Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fact check: James Woolsey's EMP death toll

Two years ago (almost exactly), I wrote about former CIA director James Woolsey, in the context of fact checking a claim by Josh Marshall that Woolsey persisted in believing that Saddam Hussein was the mastermind of 9/11. I was not able to verify Marshall's claim but also noted that I had "no firm opinions" about Woolsey in general. I now have some opinions based on the former CIA director's hype-ridden, fear-mongering op-ed "How North Korea Could Kill 90 Percent of Americans."

The supposed basis for that headline is in this passage from Woolsey's piece:

In February and March of 2015, former senior national security officials of the Reagan and Clinton administrations warned that North Korea should be regarded as capable of delivering by satellite a small nuclear warhead, specially designed to make a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States. According to the Congressional EMP Commission, a single warhead delivered by North Korean satellite could blackout the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for over a year—killing 9 of 10 Americans by starvation and societal collapse.

Me: The 90 percent figure is sourced to 2008 congressional testimony by physicist William Graham, chairman of the EMP Commission. Where did it come from? A novel. It was brought up in a question by then congressman Roscoe Bartlett. The full question and answer:

Me: The 90 percent figure does not appear in the EMP Commission's report. The section of that report that deals with food supply does not attempt to quantify the casualties that would result from a disruption of food supply; it does note, as Graham alluded to in his testimony, that about 30 million people lived on farms in 1900, but provides no analysis suggesting that a similar number would be the survivors of an EMP attack. Indeed, even while raising an alarm about what an EMP could do to food security, the report gives an impression of consequences more limited than the scenario extracted from the novel.

The report states, for instance: "An EMP attack could, in effect, temporarily create in the United States the technological conditions in the food and transportation infrastructures that have resulted in developing world famines." Me: Even the worst famines of modern times did not approach a 90 percent destruction of large populations.

Nonetheless, the 90 percent figure has gained some traction in public discussion of the EMP threat, as in an article by entrepreneur (and presidential aspirant) John McAfee stating that "Experts agree that an all out cyber attack, beginning with an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack on our electronic infrastructure, would wipe out 90% of the human population of this country within two years of the attack. That means the death of 270 million people within 24 months after the attack."

As for Roscoe Bartlett, who raised the question, he reportedly has adopted a post-congressional lifestyle as a survivalist.

As for Woolsey, his willingness to assert an alarmist claim that has a weak (and indeed fictional) basis does not speak well for his judgment and credibility. The possibility that he may be more level-headed and credible than some of the other people who have advised Donald Trump on national security thus becomes all the more disturbing.