While the cold war has been declared officially over, the possibility of nuclear war remains strong as long as we depend on complicated software to run the nation’s weapons systems. The possibility of faulty computers triggering an international holocaust has consumed Cliff Johnson for more than six years. Johnson, a computer whiz with a Ph.D. who runs Stanford University’s administrative computers, has studied the fallibility of military policy that depends on computers to start a nuclear war. In an attempt to make the public aware of the possibility of accidental Armageddon, Johnson filed his third lawsuit against the government last May.
Researching his case, Johnson found that: 1) computer-related errors could trigger the launch of nuclear missiles, and have come dangerously close to doing so; 2) the software for nuclear missile launch decisions is error-prone; and 3) military computers are, for the most part, old, and their software codes are too complicated to operate without error. Johnson’s thesis is based on the “launch on warning” first strike policy which military spokespeople deny exits. However many analysts, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Washington, D.C. Center for Defense Information (headed by retired military officers), believe it is policy. In the launch-on-warning scenario “Only computerized sensors can figure the flight of missiles,” Johnson explained. “Only computers can discriminate the parameters of an attack. Only computers can schedule judgments quickly enough to advise and execute a launch of Minuteman and MX missiles prior to a pre-defined ‘use them or lose them’ deadline.” But, as Johnson points out, computers also are likely to make mistakes.
While Johnson looked to the courts to create public awareness, Susan “Katya” Komisaruk took a different approach. Komisaruk is a peace activist who became committed to non-violent social change in 1982 while earning her MBA at UC-Berkeley. In June of 1987, she single-handedly dismantled a sophisticated military navigation computer at Vandenburg Air Force Base in a Plowshare act of conscience against first strike nuclear weapons. After a “trial” in which she was forbidden to explain the reasons for her action, Katya was convicted and sentenced to serve five years in a federal prison near Spokane, Washington. She was released from prison this year.
While the American press devoted considerable time and space to the trials of individuals like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Leona Helmsley, it did not find Katya Komisaruk’s trial deserving of its attention. However, Katya’s case was well publicized in foreign countries and it was the subject of a dramatic award-winning video documentary in the United States. Dr. Helen Caldicott, former president, Physicians for Social Responsibility, called Katya “a modern day Joan of Arc, a Rosa Parks for the ’80s.”
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: SCOTT McKITTRICK
SOURCE: SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN 520 Hampshire Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, DATE: 5/17/89
TITLE: “CAN COMPUTERS TRIGGER NUCLEAR WART’
AUTHOR: J.A. SAVAGE
SOURCE: JOHNSON and DIBBLE FILM CO. 144 W. Spain Street, Sonoma, CA 95476, DATE: 1989 TELEVISION DOCUMENTARY
TITLE: “FIRST STRIKE: PORTRAIT OF AN ACTIVIST”
PRODUCER/DIRECTOR: DOUGLAS DIBBLE
COMMENTS: This is a story with two themes. First, the possibility of faulty computers triggering an international holocaust because of our reported “launch on warning” first strike policy. Second is the story of Katya Komisaruk whose extraordinary act of conscience against first strike nuclear weapons was well publicized in foreign countries but ignored in the United States. Author J.A. Savage, who explored the faulty computer aspect, suggests that “Most media portray only the ‘gee whiz’ aspect of technology because reporters either don’t understand it enough to ask the right questions, or because they are afraid the public won’t understand it.” Savage tried to syndicate her article to all the alternative weeklies nationwide but said that only one, in Pittsburgh, picked it up. She added that the editorial board at Mother Jones considered it but then rejected it “ostensibly because it would take too much research.” Douglas Dibble, whose award-winning television documentary recorded the actions of Katya Komisaruk, said “Extensive coverage opportunities were afforded to many, many mass media outlets. We searched, cajoled, pleaded, begged for coverage. This story was full of all kinds of newsworthy angles: the first action of its kind (Plowshare) on the west coast, the first carried out single-handedly in the dead of night by -a secular MBA poetess (Katya).” Instead, Dibble found that “With the exception of a smattering of trial coverage by the LA Times, the mass media blacked-out the story. The New York Times followed the story closely but never printed a single word!” Dibble’s documentary won a long list of festival awards, including the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle, and has been critically acclaimed nationally and internationally for its innovative style and the boldness of its content. Yet few Americans have had an opportunity to see it.