An obscure congressional committee was set to disband this fall after issuing apocalyptic warnings since 2001 about an attack it claimed could kill most of the U.S. population.
An electromagnetic pulse attack, or EMP, from a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere could leave only about 30 million Americans alive and a “basically rural economy” where survivors would be forced to produce their own food and other goods, William Graham, chairman of the aptly named Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP Attack, told a House committee in 2008.
The Defense Department was set to let Graham’s long-standing commission expire in September, but Congress has just granted it a second life.
A new EMP commission with 12 lifetime appointees will be created by the House and Senate under the National Defense Authorization Act, a massive annual policy bill the lawmakers sent to President Trump’s desk last week. The president is expected to sign the NDAA.
The move to renew the commission’s work comes just as interest in EMP has spiked due to threats from North Korea. The regime, which is aggressively developing long-range nuclear weapons, claimed in September to have developed an H-bomb capable of a “super powerful EMP attack” on the U.S.
The new EMP commission will be tasked with looking into the “nature, magnitude and likelihood” of such threats, including military vulnerabilities.
Graham and the old commission recommended a new Cabinet secretary to deal with the threat and that the president declare an EMP attack justifies a preemptive or retaliatory nuclear strike.
The years of work and dire warnings have been met with skepticism and sometimes ridicule from experts. Graham has blamed “uninformed persons posturing as experts” for criticisms that the commission had overblown a theoretical and unrealistic threat.
“Just six months ago, some academics dismissed EMP Commission warnings and even literally laughed on National Public Radio at the idea North Korea could make an EMP attack,” Graham told a House Homeland Security subcommittee in October.
The academic was Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear arms expert of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who was asked during an NPR interview in April about the possibility of North Korea EMP attack.
Lewis answered with a long, deep laugh. “Take that as a ‘no,’” the NPR reporter said.
“This is the favorite nightmare scenario of a small group of very dedicated people,” Lewis told the radio program.
The idea is that a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere over the U.S. would fry the power grid over a wide swatch of the country. But critics point out that such an attack is mostly untested and it would be unclear the altitude at which such a bomb would need to be detonated in order to create enough damage. And if the North Koreans went to the trouble and expense of building a weapon that could make it to the airspace above the U.S., it would make more sense to bomb a city rather than attempting the less-damaging goal of knocking out the grid. Plus, sending a nuclear weapon to the U.S., even if it didn't touch the ground, would more than likely trigger a nuclear response from the U.S. to the country of origin.
Still, the EMP commission has been somewhat successful in framing the debate and its most enduring contribution may be the often repeated estimate that such an attack could kill nine out of 10 Americans.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey and Peter Pry, a commission member and former congressman, cited the statistic in a March column warning about North Korea, and it has been repeated in numerous news stories.
The claim dates back to an exchange in Graham’s 2008 testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on the EMP threat.
“I read a prepublication copy of a book called ‘One Second After.’ I hope it does get published, I think the American people need to read it,” then-Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., a founder of the EMP commission, told Graham. “It was the story of a ballistic missile EMP attack on our country.”
The fictional apocalyptic thriller by William Forstchen was published. It includes a forward by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has also been a key booster for increased defenses against such attacks.
“The story runs for a year. It is set in the hills of North Carolina. At the end of the year, 90 percent of our population is dead,” Bartlett said. “I understand that this is a realistic assessment of what a really robust EMP laydown could do to our country?”
Graham said the book’s estimate is “in the correct range” based on the commission’s understanding.
“We don’t have experience with losing the infrastructure in a country with 300 million people, most of whom don’t live in a way that provides for their own food and other needs,” he told Bartlett. “We can go back to an era when people did live like that. That would be — 10 percent would be 30 million people, and that is probably the range where we could survive as a basically rural economy.”