Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tried to hold a hearing on the international nuclear agreement with Iran, but the discussion wasn’t especially fruitful. It was clear the hearing, such as it was, was pretty far off track when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, “Do you know what EMP is?”
Today, evidently, it was Sen. Ted Cruz’s turn.
CRUZ: Secretary Moniz, I want to turn to a different question. The single greatest threat to the United States if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon is an Electromagnetic Pulse. A nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere over the Eastern seaboard could kill tens of millions of Americans. On July 23rd in testimony before Congress, you told the United States Senate you hadn’t read the Congressionally mandated Commission on EMPs and that you didn’t know what an EMP was.MONIZ: That is incorrect. I said I did not know this 2008 report recommendations. I said I was quite familiar with the issue. And we all know about EMPs from airburst nuclear weapons.
The right-wing Texan, apparently competing in some imaginary competition to become America’s Most Obnoxious Politician, said it was “stunning” to him that Moniz doesn’t know what an EMP is.
The Energy Secretary, who also happens to be a nuclear physicist and longtime MIT professor, tried to explain to Cruz, “Of course I know about the issue. I happen to know something about nuclear weapons; I know about EMPs; I know about various….”
Cruz, growing impatient, insisted that an EMP “could kill tens of millions of Americans” and demanded to know whether Moniz considered that possible. The cabinet secretary – who earned a PhD in theoretical physics from Stanford and is considered one of the top nuclear physicists in the country – responded by noting the importance of specifics.
The GOP senator quickly grew agitated and whined about Moniz “refusing to answer the question.”
The point of this nonsense is readily apparent. As Salon’s Simon Maloy explained last week, “The real purpose in … bringing up the Iranian EMP threat is to get people terrified about the nuclear deal with Iran.”
It works like this: Iran enters into an agreement that denies the country a nuclear weapons program; Iranians magically get nuclear weapons anyway; they somehow launch one over U.S. airspace; and the electromagnetic pulse knocks out our power grid, creating a dystopian nightmare and Mad Max-style chaos.
Ted Cruz is obviously worried about this. So is Ron Johnson. Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson have also recently raised the prospect of this dreadful EMP threat.
You, however, shouldn’t be worried at all.
As we talked about after Huckabee’s reference, fears of weapons with electromagnetic pulses are often a very big deal in right-wing circles. WorldNetDaily, the fringe conspiracy-theory website popular with Rand Paul and his followers, has published “dozens of articles over the years warning its readers of an impending attack on the U.S. – possibly by Iran, North Korea, or Cuba – with an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon that could leave ‘9 out of 10 Americans dead.’”
Simon Maloy’s recent piece on this is worth revisiting,:
The “exploded device” Huckabee mentioned is a nuclear weapon that some nefarious actor – Iran, North Korea, al-Qaida, ISIS, [insert other international villain] – has managed to detonate in the atmosphere high above the United States. The nuclear blast sends gamma rays flying in all directions, which produce high-energy electrons, which create an electromagnetic pulse that will damage electronic systems. According to the Federation of American Scientists, to create an EMP that would affect the entire country, the malefactor in question would have to detonate a “large device” some 400-500 kilometers over Wichita – roughly the altitude at which the International Space Station orbits earth.This isn’t what you’d call a “likely” event, but it’s nonetheless on Huckabee’s mind.
As Maloy’s piece added, the point isn’t that the U.S. power grid is invulnerable. On the contrary, its weaknesses have been well documented, and when the White House makes the case for infrastructure improvements, this is routinely part of the pitch congressional Republicans ignore.
But such an attack is “not likely to happen because getting a nuclear weapon into the atmosphere above the United States is an insanely complicated and sophisticated task with a low probability of success.”
Or as Max Fisher put it last week, “Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons are a nonsense science fiction ’threat’ and a longtime point of obsession among certain conservatives, such as Newt Gingrich…. [This] line of questioning, to a top-of-his-field nuclear physicist, is a little like asking Neil Armstrong if he thinks the moon landing might have been faked.”