Should Washington be worried about a false missile alert mishap like Hawaii's? | KUOW News and Information

Should Washington be worried about a false missile alert mishap like Hawaii's?

Jan 16, 2018

For more than half an hour last Saturday, people thought Hawaii was about to be hit by a ballistic missile after officials mistakenly sent an alert that warned of an attack.

KUOW's Ann Dornfeld was vacationing on Oahu with her family when the alert went out. She told Bill Radke they were just sitting down to breakfast when phones started buzzing all over the restaurant, warning of the incoming missile and advising everyone to seek shelter.

After consulting family via phone, Dornfeld said she and her husband decided to seek shelter in a concrete building. But the only one they could think of was a Whole Foods they’d passed when arriving the day before.

As they drove, her three-year-old child —  oblivious to the crisis unfolding — was asking if they’d go to the beach later, what it would be like to walk on the sand.

“There was a guy who leaned out his car window as he was driving past us and yelled, ‘Goodbye everybody,’ which kind of enraged me,” Dornfeld recalled.

After 20 minutes, they found out from family members and from Twitter that the alert was an error. But another 18 minutes passed before Dornfeld’s phone buzzed with another alert: “False alarm.”

Thinking back on the frightening morning, Dornfeld said she’s aware of just how little she knows about preparing for a nuclear attack — and how unprepared Washington is to deal with the threat.

She’s also concerned about how one error might set off a chain of events that could lead to an actual nuclear attack.

“There are a lot of cautionary tales here,” she said. “And people should take heed.”

A false civilian alert like Hawaii’s is unlikely in Washington, since officials don’t have a pre-written message ready to be deployed. Someone would have to actually type the alert and send it to mobile phones for the same situation to occur.

But there are still many things that could go wrong, in Washington and all over the rest of the world.

Radke asked investigative journalist Eric Schlosser about the odds that human error could lead to an accidental nuclear war. Schlosser is the author of "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety," and he said he’s more worried about a technological error in a military warning system.

“The danger is we might launch our nuclear weapons based on a false alarm,” Schlosser said.

He said there are two historic instances of false alarms in military systems: One was caused by a training video that was mistakenly left in a system and the other by a 12-cent computer chip that failed.

“The human error I’m worried about is built into the system itself,” Schlosser said. “When it comes to nuclear weapons, the margin of error is very small.”

He’s worried that a nation responding to a false alert in a military system would launch their own nuclear weapons in response. That’s why he wants governments — especially the U.S. and Russia —  to scale back the number of weapons in their arsenals and to stop relying on fallible systems with hair-trigger launch systems.

He said an accidental catastrophe would undoubtedly set off a powerful anti-nuclear movement around the globe.

“I’d like to see that movement happen without a city somewhere in the world vanishing in a mushroom cloud,” he said.

So, what does Seattle need to worry about? Schlosser said he doesn’t want to be an alarmist, but we probably should be alarmed. Despite North Korea’s claims that its weapons can reach anywhere in the continental U.S., Seattle still remains a target.

“Seattle probably is the number-one target in the continental United States,” Schlosser said. 

That’s because of the nuclear weapons housed at Naval Base Kitsap and because Seattle is a major economic engine.

“I don’t think we’re all doomed,” Schlosser said. “But I do think this is the greatest threat we now face.”

Produced for the web by Amy Rolph.