Matt Corley over at ThinkProgress noted yesterday that former Arkansas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee has got a brand new thing going on, freaking out America with worry that terrorists are going to subject the United States to an electromagnetic pulse attack. Huckabee is the recently-announced keynote speaker at the EMPACT America Conference this September 9-10 at the Seneca Niagara Hotel and Casino in Niagara Falls, New York. I'm guessing you can TiVo the Glenn Beck show for further details.
To put it in a way that would allow Sarah Palin to tweet about it, electromagnetic pulses are a secondary effect of a nuclear explosion, and, depending on the payload and altitude of the blast, the extent to which gamma rays and electrons could potentially get all riled up is such that it could fry electronic devices and delivery infrastructure across a vast land mass. Most Americans are probably familiar with EMP attacks through their pseudo-scientific depictions in spy novels or in the hit caper movie, Oceans 11:
Outside of enabling Don Cheadle to assist in robbing the Bellagio, what sort of threat does an electromagnetic pulse attack pose? Well, according to The New Republic's Michael Crowley, the threat is very real, but you'd have to find a terrorist who prefers convoluted and exotic means of attack to actual effective ones:
There is a scientific basis for fears about widespread electric outages, and there is evidence that other countries, possibly including Iran, have studied the technique. "EMP is real," agrees Joe Cirincione, a nuclear weapons expert who now runs a pro-disarmament think tank, the Ploughshares Fund. But, as Cirincione notes, few analysts take the threat very seriously. The odds that Iran or North Korea would prefer a technologically untested Rube Goldberg scheme to merely nuking us seem slim. And any terrorist group able to execute such a plan was probably capable enough to get us one way or another anyhow.
Those realities argue overwhelmingly for prudent but unsexy infrastructure protections, not preemptive attacks or advanced technology. "It's horror theater," says Cirincione, "trying to scare Americans into doing something which a rational analysis would stop them from doing." Charles Ferguson, a nuclear engineer at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees. "[T]here are some important things we can be doing that won't cost much, but that can serve as a vital backup," he says. For instance, Ferguson has advised the New York City Fire Department to keep some backup communications equipment and extra ignition switches for its trucks in electromagnetic pulse-resistant steel cages.
So, how has it come to pass that various members of the GOP, such as Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Curt Weldon (all of whom will appear at the EMPACT event, along with the "godfather of EMP alarmism," Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.)) have fixed upon the ornate and unlikely possibility of an EMP attack as a cause celebre? As Corley points out, fearmongering on EMP attacks allow them to "to argue for 'familiar hobbyhorses' like missile defense and preemptive military strikes." OH! You thought maybe that they were going to advocate a lot of free-market solutions to this problem?
It's a weird obsession for a group of people who not long ago, chortled at the thought of the government providing for public safety in the form of volcano monitoring.