North Korea, EMP, and martial law: mainstream media needs to wake up and do the fact-checking now

On Sunday, July 1, 2018, a favorite gay disco of mine, Town Danceboutique (Washington, D.C.), closes (after a year of notice) for real estate development.

But Wednesday July 4, 2018, the entire country could well be in North Korea’s nuclear crosshairs, if the timetable that seems to emerge from recent news really holds. And I’ve had at least one person claim to me that by them much of the nation could see martial law.  I’ll come back to that.

We know that on November 28, North Korea tested its largest missile ever, on a parabolic path that took it 2800 miles up, to land short of Japan with no payload. Your Physics 101 test problem would have its maximum range if fired on a “baseball home run” path to be about 8000 miles over the Great Circle, enough to reach all of the continental U.S.

Experts seem to disagree on how much the weight of even a miniaturized thermonuclear weapon would reduce the range. Credible analysts also say that the missile seemed to break up on re-entry, into perhaps three pieces, and that other aspects of the North Korean photos, like the background star constellations, were doctored.  All of this may suggest that technically it is still much more difficult for North Korea to lob a thermonuclear weapon over the US than the doomsday preppers believe.  Still, six months sounds like a reasonable benchmark.

So Trump may feel pressured to create a pre-emptive attack   well before June 2018, even given the horrific predictions of what happens to South Korea, and perhaps Japan, even Guam.  “The war will be fought in their back yard, not ours”, Senator Lindsey Graham rants.  This is one game where there is no home field advantage, no walk-off win;  you have to win on the road.

Recently NBC News reported (story and video by Cynthia McFadden et al, link) on the possibility that the US could disable North Korean missile control with a stealth cruise missile or fighter attack (similar to those in this week’s controversial maneuvers with South Korea) blaring non-nuclear flux microwaves (E1 level), which would destroy electronics but not kill people, most of whom (outside the privileged in Pyongyang) live without electricity anyway. But the missiles are certainly hidden underground and perhaps shielded in Faraday fashion. Still, this sounds like the “least bad” military option Trump has.

That leaves us with one other nagging problem that the mainstream media doesn’t want to talk about.  That is, the possibility of an EMP attack, not only on South Korea or Japan, but even on the continental U.S.

Former CIA chief James Woolsey has already warned us (March 7, 2017 post) that North Korea could launch a small device from its “Shining Star” satellite.  But the more obvious question would be, is it easier technically for North Korea to detonate a weapon at high altitude in flight, possibly over north central US, than at the end of the route at a target?  No mainstream publication seems to have taken this question up yet.

Last week, Fox News ran a story reporting that Kim Jong Un had threatened such an attack (see Nov. 7) – and it’s pretty obvious that he would.  I see from YouTube that Fox has run similar stories before,  But the mainstream news sites have given very little explicit attention to these possibilities.  I do recall a story on Vox concerning solar storms (Sept 13, 2016) and a later similar one in the Wall Street Journal. And I also see that I’ve covered the mainstream media’s reticence on this matter on Sept. 8, 2017.

Still, it seems that the mainstream media owes us a major factfinding effort on questions like (1) the preparedness of the three major power grids for huge transformer overloads (there is talk of “neutral ground circuit technology”), and (2) the preparedness of the tech industry for extreme disruption, by distributing cloud data (which they already do) around the world, and the possibility of building Faraday-like protections for their servers.

Keep in mind, the electromagnetic pulse threat has two major components.  The E3 component, which is a delayed effect from thermonuclear weapons and is similar to extremely large coronal mass ejections from solar storms, is destructive to power grid transformers and other circuitry, at least with current technology. The E1 component is what destroys consumer electronics and ignitions of many cars.  (There is a good question as to whether solid state drives are more immune than traditional hard drives, for example, since they the new stuff is less sensitive to ordinary magnets).  The E1 component can come from smaller (fission) nuclear weapons (more likely from a DPRK ICBM or mid range missile or possibly satellite), and also comes from non-nuclear microwaves (which are much more local because they are usually detonated at low altitude closer to targets – the US military can use them in Afghanistan now).

With all this discussion, we should not lose sight of the cyber threats, which I think are more difficult for an enemy to carry out (against infrastructure) than popular legend suggests, but here is a prediction for an incident even this week.

Conventional reporting suggests that Kim Jong Un’s insistence on becoming a nuclear power is purely defensive.  I would wonder if the old Vietnam era Domino Theory applies:  he could later try to force us to leave South Korea or lift all sanctions.  The EMP peril is a very novel threat because of our unprecedented dependence on technology.  An enemy could conclude, if his own people will eat grass, that we aren’t resilient enough personally as civilians to recover from loss and hardship and be ever more tempted into aggression. North Korea has almost certainly tried to work with other terrorists like ISIS out of shear resentment of western values.

It does seem that the mainstream media is distracted by the more obvious stories about Trump’s presidency:  the Flynn and Manafort investigations, Trump’s claim he can get away with “obstruction of justice”, the Jerusalem move announced today.

I won’t moralize here about civilian preparedness (like “The Survival Mom” on Facebook) as I have before and will again. But that does bring back the idea of martial law, which an authoritarian president presumably could want to find an excuse to implement so that he has more “control”.

The Wikipedia article (on martial law in the U.S.) gives a detailed history of is use, most recently in 1961 in Montgomery Alabama as a response to the “Freedom Riders” – that was shortly before I graduated from high school, and I don’t recall this news.  Hawii was under martial law from Pearl Harbor until 1944.   It is difficult to suspend habeas corpus under US law, given especially the Posse Comitatus Act, which is supposed to shield civilians from military intervention – yet enemies are likely to regard American civilians as (un)deserving combatants.

I am not so cynical as to believe that Trump wants to see half the country without power for a year so he can seize control.  Consider Dan Trachtenberg’s film “10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016). That reminds me of conspiracy theories where right-wing authorities start war and live in luxury underground.  Who wants that?  The sci-fi conspiracy to escape from Earth (if possible) makes more psychological sense to me.

I would be more concerned that if a real catastrophe occurred, and most of the country were without power for months, the entire government would fall and foreign powers, which could be China, or could be Islamist, could take over.  That does bring up personal morality again, and that’s another post that’s coming.

We’d better not blow this.  It’s hard for me to join “identity groups” so concerned about narrow oppression (bathroom and “religious freedom” bills) when there are issues like this, at least as potentially dangerous to me personally as was the Vietnam War (I stayed out of combat because of education and “privilege”) and later AIDS (I never got infected).  The lessons that Scarlet O’Hara had to learn sound appropriate.

I will challenge the major networks and news outlets to get to the facts (and not leave this to conservative sites and groups like Resilient Societies), and I am available for hire (at 74, in “retirement”) to help them do this.  I’ve really collected and organized a lot of material. What a way to go back to work.  I even bought a suit and updated my Linked-In profile, while there is still time.

I wish I could get back to believing in Google’s plans for quantum computing as our future.

Update: Dec 7  (“Pearl Harbor Day”): 10 AM EST

Probably by coincidence I got a letter to my own mailbox in my condo building about a planned power outage for “improving a portion of the energy grid that serves your area.”  Upon checking, this may be related to a specific problem some months ago before I moved in. But Dominion Energy of Virginia has been mentioned as one of the few companies so far preparing to install neutral ground circuits that are supposed to protect transformers from extreme surges, as with solar storms or possibly terror attacks.

The mainstream media really does need to start “connecting the dots” on this one and not leave it to right-wing sites, amateur bloggers, and suspense and sci-fi novelists to figure out.

 

(Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2017 at 11 PM EST)

Puerto Rico power crisis: could other parts of the U.S. have a similar catastrophe from just “natural causes”?

Given the news about the expectation for very long term power outage in Puerto Rico (following Hurricanes Irma and especially now Maria), the Foundation fr Resilient Societies has circulated its testimony before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from June 17, 2017, as a pdf, link here.  Resilient Societies (or “ResilientGrid”) believes that similar catastrophes can cascade on the US mainland from “natural causes” as well as enemy attack or sabotage, especially with climate change.

There are some relevant stories in the regular and conservative media.  The Chicago Tribune, in a story by Steven Mufson, explains how the major power utility there was already bankrupt. Fox Business quotes the FEMA director as saying restoration will take six months.

The power company was using old technology (burning oil) and reflected the general financial problems for the territory.  It’s worth mentioning that these problems already had the potential to harm some retirees living off accumulated investments, if their portfolios had invested in the territory’s bonds or in other riskier overseas ventures.

Nevertheless, ResilientGrid (based in New Hampshire) believes that the dire forecast for the territory warns what could happen to a populated region of the continental United States, especially the Northeast, if a major failure were to occur.

While extreme solar storms or enemy E3-level EMP are mentioned as risks, especially on some conservative websites (given the current crisis over North Korea), the ResilientGold paper shows that more ordinary breakdowns could lead to self-reinforcing and cascading failures.  Once a failure has lasted more than a couple days, backup systems start to fail.  The paper mentions perverse incentives in some utility companies to cut corners on resilience.

The paper particularly emphasizes a failure 14 years ago, in August 2003, related to an incorrectly configured loop in Ohio.

I recall a day line power failure in New York City in July 1977, in lower Manhattan, when I lived on 11th St.  I worked on the 17th floor of a building om Wall Street at the time.  Elevators did not run, but I actually climbed the stairs once that day.  I was in good shape then.

Power in many areas of lower Manhattan, below 34th Street, were without power for a week after Hurricane Sandy because of a poorly located transformer, not high enough off water.

I also recall having no phone service for six weeks in 1975 in lower Manhattan after a telephone company building fire in lower Manhattan.

The devastation of Puerto Rico raises the question of my post Aug. 2, whether people hundreds of miles away should be prepared to host families if a whole area of the nation becomes uninhabitable for a while or even permanently.  This fortunately has not happened on a large scale with Harvey or Irma.  It did with Katrina.  In the future, how would the financial system handle real estate that suddenly has zero value?

Picture of power outage in Manhattan from Sandy, wiki.

(Posted: Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017 at 3:30 PM EDT)

We need to be prepared, as a nation, to house people quickly after catastrophes

I can remember, even living in Arlington having returned to look after Mother, the shock in that late August morning of 2005 learning when I got up that Hurricane Katrina had been much worse than expected.

I would volunteer some time at the Red Cross in nearby Falls Church (mixing the shifts with substitute teaching at the time) finding with many callers there was very little we could do but tell them to wait hours on the line for FEMA.

Over time, a few hundred people settled temporarily in the DC area.  Many more settled in Texas, and I believe that in some cases families, or especially individuals, were housed in private homes.  I at least wondered if we could be asked to do this.  I’ve entertained this kind of emergency before (May 18, 2016).

The Sunday before Hurricane Sandy (which came inland on a Monday night in late October 2012) the pastor at an Arlington VA church gave a sermon on “radical hospitality”. Fortunately, there was little damage in this area from the storm.

I’ve also documented on this blog some of the issues with hosting asylum seekers, which I have suspended as I consider moving (no more details right now).

And I’ve noted the somewhat informal private hosting website “Emergency BNB”. And the sharing economy, developed by companies like Airbnb, many people, especially younger adults, may be used to the idea of keeping their homes ready to be shared, which is not something that would have been very practical for me during most of my own adult life. Younger adults may be less interested in collecting possessions that could be put at risk from a security perspective. Music and film could be stored in the Cloud.

Younger adults living in “earthy” neighborhoods (like New York City’s East Village) or in certain rural areas, even in collectives or intentional communities, and used to social interdependence, may be more willing to share their spaces with less attention to personal, material or legal liability risks.  Many do not have an economically realistic choice, beyond building on common social capital, as Rick Santorum or Charles Murray would describe the idea.

Along these lines, then, I wonder again about emergency housing in the context of disaster or catastrophe preparedness.  I see I took this up Sept. 22, 2016 (before the Trump election) in conjunction with preparedness month.

A few of my friends on Facebook do indeed come from the doomsday prepper crowd, and it rather alarms me how much they are into it.  A sizable number of people do not believe you can count of civilization to last forever.  They see personal self-reliance in a rural home as a moral prerequisite to participating in a world that goes beyond the immediate surroundings. Indeed, ever since 9/11, we have been warned that at some point, whole generations of people may have to rebuild the world from scratch, as in NBC’s series “Revolution” which predicates a bizarre kind of EMP event.  I say I would have nothing to offer such a world at 74,

We could indeed face a grave threat to personal security in the homeland even in 2018.  War with North Korea might be impossible to avoid, and at least a couple small nuclear strikes on the US homeland might be impossible to prevent.  As a matter of policy, what happens to the people who survive but lose everything?  Insurance doesn’t cover war (whether it covers terrorism is controversial).  Will the government indemnify them?  (It more or less did a lot of this after 9/11.)  Or will we depend on the volunteerism of “GoFundMe”? which to me has sounded self-indulgent and tacky sometimes.

It does seem that we need some kind of “national discussion” or town-hall on this.  Would seniors aging alone in oversized homes be able to take people in?  Would we expect that?  Well, we really don’t do that now with our own homeless.

Any North Korean domestic nuclear strike would probably involve a small low-yield nuclear weapon. If you look at charts like this one, you see that the number of casualties and total property damage in a city might be less than one expects.  The radiation damage is another matter.  But one can imagine calls for people in distant states to house and take in the “victims” as they may never have an uncontaminated habitable home neighborhood to return to (even with Katrina that did not hold).  It is appropriate to consider how effective the manufactured housing industry can be (with Katrina the result was not that good).

Again, another issue is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse, which would damage all electronics in a very wide region.  Have Silicon Valley companies protected their infrastructure from this sort of thing?  One day we could find most of the Internet (and “GoFundMe”) gone forever if they haven’t.  There is very little written about this.

Nobody likes talk like this to be “thinkable”.  But the preppers have a moral point.  Resilient and prepared people are less inviting targets for an otherwise determined enemy.  Maybe that’s what “America first” means.

(Posted: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 3:15 PM EDT)

People in “groups” need to pay heed to the outside world; we can lose it all

It’s important to keep up with the outside world.  Generally, throughout my adult life, I’ve often gotten feedback from some people who say they don’t need to get scary news from the political world from me (unless it’s about their own tiny bubble).

As I’ve noted here before, I don’t necessarily rush to elevate every victim in every marginalized group, including my own.   I have to agree with Peter Thiel, speaking at the DNC, that LGBTQ people have more pressing issues that bathroom bills – although I have to say that North Carolina’s recent HB2 “repeal”, under pressure from the NBA, is a bit of “bait and switch”, even in the language of Barbara Ehrenreich. In fact, major league sports have recently become the :GBTQ community’s ally out of self-interest.  Major League Baseball, for example, though it has very few if any openly gay players right now, knows it eventually will have them.  It is quite credible, for example, to imagine a transgender person as a relief pitcher or “closer” for a pennant winning team.  (And one wonders about big league sports and the rare cis females who happen to able to play.)

Over history, collective security for a country or a group is a big influence on respect for individual rights.  Whatever our internal squabble, a common enemy or peril can force us to come together.  We found that out suddenly after 9/11 (which I do think Al Gore would have prevented).

While Donald Trump has first stated that ISIS is our most dangerous enemy (because of its unusual asymmetry and targeting of civilians).  Trump has gotten a rude awakening (“foreign policy by ‘Whiplash’”, complete with Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons) from Assad’s chemical attack on his own people this week, and may suddenly realize how dangerous it is to remain bedfellows with Vladimir Putin.

it’s quickly becoming apparent that our most existential threat may indeed come from North Korea (whom we got a rude shock from in cyberspace over the  Seth Rogen and James Franco movie “The Interview”).  This morning, on p. A14 of the Washington Post, Anna Fifled has a frightening and detailed article, “Does North Korea have a missile that can hit the U.S.?  If not, it will”. Online the title is more blunt. “Will North Korea fire a missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland?  Probably.”

The article goes into the technical challenges of actually directing a nuclear warhead thousands of miles.  But North Korea is making progress faster than we had thought.

The article does play down the satellite EMP risk discussed here earlier (March 6).  There’s a valid question as to whether NORAD would find and intercept such a missile (My classified computer programming job in 1971-1972 in the Washington Navy Yard was about just such capability. ) Fifield notes that it may be harder for US spy satellites to spot the missiles as they become mobile on the ground.  And a pre-emptive first strike against North Korea would invoke the obvious problem of making South Korea an instant target (as well as Japan).  This is no time for the president of the United States to have an adversarial relationship with his own intelligence services.

It’s also a time to ponder national resilience again, at a personal level.  I am not a member of the doomsday prepper crowd, although I have several Facebook friends who are.  There is something reassuring about being able to take care of yourself (with guns, and your family (with firearms if necessary), and property, in a world suddenly radically changed by “Revolution”. I can see how some people (mostly on the far right, to be sure) see this as a component of personal morality.

There is some debate as to whether DPRK can threaten all of the US (by Great Circle routes) or “only” Alaska, Hawaii, and the West Coast.  But imagine life with Silicon Valley and Tinseltown gone. (I’m reminded of the second “Red Dawn” film particularly, as well as “Testament“).  After Hurricane Katrina (and just before Sandy) there was some discussion of “radical hospitality”, as to whether ordinary homeowners with some extra space should prepare themselves to house strangers after a catastrophe.  The idea has obviously come up in Europe with the migrant crisis, less so in the US (but somewhat in Canada).  As I’ve noted here before, the idea can be tested with asylum seekers (and it hasn’t gotten very far yet).

I’d mention here that a bill to require women to register for Selective Service has passed he Senate, quietly.  A prepper friend posted this on Facebook.

Update: Tuesday, April 11, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT

Consider this recent piece in the April 11, 2017 of Time Magazine about loose radiocactive waste in the former USSR and possible terrorist “dirty bombs”.  Victims in an incident could be too “hot” to treat, and then there is real estate whose value goes to zero, a definite attack on the rentier class.  Sam Nunn and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (with some recent articles about North Korea including charts and timetables) warned about all this in the 45-minute 2005 film “The Last Best Chance“.

James Woolsey (ex CIA) warns CNN that North Korea might be capable of detonating EMP weapon from orbiting satellite soon, even now

Today, Monday, March 6, 2017 Erin Burnett gave former CIA director James Woolsey an interview in the 7:30 PM slot, and Woolsey defended his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning that North Korea could pose a much bigger and more immediate threat to the United States even now than we realize.

Specifically, he suggested that North Korea could be capable of detonating a nuclear device from an orbiting satellite now.

Erin Burnett herself introduced the word “apocalyptic”.  Woolsey said there is disagreement as to how many US transformers on the power grids could survive the overload that would result.  Woolsey’s op-ed calls for strengthening the grid right now.  Bannon’s infrastructure programs so far have not mentioned this problem.  One way to strengthen the grids would be to require utilities to have their own small original generating stations and be less dependent on load sharing with other companies.  (That brings back the whole AC vs. DC debate in the early 20th century, as one time documented on the History Channel “The Men Who Built America”, 2012 episode).  Taylor Wilson (who has been supported by Peter Thiel, who supported Trump) has proposed that these small stations be shielded underground fission reactors.

I do recall many scenarios (as in “One Second After”) proposed where scud-type missiles fire off the US coast from clandestine ships create a high-altitude EMP result. There are even some non-nuclear magnetic flux devices that could be detonated on the group (as in a  mystery Popular Mechanics article shortly before 9/11 in 2001).  But I don’t recall mention of the satellite threat before, not even in Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out”.

I do see, however, a report about North Korean satellites with this capability on a smaller conservative web site reported back in April 2016.    Wikipedia has details on one satellite.

There have been many reports in recent days of North Korea missile test attempts.  President Donald Trump has not said (or tweeted) much about them yet (except, “not going to happen”).  CNN has a story today, questioning whether North Korean missiles could overwhelm THAAD.

In November 2015, I was reading later chapters in Ted Koppel’s book on the Metro in Washington when a college-age young man looked over my shoulder to read it.  That someone that age would notice this subject matter is encouraging.

There are some issues, for preserving freedom for everyone, that seem more pressing to me than the bathroom bills.

(Published: Monday, March 6, 2017 at 9:45 PM EST)

Update: Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 10:45 PM EST

A Facebook friend (somewhat connected to the prepper crowd) passed on this link from a family security website discussing Woolsey’s predictions about North Korea and even invoking the “fake news” idea.  Note the mention of Popular Mechanics, which had discussed non-nuclear EMP in an issue shortly before 9/11 back in 2001. (The Washington Times discussed it in 2009).  Here is the link.

Update: Tuesday, April 11, 2017  6:15 PM EDT

Common sense would say that DPRK would already need to have developed a miniaturized device that could have been placed on a satellite.  Would we know?  Or could they deploy another satellite soon? DPRK’s statements remain belligerent after the Syria intervention by President Trump.