OK, Now I’m Worried

Nukes seem our biggest near-term disaster threat, and this worries me most:

The U.S. intelligence community "doesn’t have a story" to explain the recent Iranian tests.  One group of tests that troubled Graham, the former White House science adviser under President Ronald Reagan, were successful efforts to launch a Scud missile from a platform in the Caspian Sea. … Another troubling group of tests involved Shahab-3 launches where the Iranians "detonated the warhead near apogee, not over the target area where the thing would eventually land, but at altitude," Graham said. … Graham chairs the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, a blue-ribbon panel established by Congress in 2001. … "That’s exactly what you would do if you had a nuclear weapon on a Scud or a Shahab-3 or other missile, and you wanted to explode it over the United States." …


"If even a crude nuclear weapon were detonated anywhere between 40 kilometers to 400 kilometers above the earth, in a split-second it would generate an electro-magnetic pulse [EMP] that would cripple military and civilian communications, power, transportation, water, food, and other infrastructure." … The near-term impact on U.S. society would dwarf the damage of a direct nuclear strike on a U.S. city. …

In his recent congressional testimony, Graham revealed that Iranian military journals, translated by the CIA at his commission’s request, "explicitly discuss a nuclear EMP attack that would gravely harm the United States." … If Iran launched its attack from a cargo ship plying the commercial sea lanes off the East coast … U.S. investigators might never determine who was behind the attack. … Iranians could simply decide to sink the ship … The only thing Iran is lacking for an effective EMP attack is a nuclear warhead, and no one knows with any certainty when that will occur. The latest U.S. intelligence estimate states that Iran could acquire the fissile material for a nuclear weapon as early as 2009, or as late as 2015, or possibly later.

Wikipedia elaborates:

An offshore detonation at high altitude … would disrupt both an entire coast and regions hundreds of miles inland (e.g. 120 mile altitude, 1000 mile EMP radius). Moreover, a high altitude burst could be positioned over international waters by means of a missile of low accuracy, launched from a ship , also in international waters.  North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan (for example) have Scud-derived missiles of more than adequate capability.

It is hard to see that we could replace critical electronics fast enough, or evaculate the US eastern seabord fast enough without them, to avoid mass casualties.  If we don’t have protected caches of critical replacement electronics, we should.

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  • http://causalityrelay.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Nesov

    Time to back up your data on another continent…

  • Paul Mohr

    It has been reported that Russian nuclear material has disappeared and still remains as a situation that could be controlled by some faction of the government. It does not seem impossible that countries that have nuclear material and aspirations to power and position that oil can bring could find that trading nuclear weapons for guaranteed oil in case of a conflict would find it less risky to die a heat death than slow death from lack of fuel. If the cost of oil is continuously higher in the US and lower elsewhere it would lead to a situation that forced the US out of position of power without any shot fired. The development and possibility that they already have this material is their protection from being invaded to get control of their oil. It is possible that their energy could be far more effective than any weapon system.

  • No Way Out

    Well, the source is quite suspect, since it has a strong conservative bias. And the conservatives would love to invade Iran ASAP…

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    Hm, how much could one expect normal nuclear deterence to work against such an attack? I’m not crazy about leaving our security up to ‘they won’t attack us because they aren’t crazy’ but it might help us develop a probability estimate for risk management.

    do you think there should be some kind of ‘department for risk management’ coupled with prediction markets? i’ve often wondered if the former idea would be useful or not. any time something bad would happen, they’d be on the hot seat, so that would create some incentive to have foresight, but it might be a thankless job given the seeming inevitability of us missing dangers, and human hindsight bias.

  • DV82XL

    You are way over extending this threat. One, the amount of damage that an EMP attack by any attacker over the continental US by a single device will be much smaller than you (or Wikipedia)thinks. Secondly no small power is going to be stupid enough to attack the US with a weapon that has a return address – this would simply result in complete annihilation of the attacker, and while individuals may be suicidal enough to wish to die attacking their enemies, nations (even Muslim ones) are not.

    These weapons are not being developed by small nations to attack the US at home, but to serve as a deterrent to invasion by conventional forces, if this can be done by an EMP attack, all the better, but almost for sure these weapons will be deployed to explode WITHIN the borders of the defending country. It is the only practical use for a small arsenal.

  • Stu

    I haven’t been this frightened since I heard about how Iraq might depopulate our eastern seaboard with WMD-equipped UAVs.

  • J Thomas

    Iran is not going to attack the continental USA with a SCUD missile from a platform in the Caspian sea.

    This article was designed to make you afraid. It makes sense to look for its sources in case there’s something real there underneath the bias.

    Unfortunately, this news report mostly quotes a politically partisan source talking to Congress. He does mention one of his sources.

    ‘In his recent congressional testimony, Graham revealed that Iranian military journals, translated by the CIA at his commission’s request, “explicitly discuss a nuclear EMP attack that would gravely harm the United States.”’

    If translations of those journals get released, we can look at what they said when they “discussed” this. Our own military has extensively “discussed” a variety of attacks on iran. We have also discussed attacks on syria, saudi arabia, china, and many other nations. We have discussed biological and chemical attacks, “decapitation strikes”, terrorist attacks on various nations, etc. We have discussed “support” for insurgent groups in various nations. But much of this talk did not involve any intention that we would carry out such attacks. We were merely discussing what could happen in hypothetical cases. We need details about the iranian discussion.

    There are no other sources listed, except for Timmerman’s claim that he was the first to report a 1999 iranian test of a sea-based missile. The USA of course has a large variety of sea-based surface-to-surface missiles, that can be used to attack enemy ships etc without needing nuclear warheads.

    It might help to find out how large a nuclear warhead is needed to generate the sort of EMP that would destroy all US electronics everywhere. How close do you have to be for your car to stop working? How close for computers that aren’t turned on at the time? How close for cellphones that aren’t turned on? We can replace a cellphone network as fast as we can deliver the spares.

    This report is entirely scare-stories. There is no reason to trust anything in it, it was deliberately designed to scare you into approving weapons in space and disapproving Obama. It is 100% bias. But that doesn’t mean everything it presents is false. Liars like this can use whatever truth they find that serves their purpose, mixed in with the lies. You need better sources before you draw any conclusions about the factoids they present.

  • WTF

    More fear-mongering? Stop wasting my time.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The scary part is that this wasn’t discussed at the Global Catastrophic Risks conference – admittedly it’s a regional risk, but we discussed ordinary nuclear terrorism, we should’ve discussed this. How many other things did we ignore?

  • http://knol.google.com/k/james-miller/james-miller/1j9f9ffxxeue5/1# James Miller

    DV82XL wrote “Secondly no small power is going to be stupid enough to attack the US with a weapon that has a return address – this would simply result in complete annihilation of the attacker, and while individuals may be suicidal enough to wish to die attacking their enemies, nations (even Muslim ones) are not.”

    After 9/11 the Taliban effectively chose suicide over extraditing bin Laden. Also, the entire nation of Iran wouldn’t make the decision to attack the U.S. but rather it would be made by a small number of men. These men might be willing to sacrifice their lives, or they might think that with divine help they would be able to scare us into passivity.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Thanks for repeating right-wing talking points. Thank you for being a cog in the machinery of war. There is not a bit of evidence that Iranians are preparing to nuke the East Coast; there is every indication that Republicans are ginning up threats for political gain:

    Bolton: Well, I think it’s a very real possibility. How far along the Iranians are, I don’t think we know. But this is an answer to the people who say, Look, you’re just being overwrought about an Iranian nuclear capability. They know they would never attack the United States because we would destroy them in retaliation. But really ask yourself, say under an Obama administration, what would be the American response to the threat of or actual use of an EMP weapon–not directly on an American city, but as you suggest to cause disruption to our business and other communications?

  • Shmuel

    Secondly no small power is going to be stupid enough to attack the US with a weapon that has a return address

    “If Iran launched its attack from a cargo ship plying the commercial sea lanes off the East coast … U.S. investigators might never determine who was behind the attack”

  • Steve

    Fear mongering indeed, WTF. Trapped by the eon old us v them currently in vogue theme of holy cow this is a BIG THING scurry about quickly shell game does not surprise.

    My hunch is that it is possible to measure the pattern of being rational, and other patterns, biologically. For example, reactions to comments might show patterns that then can be categorized as rational, loving, indignant… whatever.

    My hunch is that if that tool can be developed that laughter will be discovered to be a mechanism by which the brain resets itself to clear pathways so that it can function at its greatest efficiency.

    Off for my hike into the wilderness. Remember. Exercise, eat less, sleep well and have some fun. And be good to others.

    ’til next time,

    wallowamountainman

  • Michael Sullivan

    Note I am quoting the quote of Bolton here, no commenter on this blog said these words:
    >But really ask yourself, say under an Obama administration, what would be the American response to the threat of or actual use of an EMP weapon

    Yeah, I would guess (in the case of actual use) that some large fraction of Iran would become a smoking hole in the ground. Which is what I would have guessed about a Republican administration prior to 2003. Now, I wonder if they might find some reason to bomb Sudan or Indonesia or who knows where. Maybe Zimbabwe, I mean Mugabe is a bad guy, right?

  • Josem

    Oh dear, where to start?

    1. Launching a missle from a fixed platform at sea is nothing like launching a missle from a moving ship at sea. Shahab 3 is an updated liquid fueled scud variant. I suspect that if the Iranians tried the second, the crew of the ship would be the first martyrs in what would be an abortive attack on the United State.

    2. Getting a ship ready for this type of activity should be a pretty hard thing to diguise. I would be willing to bet that we have a pretty good idea of what is going on as far as ship traffic and construction in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

    3. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Iranians were able to successfully do what you have described, who would be the prime candidate for retaliation? Russia? China? Pakistan (maybe…)? India? you get the picture… We would devastate Iran.

    4. There is a military term called a demonstration…:3: a show of armed force” http://mw4.m-w.com/dictionary/demonstration. Iran has threatened Israel with anihilation, some Israeli media has said that the US instends to attack or help Israel attack Iran between November of this year and January of the next.

    …and now back to our regular programming…

  • sophiesdad

    The first President Bush made political alliances with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The next one militarily took over Iraq and Afghanistan. Check what these four countries encircle; I think it is plain that the objective all along has been Iran.

  • ennui

    Relax. Our data analysis shows that they have neither the technical ability nor the financial resources to make the GoldenEye a reality… Besides, wouldn’t they target London first? Only Bond can save us now. In theaters November, 1995.

  • M4985345

    “The only thing Iran is lacking for an effective EMP attack is a nuclear warhead, and no one knows with any certainty when that will occur.”

    And the desire to attack the US, of course.

    It’s not like countries with capabilities to attack the US are lacking on this planet. What seems to be lacking is the will to actually act.

  • J Thomas

    Iran has threatened Israel with anihilation, some Israeli media has said that the US instends to attack or help Israel attack Iran between November of this year and January of the next.

    I should point out that iran has not actually threatened israel with annihiliation.

    But quite likely some israeli media know more about what the US intends than any private US citizen does.

  • Gwern

    Shmuel: the claim that the nuke could not be traced back is unlikely, inasmuch as isotope levels differ from country from country (they all have unique isotopic fingerprints), and this is a pretty reliable method. As others have said, this is a very slanted bit of reporting. (eg, yeah, you would test mid-air explosions if you wanted to attack the US – or any other country, for that matter).

  • Unknown

    I get the same sort of feeling reading the description of this disaster as reading about how the LHC will destroy the earth… in other words, to my uncalibrated judgment, the two events are about equally highly unlikely. I doubt the amount of damage would be remotely close to the amount suggested by the article.

  • http://outlawpoet.tumblr.com Justin Corwin

    “The only thing Iran is lacking for an effective EMP attack is a nuclear warhead, and no one knows with any certainty when that will occur.”

    That’s funny, that’s the only thing I’m lacking for a nuclear attack, and nobody knows when or if I’ll obtain it, either. Better not elect Obama, as I’m sure he doesn’t know how to deal with me when I do that.

    The last half of that article is political nonsense, and the first half is fantasy.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I agree the story Robin chose to mediate this message through is a bit silly, but his analysis of our top catastrophic threat and a suggested prevented measure seems sound.
    I suspect we need more redundancy across the board, including electronics caches.
    And I’ve been thinking, I’m surprised that target regions of nuke attack or accident, particularly New York City, seem to leave so much of their protection up to often less competent national government. Shouldn’t New York City have as a major priority to make sure as few Russian or Chinese nuclear missles are targeting it as possible? This could involve bribing, buying up nuclear missles and components (for destruction) hiring up nuclear scientists/experts, etc. It’s true New York hasn’t been attacked yet, but this could be as much luck as anything. These poinds are probably true for a lesser extent for other target cities and regions. (Note: NYPD already does extensive research including field work overseas regarding threat of islamic terrorist attacks).

  • Josem

    Hopefully… there’s some old technology out there that is extremely EMP resistant. It’s called Vacuum Tube Technology. Back in the day there was a story in military circles that the Mig-25 was a piece of crap because it used vacuum tubes in it’s electronics, and the Soviets were a bunch of backwards folks. The next story that made the rounds was that the MIG-25 was designed to resist EMP effects…Guess which country still has an vacuum tube industry?

  • Doug S.

    There’s a simple solution to the “no return address” problem.

    We simply announce that, in the event of any nuclear attack (EMP or otherwise) on the United States whose origin is not immediately obvious, we massively retaliate against both Iran and North Korea, regardless of whether or not we can prove they were responsible for the attack.

    After we nuke the most likely suspects, we then run the detailed analysis to see if they were, say, smuggled out of Pakistan or Russia or something.

  • master of none

    “We simply announce that, in the event of any nuclear attack (EMP or otherwise) on the United States whose origin is not immediately obvious, we massively retaliate against both Iran and North Korea, regardless of whether or not we can prove they were responsible for the attack.

    After we nuke the most likely suspects, we then run the detailed analysis to see if they were, say, smuggled out of Pakistan or Russia or something.”

    dude, you’re f***ing broke. wake up. you survive as civilized nation as long as china is willing to keep the lifeline extended. when, as in alien movies, the big chinese alien says ‘game over’ and pushes the button you’re done. think new orleans dome type society. that’s the danger not stupid nuclear theories. they already bought you, and now all you and the next generations can do is slave for them. of course you could debase the currency but that will just speed up the outcome. china has about 4 times the population and they each work 5 times as hard (conservatively). so in the spirit of late joszka stalin they can afford to sacrifice a few hundred millions’ welfare to get where they want. so keep looking for nuclear warheads in the sky.

  • Tom

    >We simply announce that, in the event of any nuclear attack (EMP or otherwise) on the United States whose origin is not immediately obvious, we massively retaliate against both Iran and North Korea, regardless of whether or not we can prove they were responsible for the attack.

    If that were the case anyone who wanted to provoke a massive attack on Iran or North Korea could execute a small attack on the United States.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I didn’t anticipate how political would be the reaction. Since Bush is evil and wants to invade every nation possible, if a Republican says to worry about Iran he must be wrong and evil and so we have nothing to worry about, is that the reasoning? But won’t this reasoning also tell us we shouldn’t worry about banks or health care because that’s just what the Democrats want us to think? If Congress established a commission on EMP, shouldn’t we listen a bit when they tell us yes there really is a problem?

    When I say this scenario worries me most I don’t mean to claim more than a 1% chance of it happening. Even if the last ten 1% scenarios people said to worry about never happened, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about the next ten such scenarios.

    J, the wikipedia article makes it clear via physics why small EMP nukes are almost as bad as big ones.

    Josem, why couldn’t they stop the ship before launching? And why can’t Scud parts sit in a cargo hold where passers-by can’t see them?

  • Julian Morrison

    If just letting one off in the atmosphere is maximum-bad worldwide, they probably would launch from Iran and aim it straight up.

    I mean, it’s not like anyone will buy the innocent act.

    On the other hand, I strongly suspect Mr I’mADinnerJacket of being crazy like a fox, viz, he wants nukes to give him the political heft to rebuild the Persian empire and trump the USA’s high ground in Iraq – not to actually use them. He talks like a hair-trigger badass because he wants to play the role of the cold war Russians, whom you couldn’t safely provoke because “they don’t think like us”.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “Since Bush is evil and wants to invade every nation possible” I don’t think you believe this so why go for a strawman? There’s more intelligent criticism of your post right in the comment thread.

  • J Thomas

    Since Bush is evil and wants to invade every nation possible, if a Republican says to worry about Iran he must be wrong and evil and so we have nothing to worry about, is that the reasoning?

    “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

    These guys have fooled you what, a dozen times? Two dozen? Six dozen? And you still listen to them?

    There could be a risk of iran nuking the USA. These liars have provided no information whatsoever about that risk. Only bias. Only lies.

    No, you can’t figure that if they say it it must be wrong. What they say has no reliable negative correlation with the truth. It has no predictive value whatsoever. Except perhaps about their intentions.

    Why would you quote them instead of some source that might have some validity?

    When you quote this source as if it’s an actual newsman reporting about an actual expert, it makes you look like a fool.

  • Shmuel

    “When you quote this source as if it’s an actual newsman reporting about an actual expert, it makes you look like a fool.”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121564702233840875.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1215331010688&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

    “the claim that the nuke could not be traced back is unlikely, inasmuch as isotope levels differ from country from country (they all have unique isotopic fingerprints), and this is a pretty reliable method.”

    I hadn’t considered that. Do countries such as Iran (or Israel) with undisclosed nuclear programs fall into this category? However, even if Iran’s nukes could be traced, Iran’s *threat* is not completely diminished given the theologically apocalyptic nature of the regime…whether its real or an “act” as some imagine. I know Israel is not interested in testing the extent of Iran’s threat. I doubt the US is either, and I’m glad for that.

  • http://ambrosini.us/wordpress pushmedia1

    Is there a named bias for discounting a possibility, in this case to point of deriding those who entertain it, because its “fearful” or “scary”?

    This bias might explain some comments on this thread without having to resort to BDS.

  • Doug S.

    If that were the case anyone who wanted to provoke a massive attack on Iran or North Korea could execute a small attack on the United States.

    Well, anyone with a nuclear bomb, that is. (The idea would be to make Iran and North Korea’s continued existence conditional on the good behavior of anyone that gets their nukes.)

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Christ on a cracker. How can you start pontificating on the risks of a nuclear attack and expect the discussion to be non-political? You’ve heard of Clausewitz, right? “War is the continuation of politics by other means”? If there is any sort of actual risk of an Iranian nuclear attack, or any other kind, that risk is caused by politics and can only be reduced by politics. Do you imagine someone is going to invent some kind of a magic plastic bubble we can place on top of the country that will keep nukes out? Not very likely given that we have thousands of miles of unprotected border and bring in about 10 million shipping containers a year.

    The only way to reduce the risks of war is to have leaders who are not crazy, incompetent, and belligerent. Oh, but that’s politics, mustn’t have that! Instead we’ll just talk about “risks” in the abstract, as if a nuclear strike was in the same category as an asteroid strike — an act of god or nature, instead of something produced by human action.

  • J Thomas

    “When you quote this source as if it’s an actual newsman reporting about an actual expert, it makes you look like a fool.”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121564702233840875.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1215331010688&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

    Thank you for further documenting the madness. Those are interesting editorials, particularly the second, though neither of them give any hint toward actual sources.

    Any residual doubt that Washington has decided to take no action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons dissipated Wednesday with the news that Undersecretary of State William Burns will be participating in EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s negotiations with Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Geneva on Saturday.

    ….

    After all, defending Israel is Israel’s responsibility, not America’s. And on this point, news reports in recent weeks have made it clear that while the US will not attack Iran, it has given Israel a “green light” for a preemptive strike on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear installations.

    Lovely.

  • Ian C.

    Seems a bit far fetched to me, but it’s better to think about it than get caught with your pants down.

  • J Thomas

    “the claim that the nuke could not be traced back is unlikely, inasmuch as isotope levels differ from country from country (they all have unique isotopic fingerprints), and this is a pretty reliable method.”

    I hadn’t considered that. Do countries such as Iran (or Israel) with undisclosed nuclear programs fall into this category?

    If they’ve been observed testing a nuclear weapon, yes. If they haven’t been observed testing then no, not so much. Then you get a result that doesn’t match any known pattern. But surely the israelis have shared samples of their plutonium with the USA so that we’d know their signatures. It would be ridiculous for us to let them set off nukes that we thought were iranian or whatever.

    Would iran launch an untested nuke against the USA, hoping that we couldn’t prove it was them? That seems unlikely to me. There’s the risk it would fizzle, and maybe leave evidence. They’d gain more by testing a nuke to prove to the world they had them. If they did attack us and “get away with it” then they’d do better to close down their nuclear program until we’re no longer able to hit back, because if they later set off a bomb that could be traced to them, like a test or an attack, we’d know.

    Note too that the effects of an EMP attack are not known, it’s kind of like global warming but with a whole lot less evidence. Would fanatics risk everything on this unproven chance? How stupid would they feel, if they went through all the motions and then it didn’t work? Like a suicide bomber who finds out at the last minute his suicide belt just makes a little pop and blows a small hole in him that kills him slowly….

    The FUD isn’t all on one side. The attempt here is to generate enough Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt to get us to stage an unprovoked attack on iran. But if iran does get nukes and then gets a psychotic government which considers making an unprovoked nuclear attack with no concern for their own lives or their own people, they have the FUD that it might be ineffective and they waste it, for nothing.

  • Dario

    EMP risk could be significantly reduced by building electrical shielding into electronics and communications systems, for a fractional cost premium of about 3-10%. Shielding all electronics in the US would probably not be feasible (or necessarily worthwhile), but protecting critical communications systems and the electrical grid itself would be relatively cheap and might vastly speed recovery from an attack. Simple technical fixes like this seem underemphasized relative to expensive, large-scale military responses.

  • Shmuel

    “Thank you for further documenting the madness. Those are interesting editorials, particularly the second, though neither of them give any hint toward actual sources.”

    All 3 articles reference the testimony of William Graham, the name of a real person with a documented position. More than one can say about the average Seymour Hersh article on the same subject published in the New Yorker.

    “If they haven’t been observed testing then no, not so much. Then you get a result that doesn’t match any known pattern.”

    Then, worst case, an Iranian EMP would in fact not be traceable.

  • J Thomas

    All 3 articles reference the testimony of William Graham, the name of a real person with a documented position.

    Yes, but they give no information about how to find a credible source.

  • Shmuel

    “Yes, but they give no information about how to find a credible source.”

    Well, for starters, an interested journalist could ask William Graham! “No information…about…a credible source” is closer to what Seymour Hersh does when he says things like “a high ranking intelligence official said” etc. (I’m guessing you are not a fan of Hersh’s investigative journalism despite my inference that his analysis on Iran is more in line with your own?)

    So there is actually wonderful information in this article about a credible source, i.e. the name of the person doing the talking!

  • miki

    A tactical nuclear weapon smuggled into New York seems the most likely scenario.

  • Josem

    Robin:

    A ship carrying an assembled Scud would stick out like a sore thumb – so yes, WE probably would stop the ship before launching.

    The result of assembling and fueling a dismantled Scud missle on an unstable platform like a ship would most likely lead to the scenario I pointed out – the crew would be the first martyrs…

    Shooting a missle from a submarine or a ship is far from a routine procedure, and dangerous even for navies such as ours that have years of practice.

  • Chance

    “The only thing Iran is lacking for an effective EMP attack is a nuclear warhead, and no one knows with any certainty when that will occur.”

    First, Iran would need a functioning nuclear weapon. Then, it would need to figure out how to create a small enough weapon to fit into the missile’s warhead. Neither are trivial engineering problems. What about ruggedizing the weapon for the extremes of launch? This article makes it sound like the Iranians could have all this tommorrow. Wrong. Fearmongering at its worst.

    But let’s say a nuke were smuggled in a port or something, no missile needed. All the debate about “return adress” and needing proof is then moot. The U.S. lashed out after the non nuclear 9/11. Any Iranian strategic analysis would take into account the likelyhood that the regime would be targeted by us based merely on the suspicion of their involvement. The risk is simply too great for them to attack us with a WMD in CONUS.

    Now, many argue that the regime is “irrational”, so we can’t be sure they wouldn’t use their nuke, whenever they get one. We could argue that all day, but I have yet to see any strong evidence that Iran actually conducts policies contrary to its percieved interests (which would be irrational). Policy in accordance with their percieved interest is practically the definition of rationality. Just because we dislike their percieved interests doesn’t make their policy irrational.

  • Some Random Economist

    I agree with Ian. I see this all as being very far-fetched, but I still have bug-out bags and other emergency supplies in my house.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Regardless of the actual degree of risk from this specific threat, isn’t the general lesson that we need to consider investing considerably more in defensive aspects of our technologies? Most of what we build is based on the assumption that it will just work as designed. We tend to ignore the three sigma events that could bring catastrophic failure. But it seems that we may be entering a more chaotic phase of the world and of human society. In this post 9/11 era, it’s much harder to have confidence that some seemingly remote failure mode won’t be discovered and exploited. On top of this we are facing increasing environmental problems, as we strain the carrying capacity of earth defined by our current technologies – again, often deployed to maximize efficiency at the expense of robustness.

    Defensive technology designs are likely to be extremely expensive, especially given the range of potential threats to worry about. I don’t know if we are rich enough to seriously address this problem. It would be good if there were some relatively low cost investments that would offer robustness against a wide range of threats. Simple things like getting everyone to store food and water might save many lives if things break a certain way.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: Is there a named bias for discounting a possibility […] because its “fearful” or “scary”?

    See:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valence_effect
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimism_bias
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wishful_thinking

  • J Thomas

    “No information…about…a credible source” is closer to what Seymour Hersh does when he says things like “a high ranking intelligence official said” etc. (I’m guessing you are not a fan of Hersh’s investigative journalism despite my inference that his analysis on Iran is more in line with your own?)

    Yes, agreed. Hersh has reported things that were verified, like Abu Ghraib. But he has also repeatedly predicted that the US military was about to attack iran, and none of those predictions has ever panned out. Hersh can publicixe leaked info, but he doesn’t have a lot of resources to tell whether the leaks are disinformation. It could be argued that he might think his job is to spread interesting stories, not to find a way to fact-check leaks of classified data.

    So there is actually wonderful information in this article about a credible source, i.e. the name of the person doing the talking!

    No, now you’re claiming that Graham is a credible source. But the very fact that Graham presented this report to Congress — gigantic bias, a few facts, a lot of factoids — is solid evidence that he is not a credible source at all.

  • J

    OK how hard can it be for a blog like this to just go for a few cycles of “conjecture, search, verify” for concrete data? You don’t have to be a government agent to make some guesses, google around, make a few phone calls to see what’s up…

    Like maybe try to verify simply that the source exists?

    A little work: Neither of these guys look like the guy you’d want to talk to in order to verify the story but here are the two William Graham’s with D.C. LinkedIn accounts who might know him just because of the coincidence of their names:
    The CEO of Graham Technologies and a Vendor Manager for Sprint-Nextel. There’s also three listed phone numbers in DC for “William Graham” to try and if we want to spreading the search (on the assumption that political people give each other money all over the place and it leaves trails?) maybe try drilling down through this list of 30 states with Willaim Grahams who have donated money to political causes (for example the one in MA who gave Kerry $250 in 2004) and see if contact info for each is available?

    I’m sure there are people here who are more clever than me who can think of more clever googling and actually place a few phone calls or whatever. Like, shouldn’t a group this committed to rationality and so drenched in warnings about politics being a “mind killer” be able to figure out some experiments to run that would settle arguments rather than drift off into the same “back seat driver” war gaming talk that you find everywhere else on the net?

    Ping! (This was the last link I followed up on after composing the above.) I think I found some congressional testimony from William R. Graham back in 1996 that includes some backstory:

    B.S. in Physics from the California Institute of Technology
    M.S. in Engineering Science from Stanford
    Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford

    1962-1965: Served on active duty with the Air Force as a project officer at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base. Albuquerque. New Mexico.

    1965-1971: Member, Professional Staff, Physics Department of the RAND Corporation.

    1971-1985: Co-founder, Division Manager, and Senior Associate of R&D Associates.

    1982-1985: Confirmed to serve as the Chairman of President Reagan’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament.

    1985-1986: After confirmation by the Senate, served as the Deputy Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency.

    1986-1989: Confirmed by the Senate to serve as Science Advisor to President Reagan and concurrently as Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Chairman of the Federal Coordinating Council on Science and Technology, and Chairman of the Federal Joint Telecommunications Resources Board.

    1989-1993: Chairman of the Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative Advisory Committee.

    It’s still not contact information connecting to a voice on the phone, but it’s a lot more info about someone who probably exists and might be able to answer questions.

  • J Thomas

    A tactical nuclear weapon smuggled into New York seems the most likely scenario.

    It depends on the attacker’s goal.

    If the goal is to kill a lot of insurance salesmen, real estate agents, and telemarketers, and drive a whole lot of americans crazy, then New York City would be a good target.

    If the goal is to damage our infrastructure, maybe the nearby oil facilities would be better, the largest oil port in the country. And the largest container ship facility on the east coast (second largest in the nation) is near. Someone who studied our transportation network might decide that either of those is a more important target than NYC, which by some analyses is a net liability for the nation.

    It depends on what the attacker wants. An attack that damages us a little and that persuades us to take precautions that would themselves damage us far more, is one plausible goal. An attack that drives us crazy and drives us to retaliate blindly against our usual suspects would be a different plausible goal, perhaps for a different attacker.

    At the risk of sounding kooky, I will talk about a dream I once had. It was in the early 1980’s, and in my dream I was driving on a road south of Birmingham toward the community of Mountain Brook. A lot of other drivers seemed to go crazy, they were doing weird things, and I pulled off the road. Then a nuke went off in Mountain Brook. I counted the seconds from the flash to the weak groundswell and then the sound, and estimated it at about 200KT, a ground burst or very low. I was wondering how such a thing could possibly happen when I woke up. It was only a dream, but before that I’d been sure that a lot of smart people had devoted their lives to keeping that from happening and I trusted them, and after the dream I had doubts. I thought about the dream, wondering how it could make sense. Mountain Brook was a residential community with nothing very important, nestled behind a low mountain range that would tend to shield Birmingham from the effects of a low nuke. It didn’t make sense that anybody would bomb that. The only thing Mountain Brook was known for was for having one of the largest concentrations of multimillionaires in the country.

    And then it made a kind of sense. We consistently assumed that the USSR would target our population concentrations to kill as many americans as possible. But they were officially communists. If they really believed that the mass of the US proletariat was enslaved and not responsible, would they slaughter them? Or would they try to kill the capitalists? And I realised that I really didn’t know what the russian communists would do. I’d assumed I knew that without a second thought, because I’d never seen anybody doubt it.

  • http://erichsieht.wordpress.com/category/english/ Sven Türpe

    Another troubling group of tests involved Shahab-3 launches where the Iranians “detonated the warhead near apogee, not over the target area where the thing would eventually land, but at altitude,” Graham said.

    An alternative explanation comes to my mind immediately: one might do just the same to avoid a number of troubles related to not reliably hitting a predetermined landing zone. Sending a missile to, say, Russia doesn’t sound like a good idea even if it is just an accident.

  • Shmuel

    “No, now you’re claiming that Graham is a credible source.”

    Yeah, he sounds like a real slacker.

  • chance

    ‘Hersh has reported things that were verified, like Abu Ghraib. But he has also repeatedly predicted that the US military was about to attack iran, and none of those predictions has ever panned out’

    While it isn’t likely, you have to also consider the paradox of warning in those cases. By warning that an event is about to take place, you encourage action that will prevent the action. I yell to you that a car is about to hit you so you jump out of the way. Now, my prediction was wrong, but had I said nothing it would have been correct. It’s more likely that Hersh just occasionally gets fed disinformation or has plain old bad sources, but never discount the paradox.

  • J Thomas

    J, is there any reason to talk to Graham? When we were funding SDI under Reagan, the actual scientists and engineers said it wouldn’t work. The money quote I got from Larry ****** at SAIC, “It can’t work, but now my retirement is assured.” But the top SDI guys said we had to spend the money anyway, that we couldn’t prove it wouldn’t work.

    So later they said even though it wouldn’t work, still there was a possibility it would work against an attack from china, who only had 15 missiles and warheads. But pretty soon china had 250 nukes and it wouldn’t work against china either.

    So now here’s the same guy, claiming that one single missile from iran could destroy the nation, and SDI can shoot down that missile. He has a solution that’s looking for a problem. He’s been lying about it for 20+ years.

    Why would you pay attention to him this time around?

    If you want information about this potential problem, why get it from somebody who’s been lying about it for a long time? “Fool me once….”

  • Brandon

    I detect a lot of emotional rather than logical responses in this comment thread.