Monday, October 30, 2006

[usa] cold comfort for the russians …


In the dark days of the Cold War, as the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear conflict, one thing above all stood in the way of catastrophe: the secret eight-digit access number required to launch the US arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Without that vital obstacle, anybody – a terrorist or even a crazed military commander - might be able to spark a conflict that would have killed millions. Most people from the 60s are familiar with the movie Dr. Strangelove, in which such a scenario does occur.

So it has been good for our sanity then that an expert closely involved in the process has only now revealed that the eight digits in question were 0000-0000. That’s right!

"The codes were the only real impediment to the crews launching missiles," said Bruce Blair, launch officer at a nuclear missile silo in Montana. "They were all set to zero. The safeguard was essentially non-functional."

Mr. Blair, now president of the Centre for Defence Information, said he recently revealed this information to Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Mr. McNamara responded with shock and outrage and asked: "Who the hell authorised that?"

The codes were set to zero because they were so deeply disliked by the military. Mr. Blair says that Mr. McNamara "basically forced" the system of fail-safe codes onto senior commanders, who were far more concerned with eliminating any obstacles to a lightning-fast response to a Soviet attack.

Mr. Blair and one other friend were therefore in a position, at the time, to fire up to 50 Minuteman missiles at the Soviet Union, had they wished. The Russians, themselves, must be delighted to know this.

On the other hand, Steven Bellovin, a researcher for AT&T who has studied launch codes, has suggested Mr. Blair was confusing two sets of codes - one to launch the missile containing the bomb and one to actually detonate it.

Mr. Blair says there was no confusion. It was as he said.

Oliver Burkeman, Washington, June 18th, 2004

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