As much as any other congressional professional staffer, my decade in service on Capitol Hill bore witness to innumerable competing discussions of existential threats to our nation's security and calls to action.
It was our duty then, and remains so today as fellow citizens, to place these threats in context and order of feasibility and cost. Our national debt, adversarial state actors, the Islamic State, and other non-state actors all demand time and share of scarce resources. It is in this context that any renewed focus and energy spent discussing potential Electromagnetic Pulse attacks should be placed.
In a recent hearing of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski put the issue in context. "The United States has recognized a potential EMP attack as a national security threat for decades, and our efforts to understand a potential EMP burst are not new." In fact, the Department of Defense and national labs have been studying these issues since nuclear weapons came into existence. Extensive tests in the 1950s and 1960s examined the potential impact of an EMP burst on both military and civilian infrastructure. The threat remains under study.
However, an opinion piece the preceding month, should give one pause. In March 2017, former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey and Peter Pry Wrote an op-ed in The Hill claiming an EMP attack "Could Kill 90 Percent Of Americans."
Tracing the link provided in the article, it cites the words of Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, who describes a novel he had read called One Second After. Bartlett reported: "The weapon was launched about 300 miles high over Nebraska, and it shut down our infrastructure countrywide… At the end of the year, 90 percent of our population is dead; there are 25,000 people only still alive in New York City."
Woolsey and Pry frequently produce EMP alarmist articles, that cite this statistic of an EMP attack killing most Americans. Woolsey has called the grid "totally vulnerable" to an EMP attack and called for $2 billion in funding to "fortify" the grid.
All the while, Woolsey has worked with three different venture capital firms who have investments in companies that could profit off of EMP hysteria.
Woolsey is currently a Strategic Advisor with Paladin Capital, a D.C.-based private equity group who invests in cybersecurity, telecommunications, and alternative energy companies.
He is also a venture partner with Lux Capital, a firm who focuses on "long-term bets on contrarians" in emerging technologies. Lux Capital is invested in energy-based companies including Gridco, a company who creates systems to help utilities avoid possible power disturbances and Crystal IS, which works on water purification. Before joining Lux Capital, Woolsey was a Venture Partner with VantagePoint Venture Capital, a group who invested in companies looking at "grid optimization" while he was a partner. Clearly, these interests should be kept in mind when we consider advice on EMPs, even it is from the former head of the CIA.
Leading off the May 2017 witnesses at the hearing in front of the Senate ENR Committee was Cheryl LaFleur, Acting Chairman, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Her testimony is worth noting:
… while there has been much written regarding the nature of the threat from EMP, consensus has not been reached regarding how best to protect against it. While the military has developed protocols to protect key assets, these protocols have been described by Los Alamos National Laboratory as "not widely implemented in civilian applications due to the expense," and by Idaho National Laboratory as "focused on load center protection for communication stations, control and mission critical facilities, not distribution, transmission and large generation assets for the electric power grid.
Given the scope and potential cost of an effort to protect the entire grid against an EMP attack, it would be imprudent for FERC to launch a mandatory standard unless it concludes that the standard would effectively mitigate the threat at a justifiable cost. Ongoing research by DHS, DOE, and others eventually may support such a conclusion, but to date, FERC has not reached that conclusion.
In other words, the EMP threat is real, but in today's world of competing challenges, not a top threat or priority in an age of limited resources. Let's hope our policymakers listen to the head of FERC, and not alarmists with financial ties to industries hoping to profit from EMP preparations.
Gregory T. Kiley is a former senior professional staff member, Senate Armed Services Committee; and U.S. Air Force Officer.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.