December 14, 2010 -- This is one scary movie, not because of some masked slasher, but because of the threat of nuclear explosion, either as an isolated incident, or as a global catastrophe, is greater than you probably thought it was. This is a film that shows that the current safeguards against nuclear terrorism aren't safe at all, and that no fail-safe system is foolproof, even in the U.S. It illustrates security gaps and close calls in the past.
One of the most shocking revelations in this documentary comes from Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute (a co-producer of this film with the History Channel). He said that as a former launch officer, a mere lieutenant, for the Air Force in Montana, he could have formulated and transmitted a valid launch order for hundreds of nuclear missiles because of a flaw in the launch system security that existed up until 1977. All the Minuteman launch codes were the same, 12 zeroes, despite a system that allowed for multiple secure launch codes. The system was flawed, Blair said, simply because the Strategic Air Command leaders didn't like the launch code system forced upon them by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
Another startling revelation in the film is that a global thermonuclear war almost started on January 25, 1995 because of a simple miscommunication between the United States and Russia. The U.S. launched a missile from Norway to study the Aurora Borealis. The Russians had been notified in advance of the launch, but word never made it to the leaders in Moscow. According to Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social responsibility, the Russians initially thought it was a nuclear missile and that the four stages of the rocket were warheads. Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear weapons policy foundation, said the military opened the “nuclear football” and put the launch codes in front of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and told him the nation was under attack and he had five minutes to launch a counter-strike. Not only was Yeltsin sober at the moment, but he made the right snap judgement, that the military was wrong, there was no attack. Cirincione said the Russians did not attack because Yeltsin did not follow Russian military doctrine and refused to authorize an attack.
This may well be overstating the case for accidental nuclear war. According to Russian Major-General Vladimir Dvorkin (who is not in this documentary, I found this quote in my own research) said of this incident, “The launch of the missile was detected and that information was passed on to the President ... But there was nothing, not even in the very nascent form, in terms of taking any kind of retaliating measures ... To make a decision to make a retaliatory, a massive retaliatory strike, is a very hard decision; even if you possess the complete information and true information concerning the fact that your country has been hit. It's totally impossible to make a decision based on information about one missile ... I will say it again. No president, no matter what President it is, will ever make a decision about launch-on-warning based on information about one rocket or missile or even ... two or three missiles.” Others say there was a real danger of launch in this incident, but it appears the danger is not as great as depicted in the documentary. This is a problem with some History Channel documentaries. They tend to spin towards the sensational and lack balance.
The documentary does go on at some length about how fast a decision must be made regarding a nuclear counter attack, just a matter of a few minutes. Former President Jimmy Carter said he knew he had, at most, a little over 20 minutes before the first missiles hit Washington. Another troubling thing in the documentary is the lack of protection against a terrorist nuclear attack. According to the documentary, nuclear radiation detectors at American ports would not be able to detect enriched uranium shipped into the United States, particularly if it was inside a simple lead shield, or shipped hidden in mildly radioactive materials like cat litter. According to the documentary, once you have the enriched uranium, which might be purchased in the black market in Russia or in some former Soviet states, the rest of the bomb is relatively easy to construct. It can be made with off-the-shelf parts by a physics student. There have been enough seizures of enriched uranium on the black market to be of great concern, according to the film.
There is an impressive list of talking heads in this documentary, from famed Ex-CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, to President Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, former Secretary of State James Baker III and other high rollers. The centerpiece of the documentary is a few words from a speech by President John F. Kennedy, “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.” To that, we could add, “or on purpose,” when it comes to modern terrorists. This film may not be the best researched or most balanced, or most reliable documentary of the year, but it is the scariest. This film rates a B.
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