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Newt Gingrich's EMP Warning Ties Derecho Aftermath To Attack Risk

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Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich

WASHINGTON -- Some young conservatives heard an apocalyptic warning Tuesday morning from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich when the conservative Republican told a right-wing student conference that the massive power outages following the powerful June 29 derecho storm gave a taste of what an "electromagnetic pulse attack" would be like.

(Listen to Gingrich's dire warnings in the above video -- things get alarming at the 27:30 mark.)

"Any of you who were in Washington during the recent week-long opportunity to experiment with an electromagnetic pulse attack, just talk to people, we were out of electricity for seven days at our house," said the moon colonization enthusiast during his speech at the Young America's Foundation's National Conservative Student Conference, where he was speaking about threats to American security. (Other threats include radical Islamists, China and cyber attacks, which Gingrich said he's writing a novel about.)

What exactly is Gingrich worried about?

An electromagnetic pulse attack -- or EMP -- is a favorite terrifying idea of some conservatives and survivalists.

Here's how the Heritage Foundation describes EMPs in a 2010 paper:

EMP is triggered by the detonation of a nuclear weapon at a high altitude over the earth. As a result of this detonation, an electromagnetic field radiates down to the earth, creating electrical currents.

These fields cause widespread damage to electrical systems -- the lifeblood of a modern society like the U.S. In turn, the damaged electronic systems can cause a cascade of failures throughout the broader infrastructure, including banking systems, energy systems, transportation systems, food production and delivery systems, water systems, emergency services, and -- perhaps most damaging -- cyberspace.

Effectively, the U.S. would be thrown back to the pre-industrial age following a widespread EMP attack.

Gingrich has been talking about EMP attacks for years -- since at least 2004, according to The New York Times.

The one-time presidential hopeful has been talking about EMP attacks and the derecho power outages more or less since the storm struck, tweeting about it that weekend then writing an op-ed for The Washington Post about how the derecho outages were a mild version of what an actual EMP attack would be like.

Gingrich has a proposal, too -- a plan to "harden at least part of the national electric grid against an EMP attack or major solar storm."

During the Q&A session, none of the attendees asked Gingrich about EMP attacks. But one did ask how to become a better debater, though. Gingrich recommended he "listen to the other side":

"What is their argument? Why do they believe that? Where does that come from?" Gingrich said. "And is there a simple factual rebuttal?"

In the case of Gingrich's interest in EMPs, there may be a simple factual rebuttal.

The New York Times, among others, reported last year that scientists aren't quite convinced this form of attack is realistic:

Critics of such pre-emptive attacks say their advocates ignore, among other things, that Iran is having trouble keeping its missile bases from blowing up and that North Korea cannot seem to get a big rocket off the ground without it tumbling out of control.

To even begin to attempt to do what Mr. Gingrich fears, these rogue states would have to perfect big rockets, powerful bombs and surreptitious ways to loft them high above America, military experts say. And if they did -- and there are much easier ways to deliver a nuclear bomb than by missile, these experts argue -- United States defenses would spring into action.

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