Risky Business, Part II

My last post highlighted a little-known nuclear risk during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, involving the mistaken belief of an American F-16 pilot that the Pentagon had been attacked by the Russians instead of terrorists. Nuclear risk also was enhanced on 9/11 by positive feedback in Russian and American nuclear alerts. Unsure of who had perpetrated the attacks, the U.S. increased its alert status to DEFCON 3, almost leading the Russians to take similar action, possibly setting in motion an escalation loop leading to higher and higher levels of alert — and danger.

According to the White House’s then “counter-terrorism czar” Richard A. Clarke, a call was placed from the National Security Council, which was unsure what had happened, to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and had the following interchange:

Rich, DoD has gone to DEFCON 3 and you know what that means.” …

[Armitage replied,] “It means I better go tell the Ruskies before they shit a brick.” Armitage activated the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, down the hall from the State Department Operations Center. The NRRC was connected directly to the Russian Ministry of Defense just outside the Kremlin. It was designed to exchange information in crises to prevent misunderstanding and miscalculation.

Armitage reappeared. “Damn good thing I did that. Guess who was about to start an exercise of all their strategic nuclear forces?” He had persuaded his Russian counterpart to defer the operation.

Are we at greater risk from a hypothetical nuclear attack by Russia, or from an accidental nuclear war started because we are prepared to retaliate for such an attack? I suspect the latter is the greater risk, in which case we should change our current plans which call for threatening moves during a crisis of unknown origin. The in-depth risk analysis I have advocated be applied to nuclear deterrence would allow us make such decisions on a more objective basis, and should be undertaken with all possible speed.

Martin Hellman

Reference Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, Free Press, New York, 2004, pp. 15-16.

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To learn more about risk analysis and nuclear deterrence, visit my related web site and read my paper in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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