Gingrich Key to Dismantling Congress's In-House Science Office
By NICK SCHWELLENBACH
Newt Gingrich has been trying to scare the wits out of Americans with a scenario many experts say is out of a Batman movie and not plausible at all. The threat being pushed by Republican presidential hopeful Gingrich is that of an attack by terrorists or a so-called "rogue" nation involving electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a secondary effect caused by nuclear weapons.
EMP is real, but several key details about the threat of an EMP attack—including the difficulty in pulling it off and the amount of damage it would cause—remain in serious dispute. But you wouldn’t know that by listening to Gingrich, who claims that a band of terrorists with a relatively small nuclear warhead could optimize that warhead to produce EMP (something the U.S. has not mastered), attach that warhead to a Scud missile, launch the Scud from a freighter off the coast of the U.S. to a point halfway across the continent, detonate it several miles up in the atmosphere, and end modern civilization as we know it on North America.
Needless to say, many experts view this scenario as far-fetched.
One of those experts is Nobel prize-winning physicist Jack Steinberger. Several years ago, he provided me with a draft paper that casts serious doubt on Gingrich’s hype around EMP, which has rested on the findings of a little-known congressionally mandated panel called the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, or the EMP Commission.
Steinberger’s paper was never published until now. In it, Steinberger wrote, “It is not clear that spending billions, as some propose to [C]ongress, on hardening of telecommunication, electric power networks, and public microelectronics to ‘protect’ against a possible HEMP [High-altitude EMP], is in the public interest.”
I originally planned on writing a freelance article on Steinberger’s paper. I even contacted several experts familiar with Steinberger’s work and, at the invitation of the late Carl Baum, an electrical engineer and EMP expert, visited the Trestle, an EMP testing platform at Kirtland Air Force Base outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, I lost steam on writing the article due to other obligations. But in light of The New York Times’ critical report on Gingrich’s EMP propaganda, I figured it’s time to make this stuff public.
|ATLAS-1 Trestle, EMP testing platform.|
In my preliminary reporting, it was clear that some of the world’s most renowned minds in the field of physics thought highly of Steinberger’s understanding of EMP.
“A cursory reading shows that [Steinberger’s paper] is thoughtful, independent, and sound,” emailed physicist and nuclear weapons guru Richard Garwin, who has advised the U.S. government for decades. “I have not reproduced the calculations, but I have no reason to doubt them.”
I also found that some experts were surprised that EMP was being discussed as some sort of existential threat to society.
“I am not an expert on the subject of EMP, but I am generally familiar with the relevant physics,” stated renowned physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, in an email to me. “I was surprised when I heard that Jack was working on the problem, because I had the impression that nobody who was technically competent believed the scare stories about EMP. I thought that Jack was flogging a dead horse. But it is possible that the horse is not as dead as I thought it was.”
Baum, the EMP expert and former Kirtland Air Force Base senior scientist, told me that he thought the effects of EMP are still a huge unknown and needed further study.
There is, however, a related and far more plausible threat to the electrical power grid: solar-flare fueled geomagnetic storms. As The Space Review’s Yousaf M. Butt wrote last year, “we can kill two birds with one stone. However, the prioritization of our responses should emphasize the threat posed by geomagnetic storms,” such as hardening key parts of the electrical power infrastructure and “stockpiling large electrical transformers so they could be moved into place in an emergency.”
This response, according to The Space Review’s report, should not involve national missile defense, one of the solutions pushed vigorously by some members of the EMP Commission, as well as Gingrich. As Butt wrote:
An incidental benefit of hardening our infrastructure is that it would also obviate the need for such an expensive (and, as argued by many experts, an ineffective) missile defense. Once the grid is hardened, and this fact has been made public, there is no further need for NMD [National Missile Defense]: it would be a particularly stupid enemy that would try their hand at a EMP strike against a known EMP-hardened infrastructure, with backups and contingency plans in place.
The sad tale of EMP scare-mongering illustrates two huge problems: how politicians use fear to drive policy, and the dismantlement of objective, institutional expertise. These two problems are intertwined. By sidelining objective expertise and utilizing biased experts who are quick to offer distorted, exaggerated pictures of a potential threat, politicians remove the checks built into the system.
This happened with EMP.
Some background on how Congress gouged out its own eyes on science issues: In the mid-1990s, when Gingrich was Speaker of the House, Congress dismantled its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a highly professional and objective organization that advised Congress on complex scientific and technical issues. Republican Roger Herdman, a medical doctor who was OTA’s last director, was quoted by journalist Chris Mooney in the September/October 2005 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as saying, “There are those who said the Speaker [Gingrich] didn’t want an internal congressional voice that had views on science and technology that might differ from his.”
In OTA’s place, certain Members of Congress decided to rely on individual and often highly biased experts. The editor’s note in the September/October 2005 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stated that “most troubling of all is that absent a neutral arbiter of scientific facts, some members of Congress now surround themselves with their own handpicked ‘experts’ and allow the scientific consensus on vital issues to be defined by self-interested lobbyists and think tanks.”
Gingrich pushed this new practice of Congress cherry-picking scientific experts who provided views they favored—ideas which were not always the most scientifically sound.
To further quote Strauss’s editorial, “OTA would have likely raised a questioning eyebrow at the findings of the congressionally mandated panel, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.”
The membership of that Commission, upon which Gingrich relies heavily, is composed mostly of right-wing nuclear and missile defense hawks who exemplify the cherry-picked and ideologically-slanted approach to science expertise that Gingrich brought to fruition.
As we move forward, we need to consider whether we should continue to spend billions of dollars on programs like national missile defense because of fanciful threats like EMP, while we slash millions of dollars from budgets of experts who work for the public interest to prevent and stop boondoggles from starting in the first place.
|Carl Baum with his un-air conditioned 1962 Corvair|
Nick Schwellenbach is POGO's Director of Investigations.
Image of U.S. by NACLE2; Photos by Schwellenbach.