is pumped with electricity). The inability to sanitize and distribute water would quickly threaten public health, not to mention the safety of anyone in the path of the inevitable fires, which would rage unchecked. And as we have seen in areas of natural and other disasters, such circumstances often result in a fairly rapid breakdown of social order.
American society has grown so dependent on computer and other electrical systems that we have created our own Achilles' heel of vulnerability, ironically much greater than those of other, less developed nations. When deprived of power, we are in many ways helpless, as the New York City blackout made clear. In that case, power was restored quickly because adjacent areas could provide help. But a large-scale burnout caused by a broad EMP attack would create a much more difficult situation. Not only would there be nobody nearby to help, it could take years to replace destroyed equipment.
Transformers for regional substations, for example, are massive pieces of equipment that are no longer manufactured in the United States and typically take more than a year to build. In the words of another witness at the hearing, "The longer the basic outage, the more problematic and uncertain the recovery of any [infrastructure system] will be. It is possible -- indeed, seemingly likely -- for sufficiently severe functional outages to become mutually reinforcing, until a point at which the degradation . . . could have irreversible effects on the country's ability to support any large fraction of its present human population." Those who survived, he said, would find themselves transported back to the United States of the 1880s.
This threat may sound straight out of Hollywood, but it is very real. CIA Director Porter Goss recently testified before Congress about nuclear material missing from storage sites in Russia that may have found its way into terrorist hands, and FBI Director Robert Mueller has confirmed new intelligence that suggests al Qaeda is trying to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. Iran has surprised intelligence analysts by describing the mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as "successful" tests. North Korea exports missile technology around the world; Scuds can easily be purchased on the open market for about $100,000 apiece.
A terrorist organization might have trouble putting a nuclear warhead "on target" with a Scud, but it would be much easier to simply launch and detonate in the atmosphere. No need for the risk and difficulty of trying to smuggle a nuclear weapon over the border or hit a particular city. Just launch a cheap missile from a freighter in international waters -- al Qaeda is believed to own about 80 such vessels -- and make sure to get it a few miles in the air.
Fortunately, hardening key infrastructure systems and procuring vital backup equipment such as transformers is both feasible and -- compared with the threat -- relatively inexpensive, according to a comprehensive report on the EMP threat by a commission of prominent experts. But it will take leadership by the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies, along with support from Congress, all of which have yet to materialize.
The Sept. 11 commission report stated that our biggest failure was one of "imagination." No one imagined that terrorists would do what they did on Sept. 11. Today few Americans can conceive of the possibility that terrorists could bring our society to its knees by destroying everything we rely on that runs on electricity. But this time we've been warned, and we'd better be prepared to respond.
The writer is a Republican senator from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security.