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Active from 2001 to 2009, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (EMP Commission) was initially established by the U.S. House Armed Services Committee under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2001. Sponsored by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), the EMP Commission served as a cornerstone of right-wing advocacy on national defense policy. Advocates seeking to spread alarm about the purported threat of EMP attacks, which would involve the detonation of nuclear weapons in the upper atmosphere to generate a pulse that would knock out electronics-based infrastructure, have repeatedly used the findings of this commission to advocate increased funding for costly weapons programs such as missile defense and push alarmist notions that “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea pose an existential threat to the United States.
The EMP Commission is one of a long line of congressionally mandated commissions aimed at pressuring Congress and the executive branch to emphasize missile defense and space weapons in U.S. national security strategy and military budgeting. In the 1990s, during the Bill Clinton presidency, hawks in the Republican-led Congress mandated the creation of numerous such commissions, which were designed in part to demonstrate that the administration was weak on defense issues. Among the high-profile commissions were those on ballistic missile defense and space weapons, both of which were chaired by Donald Rumsfeld and included former high military officers and defense industry officials as members. Similarly, in 1999, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) successfully led efforts to establish the Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile, headed by John S. Foster, which promoted new nuclear weapons development.
Discussing the origins of the EMP Commission, Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the Heritage Foundation, wrote that Bartlett heard about the supposed threat in 1999, when he and another congressional hawk, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), conferred with Russian Duma counterparts about NATO assaults during the Kosovo crisis. According to Weyrich, “Vladimir Lukin (at the time chairing the Duma’s International Affairs Committee and formerly a high-level member of the Soviet national security apparatus under Gorbachev), threatened that if Russia really wanted to hurt us without fear of retaliation, Russia would launch a missile against us from a submarine, explode it high over our skies and shut down our power grid and communications for six months.” 
Reports and Recommendations
The commission’s first report was presented to Congress in July 2004. It concluded that a nuclear-generated EMP is “one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in the defeat of our military forces.” According to the commission, an EMP attack “has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of U.S. society” and would obstruct the ability of “the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power.” The report recommended that the U.S. government spend $20 billion to $200 billion over 20 years to “harden” U.S. critical infrastructure, including that of the power and telecommunications industries. It also recommended that the United States move immediately to ensure that it has “vigorous interdiction and interception effort to thwart delivery.” 
The commission issued a second study in April 2008, titled Critical National Infrastructures. Pointing to what commission members viewed as the inadequacy of “Cold War-style deterrence through mutual assured destruction,” which they agued “is not likely to be an effective threat against potential protagonists that are either failing states or trans-national groups,” the report claimed that “the Federal Government does not today have sufficiently robust capabilities for reliably assessing and managing EMP threats.” It concluded, “An EMP attack on the national civilian infrastructures is a serious problem, but one that can be managed by coordinated and focused efforts between industry and government. It is the view of the Commission that managing the adverse impacts of EMP is feasible in terms of time and resources. A serious national commitment to address the threat of an EMP attack can develop a national posture that would significantly reduce the payoff for such an attack and allow the United States to recover in a timely manner if such an attack were to occur.” 
Commenting on the two reports during July 2009 testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology, William Graham, chairman of the EMP Commission, argued, “the Nation’s vulnerability to EMP … can be reasonably and readily reduced below the level of a potentially catastrophic national problem by coordinated and focused effort between the private and public sectors of our country.” The costs of such an effort “in the next 3 to 5 years is modest by any standard—and extremely so in relation to both the war on terror and the value of the national infrastructures threatened.” Among the steps he proposed were: “Pursuing intelligence, interdiction, and deterrence to discourage EMP attack against the US and its interests”; “Protecting critical components of the infrastructure”; “Recognizing an EMP attack and understanding how its effects differ from other forms of infrastructure disruption and damage; “Conducting research to better understand infrastructure system effects and developing cost-effective solutions to manage these effects.” 
Threat or Hype?
The work of the EMP Commission has frequently been cited by hawks in and out of government to champion aggressive military policies and extravagant weapons programs. In September 2009, for example, a group called EMPACT America hosted a conference in Niagara, New York, headlined by Christian Right figure Mike Huckabee, to promote the idea that the threat of an EMP attack was a clear and present danger to the nation (see Robert Farley, “The EMP Threat: Lots of Hype, Little Traction,” Right Web, October 16, 2009). The event was cosponsored by Steuben Foods, whose owner, Henry Schwartz, is a vociferous backer of the EMP threat thesis. Discussing his rationale for putting on the conference, Schwartz told the Associated Press, “I’ve never lived in fear in my life, but I have to tell you, I’m in fear now.” According to the AP, in an effort to prepare for an EMP attack Schwartz is “making plans to drill gas wells and water wells to make sure his food-processing plant in suburban Buffalo can continue to supply food in a crisis.” 
EMPACT America’s website refers to the EMP Commission’s work as warning that “while America could suffer catastrophic consequences from a nuclear EMP attack by terrorists or rogue states, the U.S. could be protected.”  The website’s “Conference Homepage” singles out purported threats from Iran and North Korea: “Increasing nuclear terrorist threats like those of North Korea and Iran can disable the entire power grid in North America are a clear and present danger. Terrorists and rogue nations don’t even need accurate or long range ballistic missiles. An EMP attack can potentially be carried out by launching readily available Scud missiles from a barge off of our coasts.” 
Other high profile figures who have hyped the EMP threat are former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, and Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy.
In May 2009, Gingrich told an audience at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “Three small nuclear weapons at the right altitude would eliminate all electricity production in the United States. Which is why I have said publicly that I favor taking out Iranian and North Korean missiles on their sites.” 
At the September 2009 EMPACT conference, Gaffney made an outlandish argument, claiming that “within a year of that attack, nine out of ten Americans would be dead. … That would be a world without America, as a practical matter. And that is exactly what I believe the Iranians are working towards.” According to Rob Farley, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, Gaffney’s source “might have been William Graham, chair of the EMP Commission, who told the House Armed Services Committee last year  that an EMP attack could so thoroughly damage the country’s electronic infrastructure—including its transportation and food and water delivery systems—that within a year only about 30 million Americans would still be alive. 
However, both the work of the EMP Commission and the EMP threat thesis have been severely criticized. Observers have noted that the commission was chock-a-block with individuals who have been tightly connected to both the defense industry and ideologically hawkish advocacy groups (see “Conflicts of Interest” below).
In addition, some of the claims of the commission have proved to be based on flimsy evidence. For example, in a 2005 report, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists called into question the Senate testimony of Peter Pry, at that time a senior staffer for the EMP Commission, and now the president of the group that organized the 2009 EMP Conference, EMPACT America. In his testimony, Pry cited an article from an Iranian political-military journal as evidence that Iran believes an EMP attack is key to defeating the United States. But the Bulletin discovered a major distortion in Pry’s argument: “Just one small problem—the article never mentions EMP, or for that matter nuclear weapons. Titled ‘Electronics to Determine Fate of Future Wars,’ the author offers a brief overview of contemporary Western thinking on information warfare, focusing on such issues as internet hacking, computer viruses, and disrupting communications. The article does indeed envision American soldiers unable to find food or fire a single shot-but this is not due to an EMP attack, but rather the result of enemy infiltration of information networks. As it turns out, the EMP Commission didn’t need to look all the way to Iran to quote this material. The Iranian author credits the information to the Washington Post.” 
Many experts regard the purported threat as unlikely and unfeasible. In an effort to defuse the hype, the Project on Government Oversight cited an esteemed physicist: “If terrorists did manage to build a nuclear weapon, it is highly improbable that they could produce an efficient EMP-producing nuclear weapon, according to nuclear physicist Richard Garwin, who also published one of the first theoretical papers on EMP.” 
And in an article for Right Web, the University of Kentucky’s Farley writes, “Stephen Younger, former senior fellow at Los Alamos National Lab and director at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, argues that while an EMP might create problems in the short term, it is unlikely to cause long-term devastation. Similarly, observers have questioned the capacity of North Korea or Iran, much less a terrorist organization, to develop a warhead sophisticated enough to cause widespread EMP damage.” One expert told Farley, “You have a lot of points of failure in order to get to a warhead that is EMP optimized. … [Y]ou need specialized machine tools, you need capital, but to create a weapon that creates the secondary effect that you’re talking about, that’s something even we can’t do right now.’” 
Conflicts of Interest
In a 2005 investigative report about the EMP Commission, Nick Schwellenbach, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, writes that “the EMP Commission is a case study in the revolving door between industry, pro-industry nonprofits, and the Pentagon.” Schwellenbach asks, “Given their conflicts of interest and the controversial assumptions behind their report, questions about their credibility arise: Is the EMP Commission’s scenario realistic or is it scare-mongering to rally support for missile defense?” 
Among the commission members Schwellenbach highlights for having multiple connections to industry and hawkish advocacy groups is Graham, the commission’s chairman. He writes that besides Rumsfeld, “Graham was the only other person to be involved in both Rumsfeld Commissions,” which “echoed the alarmism used to justify missile defense and the proposed militarization of space supported by right-wing think tanks like the Center for Security Policy.” Schwellenbach also pointed out that as of 2005, “it also happens that Graham and his supporters in Congress, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., are all members of the Center for Security Policy’s National Security Advisory Council.” 
According to Schwellenbach, Graham has on various occasions provided misleading testimony regarding potential conflicts of interest. For instance, in 1999, during testimony he provided on the EMP threat, Graham, “in accordance with House rules … said that he had ‘not received any Federal grants, subgrants thereof, contracts, or subcontracts thereof during the current fiscal year or the two previous fiscal years, and he does not represent any entity in his appearance today before the House of Representatives.’” However, writes Schwellenbach, Graham’s National Security Research, Inc. had previously received “part of a $250 million [government] contract ‘to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure against physical and cyber attack,’ as reported by Federal Times in April 1999. Intentionally or not, Graham violated a House rule.” 
Other commission members with significant defense industry connections included John S. Foster, Robert Hermann, Henry Kluepfel, and Richard Lawson. Foster, who also headed the congressionally mandated Foster Panel on nuclear weapons development, has served as a director or consultant to numerous corporations, including GKN Aerospace Transparency Systems, Technology Strategies and Alliances, Northrop Grumman, Sikorsky Aircraft, Ninesigma, Defense Group, and TRW. Hermann has been a senior partner of Global Technology Partners and was a former senior vice president of United Technologies Corporation. Kluepfel was a corporate vice president of the high-tech contractor Science Applications International Corporation. And Lawson served as chairman of the Energy, Environment, and Security Group Ltd.
Please note: IPS Right Web neither represents nor endorses any of the individuals or groups profiled on this site.
1. Paul Weyrich, “Electromagnetic Pulse: An Avoidable Disaster,” GOPUSA, January 4, 2005.
2. EMP Commission, "Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic (EMP) Attack (PDF)," Executive Report, July 2004, (accessed October 12, 2009).
3. EMP Commission, "Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic (EMP) Attack: Critical Infrastrucutres (PDF),” April 2008, (accessed October 12, 2009).
4. William Graham, “Statement before the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology (PDF),” July 21, 2009.
5. Carolyn Thompson, "Businessman: US must heed electronic terror threat,” AP, August 14, 2009.
6. EMPACT, "About EMP," (accessed October 14, 2009).
7. EMPACT, "Conference Homepage," (accessed October 14, 2009).
8. Cited in Matt Duss, “Gingrich Pushes Suspense Thriller-Based Foreign Policy,” Think Progress, May 4, 2009.
9. Robert Farley, “The EMP Threat: Lots of Hype, Little Traction,” Right Web, October 16, 2009
10. Nick Schwellenbach, "EMPty Threat?" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2005.
11. Project on Government Oversight, “Checking the Pulse of EMP,” November 22, 2005.
12. Robert Farley, “The EMP Threat: Lots of Hype, Little Traction,” Right Web, October 16, 2009
13. Nick Schwellenbach, "The Next Fake Threat," AlterNet, September 21, 2005
14. Nick Schwellenbach, "The Next Fake Threat," AlterNet, September 21, 2005
15. Nick Schwellenbach, "The Next Fake Threat," AlterNet, September 21, 2005
16. EMP Commission webstie, (accessed october 12, 2009.