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The Daniel Ellsberg interview

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I was drawn to the particular problem of a decision, which was the president's decision whether to go to nuclear war or not on the basis of uncertain warning. We had, and have, an elaborate warning system of radars and eventually satellites infrared satellites and communication satellites to give us warning of the Soviet, in those days, attack. Or Russian attack, now. Or, anybody else. Big radars in Alaska and Greenland and elsewhere. The problem was though, that this warning would never be certain. It would never say an attack is on the way it would say here are the indications, that it may be, and how many missiles and so forth. It turned out that these were subject to a great deal of mistakes and errors; say mistaking a flock of geese for a flock of planes, for example. Or sunlight glinting off clouds as being the infrared plumes of missiles rising. That happened exactly in 1983.

In 1983, the Russians had exactly that experience, and a colonel in the Soviet Union was faced with the question of whether to tell his superiors that an American attack was on the way, which is what his satellite warnings were telling him. He wasn't sure, and rightly so. It was a false alarm. He chose not to reveal the full degree of evidence to his superiors because he suspected it was not right. Fortunately, he was right, and his decision was right, so we are still here. Soviets at that time were poised, in the same way that we would have been at that time, for a pre-emptive attack based on that, to get their missiles off the ground before ours arrived. This is very close to the subject of my book. Also, to get our remaining missiles before they got launched. The assumption being that there weren't just empty holes for them to get, but that some missiles were on the way but others hadn't yet been launched. They would have launched that to limit the damage, supposedly, to their country from the oncoming attack, and to prevent their retaliation from being destroyed on the ground.

That was an exact imitation of our plans from the late '50s on, from the time they had nuclear weapons to threaten us with. Our countries have always been fixed on the idea of pre-emption, even though they try to be very foggy about this to the public. It's what's called "launch on warning." You press the button here before the enemy warheads have arrived. That is the basis of our planning, and always has been. That is extremely dangerous because if false alarms continue as they have until not too long ago, that means potentially, the world as we know it can be destroyed by that effect.

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