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Thinking the unthinkable

Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attack, a savvy political opponent of President Bush publicly asked, “What did he know … And when did he know it?” Sen. Clinton was aware that whatever the answer to that question, it would work out negatively for the president. He didn’t know? “Poor Intelligence!” He knew and failed to stop it? “Poor Leadership!” He knew it was coming and stopped it? “A political ploy to gain support.” Predicting disasters for a country can be a dangerous game for the “predictor.” Why? Because I’m going to make a prediction and you are not going to like it.

The horrific tsunami Asia just suffered snuffed out a quarter of a million lives. There were no protective systems in place to protect these people, even though this event had been predicted. A recent (Jan. 10) Wall Street Journal article explained that in the summer of 1998, a scientist who had been the chief of meteorology for Thailand,had solidly predicted this event. In a speech widely carried in the local Thai newspapers, he stated: “I reaffirm that a tsunami is going to occur for sure” in the waters off Thailand. Did they listen to him? Yes. In fact, the Thai government, after reading this, vehemently attacked Mr. Smith Dharmasaroja as “a dangerous man, with a screw loose.” The Journal also provided additional details. The Thai government, to make its point, went on to define Smith as “a mad, mad crazy dog.” Then, in case there was any doubt, they fired him. So here we have an accurate prediction from a reliable source that might have saved 250,000 lives, had it been acted on. And what was the impact on the predictor? He was literally tarred and feathered. Lessons learned? Predicting the future entails risk.

I have knowingly opened myself up to considerable risk, for in mid-November, I was asked and agreed to give a one-hour talk for the U.S. Air Force on terrorism. The title? “Thinking the Unthinkable-A Nuclear Terrorist attack on the U.S.A.” Don’t like that subject? Neither do I. But like it or not, it’s a real and valid threat. I have spent the last 15 years in the business of “Information” for the U.S. military and decided that this topic was worth exploring. I would be untruthful if I said I wasn’t a little nervous addressing this problem. But I believe that at this time, it is very likely that we will see a terrorist nuclear detonation on U.S. soil. Three momentous occurrences drive me to say this: The loss of control by Russia of its nuclear weapons stockpiles; the fanatic hatred of the U.S. by the Muslim terrorist world (Point of fact: the Saudi Government’s daily newspaper just published an article in which it charged that the U.S. military was harvesting and selling human organs in Iraq.); and finally, the resources being provided to the terrorists by several nations that want, above all else, to see the United States crippled.

Since delivering this talk, two recent news items have confirmed the validity of my nervousness. In the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 9, 2004), there was a revealing article written by Greg Jaffe, titled: “Rumsfield’s Gaze is Trained Beyond Iraq.” The meat of this story is a graph showing U.S. Defense Department resources as they were postured for emphasis in 1997, then compared to how they are dedicated in 2004. The words describing “conflict type” that the U.S. is concerned about, are, almost, the same for both graphs. The only difference is three words that are added for 2004. They read : “Catastrophic Terrorist Attack” That is “public speak” for “nuclear.” This was followed by a piece from the Washington Times (Jan. 14) where, according to RC Bonner, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, “Al-Qaida terrorists continue to pose a significant threat to the United States, which includes the use of nuclear devices.” That is “public speak” for “bombs.” One is prompted to ask: “How bad can it be?” if my prediction comes true?

For a rough cut at this answer, I’ll use the resources presented in View Foil No. 30 of my talk.

The information was obtained from a book [UNCLASSIFIED] published in Britain in 1985 titled: “Atlas of Global Strategy – War & Peace in the Nuclear Age.” It details the impact of a possible nuclear bomb explosion at the tip of a U.S. island called “Manhattan.” That’s right, New York City. Since I was born and raised there, it caught my attention. This chart displays a series of rings centered on the theoretical impact area, the tip of Manhattan about a mile from where the World Trade Center once stood. Depending on the size of the nuclear explosion, this chart puts it quite clearly, stating, “Circles contain areas where, for the given explosive yield, most of the population would be killed.” As a New Yorker, and choosing a bomb with a yield that could today be readily anticipated, this terrorist attack would, by my estimate, produce a casualty figure of about 3 million dead.

That is a sobering prediction. So, senator, feel free to ask: “What did the professor know, and when did he know it?” You could also ask, is he just another “dangerous man with a screw loose?”

Only time will tell.

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Fred Levien moved to Grass Valley after 12 years at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he was a professor in Electronic Warfare and Founding Chairman of the Information Warfare Department.