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The Newt Bomb

How a pulp-fiction fantasy became a GOP weapons craze.

Speaking to a Washington conference earlier this month, Newt Gingrich heartily recommended a disturbing apocalyptic thriller currently on The New York Times' best-seller list. Written by William Forstchen, One Second After tells the story of what happens to a college town after the lights go out. Not just the lights, actually, but electrical devices of all kinds. Phones go dead, computers fritz, cars won't start. That this is a more than an inconvenience quickly becomes apparent: Patients die in powerless hospitals, and frozen food begins to rot. Word spreads that airliners have simply dropped from sky, including Air Force One. (The president is dead.) Squirrel meat is traded for ammunition as Mexico reclaims Texas, China occupies the West coast, and cannibalistic mobs rampage everywhere else.

As it happens, Forstchen has co-authored several books of historical fiction with Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker. So, when Gingrich spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference, he was all too happy to plug his friend's book—but also to drive home a policy point. "It's based on fact, it is accurate, and it's horrifying, and we have zero national strategy to respond to it today," Gingrich said. He laid out a vision in which three small nuclear weapons detonated at the right altitude would eliminate all electricity production in the United States. Which is why, he concluded, "I favor taking out Iranian and North Korean missiles on their sites. "

Gingrich's doomsday scenario involves something known as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. It is a scientifically valid—if not strategically realistic—theory based on the effect that gamma rays released by exploding nuclear weapons have when they interact with the earth's atmosphere. One or more bombs of the right size, exploded at a high enough altitude, could theoretically fry the circuitry of all electronic equipment lacking special protection—that means everything from iPods to televisions to power plants.

People have fretted about an EMP blast since the cold war. But now, discredited by the Iraq war, Gingrich and a cadre of conservative hawks are resurrecting the chilling vision and applying it to a new world of rogue states and terrorist groups. The attention-grabbing narrative of the pulse threat offers them a fresh argument for some familiar hobbyhorses—namely a multibillion-dollar national missile-defense system and even preemptive military strikes against charter members of the Axis of Evil. Or maybe it's just that Republicans, now consigned to the wilderness, are simply letting their imaginations run wild.

NEWT IS HARDLY the first politician to be captivated by a pseudo-realistic potboiler. Bill Clinton grilled his aides about bioterrorism defenses after reading Richard Preston's horrifying account of a genetically engineered virus, The Cobra Event. Michael Crichton's paranoid vision of evil climate-change activists, State of Fear, won him a meeting with George W. Bush. Forstchen himself has said that One Second After was designed to have such an effect. "I wrote the book to convey a warning and bring it before the public eye," Forstchen recently wrote in response to a critic on the liberal blog ThinkProgress. His book's success has done more for the issue than years of striving by a hapless band of Washington conservatives.

The godfather of the modern EMP alarmism movement is Republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland. "This is just too horrific to be true," Bartlett explains, "so many people want to dismiss it." Bartlett, an 82-year-old retired engineer and Maryland Republican, has worried about an EMP attack since he encountered the concept over a decade ago in—yup—a potboiler novel. "I called my friend Tom Clancy," Bartlett says, to ask about Clancy's reference to the threat in one of his books. Clancy referred Bartlett to a physicist at America's high-tech Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory named Lowell Wood. Wood happened to be in Washington "and so, within an hour, he was in my office, " Bartlett explains. Wood, who has warned that an EMP attack could amount to "a giant continental time machine," sending America back to a pre-industrial state, explained that cold war strategists considered a Soviet EMP assault a likely first step in a larger attack on the West. But, since then, he said, the United States had done little to protect its infrastructure against such an event. "This is something that the military had been ignoring!" Bartlett says.

Bartlett set out to change that. In 2001, the Maryland congressman, who is known for a set of quirky passions that include a fixation on "peak oil" theory, which predicts a catastrophic exhaustion of global petroleum supplies, won congressional approval of a commission to study the EMP threat. Some of its members were not exactly mainstream national security experts. Its chairman was William Graham, a former Reagan White House science adviser and enthusiast for the "Star Wars" missile-defense system. Another commission member was Lowell Wood, who, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has noted, was the Reagan-era champion of a plan to cripple the Soviet nuclear arsenal by means of a giant x-ray laser platform with which he reportedly once sought to ignite part of the earth's atmosphere.

Predictably, the EMP commission found that the United States faced a serious threat—not just from the intercontinental missiles of major powers like Russia and China, but also from terrorists and rogue states. The EMP panel went further, concluding that a single Hiroshima-sized bomb could realistically shut down America's critical infrastructure. But the panel's report didn't exactly rock Washington. "The report unfortunately was released on the same day that the 9/11 Commission released their report," sighs Clay Wilson, a believer and former analyst with the Congressional Research Service, "so all the news people were down the hall." Awakening the public would have to wait for another day.

THE EMP COMMISSION actually had a point. There is a scientific basis for fears about widespread electric outages, and there is evidence that other countries, possibly including Iran, have studied the technique. "EMP is real," agrees Joe Cirincione, a nuclear weapons expert who now runs a pro-disarmament think tank, the Ploughshares Fund. But, as Cirincione notes, few analysts take the threat very seriously. The odds that Iran or North Korea would prefer a technologically untested Rube Goldberg scheme to merely nuking us seem slim. And any terrorist group able to execute such a plan was probably capable enough to get us one way or another anyhow.

Those realities argue overwhelmingly for prudent but unsexy infrastructure protections, not preemptive attacks or advanced technology. "It's horror theater," says Cirincione, "trying to scare Americans into doing something which a rational analysis would stop them from doing." Charles Ferguson, a nuclear engineer at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees. "[T]here are some important things we can be doing that won't cost much, but that can serve as a vital backup," he says. For instance, Ferguson has advised the New York City Fire Department to keep some backup communications equipment and extra ignition switches for its trucks in electromagnetic pulse-resistant steel cages.

The hawkish right, however, has much bigger things in mind. Although Bartlett himself seems to lack a sub-rosa strategic agenda, he has found common cause among national-security conservatives, about whom the same can't be said. Take, for instance, the spin of Frank Gaffney, perhaps the right's main missile-defense zealot: "[T]he United States must now make a redoubled effort to deploy effective, comprehensive defenses against ballistic missiles that might be used for EMP and other attacks," Gaffney wrote in a 2006 National Review article. Republican Senator Jon Kyl, a key missile-defense champion on Capitol Hill, has held hearings and published a Washington Post op-ed on the EMP threat. The like-minded Wall Street Journal opinion pages have repeatedly flogged the EMP commission's findings. "The only solution to this [EMP] problem," Brian T. Kennedy of the Claremont Institute wrote in an op-ed in the pages last November, "is a robust, multilayered missile-defense system."

President Obama, however, is far less open to such suggestions than his predecessor, leading some on the right to desperate measures, like reviving the EMP anxiety. More broadly, archconservatives like Gingrich and Dick Cheney have gotten used to invoking low-probability worst-case scenarios to justify their views on everything from preemptive military action to torture. So why not resort to outright science fiction?

For Roscoe Bartlett, who probably never expected to be at the center of a movement-conservative cause, the far right's embrace of his pet issue doesn't seem to have been very helpful. "People just don't like to talk about it," he says. "It's like the crazy aunt in the attic." How could anyone get that impression?

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2009, issue of the magazine.