09/24/2013 08:35 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Keeping Armageddon at Bay

During my years as senior officer in the Signal Corps, I devoted a considerable amount of time to command and control of our nuclear arsenal, a scope of responsibility that included the U.S.-Moscow "Hot Line" which was set up to prevent a misunderstanding between the superpowers from erupting into a full-fledged nuclear war.

Down through the years, faulty communications have often precipitated all-out conflict that resulted in massive destruction and loss of life. World War I with its millions of dead and ghastly destruction fell into that category. There were no ideological issues at stake in 1914 -- just blundering statesmen talking past each other. A more effective system of communication might have averted that debacle.

Command and control of nuclear weapons -- preventing accidental conflicts -- was always a challenging undertaking rendered even more challenging by the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons that could be easily moved around. I shudder when I think back during the Cold War about how many people could have touched off a conflagration if they wanted to. Granted, we had safeguards built into the system, as did the Soviets, but there was always potential for a breakdown. I think it is fair to say that both the United States and the Soviet Union deserve a lot of credit for not letting that happen during the Cold War.

Today our two countries are systematically dismantling thousands of nuclear warheads in a cooperative effort to reduce the threat. Something could still go wrong, of course. Unbalanced or unscrupulous individuals on either side could yet precipitate a nuclear exchange. But thus far the forces of reason and restraint have prevailed, for which we can all be grateful.

However, the determination of terrorists to foment death and destruction today is something new on the world stage. For all of their bluster, the Soviets were sane human beings who wanted to survive. We are now dealing with fanatical individuals who glorify death and will stop at nothing to destroy western culture and values. They are vying mightily for control of Pakistan, a nation with a substantial nuclear arsenal. And nuclear weapons are not our only concern. As recent events in Syria have demonstrated, chemical and biological weapons pose almost as grave a threat to world peace as nuclear weapons, and are much simpler to manage.

Keeping tabs on the fanatics is an awesome challenge, and the people who have exposed our most secret communications on the Internet have made it even more complicated. In this perilous age, it is more vital than ever that our intelligence agencies have the ability to track terrorist communications and identify threats to our country. Intelligence gathering has always been crucial to national security, and never more so than today.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.