From the Netly News

EMP Gun: The Chupacabras of Infowar by George Smith -- July 22, 1997

International terrorists are downloading plans for a superweapon from the Internet! Russian gangsters and hackers are responsible! Banks in England and Russia have been destroyed by it! The Irish Republican Army is going to use it next! Look out, here comes the chupacabras of cyberspace, always dreaded but never seen: the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) gun.

Said to be capable of corrupting computer circuitry on corporate networks with ionizing radiation, microwaves or radio waves, the EMP gun strikes from afar even as secretaries labor at their desks.

The only sticking point is that no one has actually produced one for public examination.

Neal Singer of Sandia National Laboratory called it an interesting urban legend. Sandia is one of the national laboratories responsible for weaponization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The lab has also done extensive research into generating -- and shielding against -- electromagnetic pulse effects.

The technical point that hangs the claims, according to Sandia's Singer and others interviewed, is the generation of "militarily interesting" -- a euphemism for destructive -- amounts of electromagnetic pulse. To guarantee the effects attributed to the weapon requires the release of sufficient power, be it in the form of gamma rays or microwaves, that anyone triggering the weapon and everyone in the vicinity of the target would be killed or seriously injured. The science doesn't jibe with the EMP gun's definition as a homebrewed, surreptitious, nonlethal terrorist weapon.

However, electromagnetic pulse effects are known to destroy electronics. In 1962, 400 kilometers above the mid-Pacific, Test Shot Starfish, a 1.4 megaton nuclear explosion, generated an electromagnetic pulse that destroyed satellite equipment and blocked high-frequency radio communications across the Pacific for 30 minutes. Nicholas Christofilos, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, had predicted such an effect earlier in the year.

Since then, the idea of using electromagnetic pulses as an electric ray -- but without a messy 1.4 megaton nuclear explosion -- has become increasingly interesting to the military, fans of the weird science of nonlethality, computer security experts and teenage hackers. Indeed, a bibliography of citations on exotic weaponry supplied by the Center for Defense Information lists a highly speculative 1986 report by the U.S. Air Force on the use of the electromagnetic spectrum in military applications.

"The image of the ray gun is all through pop culture, so it doesn't seem hard for people to believe in it," said Steven Aftergood, author of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy & Government Bulletin and one who has followed the lore of nonlethal superweapons into which the EMP gun would fall. The tale of the EMP ray gun is found in books as well as on the Internet, from Alex Constantine's freaky "Psychic Dictatorship in the U.S.A." (Feral House), where EMP guns are presented as tools in CIA mind control experiments, to Winn Schwartau's information warfare web site. Schwartau, who in a recent press release compared himself to Sun-tzu, the ancient Chinese military philosopher, hosts a yearly conference where one can hear someone talk about EMP as a tool of the sophisticated info-warrior for $695 a ticket.

The lore of the EMP weapon is not lacking in fascinating people from the American arms trade, too. Robert L. Schweitzer, a retired general, just went before Congress to warn of the danger of EMP guns. In 1981, Schweitzer was a staffer on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council -- that is, until he gave a speech to the Army Association in which he declared the Russians were "on the move"... they are going to strike." Schweitzer was fired and later worked for GeoMilitech, a Washington arms brokerage known primarily for its secret shipments of weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. In 1987 Schweitzer again was in the news, this time with Major General John Singlaub, hunting for lost Japanese gold said to be sunk near the Philippines.

The annual DefCon hacker convention in Las Vegas has also been a good EMP gun rumor mill. In past years, Schwartau has held forth on them for conventioners. But much is always promised, little delivered. This year was no different. There was to be an EMP gun demonstration, but of course it was canceled at the last minute by "authorities."

The story of the EMP gun is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding "N-rays" at the beginning of the 1900s. A French scientist named Rene Blondlot claimed discovery of a new form of electromagnetic radiation he called "N-rays." Other respected French scientists also began publishing on N-rays. In 1904, the work on N-rays was discredited by an American physicist, Robert W. Wood, who secretly removed a part of Blondlot's N-ray detecting machine and watched as the scientist claimed to detect them anyway.

Partly as a result of this, Irving Langmuir, an American physicist and Nobel laureate, developed a set of laws in 1953 that he said applied to such stories, which he called "pathological science." Some of them easily fit the story of EMP guns.

In one of these, Langmuir stated that the magnitude of the observed effect is always independent of the intensity. EMP guns are like that. They are said to destroy electronic circuitry at indeterminate ranges with shriveling bursts of microwaves, but people, somehow, are magically unaffected.

Langmuir also said such bad science is accompanied by claims of the fantastic in direct contradiction to common sense or experience. In 1996, Forbes ASAP magazine ran a feature in which four hackers claimed EMP guns could be made from $300 worth of car batteries and electrical parts.

In another, Langmuir essayed that all criticisms of such stories are met with vague, off-the-cuff excuses. With EMP guns the classic dodges are either "classification," unreachable sources -- Russian gangsters, the IRA or anonymous Pentagon officials -- and the ignorance of the doubter in regard to the true state of affairs.

Update: Interestingly, an EMP gun inventor, David Schriner, showed up on ABC's 20/20 in mid-February 1999 to demonstrate the effects of it for an overawed Diane Sawyer. After donning fancy protective suits and unusual-looking copper mesh headgear, Schriner tested his weapon on Sawyer's corvette and a white limousine. At a range of about 5-10 feet and with the weapon pointed directly into the automobiles' open engine compartment, Schriner's electromagnetic pulse gun made Sawyer's idling sports car . . . run roughly. [Crypt News notes it can make any car's engine stop permanently, not just hesitate, at a range of five feet with a sledgehammer aimed directly into an open engine compartment.] Once, said Sawyer, the electric locks in her car's doors went up and down, too. While Sawyer stood well away from her car, farther away from it than Schriner's contraption, electronic videocameras inside the car continued to work during the firing of the "weapon."

During the segment, Sawyer claimed "results" of testing of electromagnetic pulse on a Cobra helicopter at Junction Ranch in China Lake were "classified." Curiously, Crypt Newsletter covered the results of this test which were published on the Web over a year ago by the government. Crypt News must now assume posting a paper on the World Wide Web constitutes "classification."

Besides David Schriner's demonstration of a short range microwave's ability to occasionally stall an idling, parked car at extremely close range, Sawyer's story -- like all Crypt News has seen on the subject, relied a great deal upon hearsay.

Now, here comes the tricky part.

Sawyer also claimed on 20/20: "Russian criminals have used an RF weapon, we're told, to disarm security and rob a bank."

Crypt Newsletter repeats from a previous issue:

"Pelham was amused when the overly gullible newspaper reporter published his frank lies about Russian computer programmers knocking over international banks with emp guns made from stolen Radio Shack equipment."


"Boris Badenov, a computer security consultant, said criminal hooligans had destroyed a bank network in Dvinsk with an emp gun and escaped with 8 millions rubles in blackmail money."

Read carefully: Crypt Newsletter made these statements up in 1997 as humorous examples -- jokes -- to be used as material for articles like this. In the context of Crypt Newsletter, they were employed as amusing fictions.

Apparently, Crypt Newsletter's jokes about EMP guns have travelled sufficiently far away from their original source to wind up gulling Diane Sawyer on 20/20 in 1999.

Update: March 03, 1998: One of Diane Sawyer's sources for the 20/20 broadcast was Victor Sheymov, a KGB defector who advertises himself as a communications expert. Sheymov told Sawyer the KGB has used a microwave weapon to start a fire in the U.S. embassy in 1997 for the purposes of annoyance and in hope that firemen would be summoned. Using the firemen as cover, the idea was to plant listening devices in the embassy.

Sheymov said the same thing before the House Joint Economic in February 1999, describing what can only be characterized as trivial effects of alleged Russian EMP gun use:

Sheymov: Another example of a [EMP] attack was the KGB's manipulation of the United States Embassy security system in Moscow in the mid-80s. This was done in the course of the KGB operation against the Embassy which targeted the U.S. marines there. The security system alarm was repeatedly falsely triggered by the KGB's induced [radio frequency] interference several times during the night. This was an attempt to annoy and fatigue the marines [sic] and to cause the turning of the "malfunctioning" system off.

Woo - a ringing alarm and, next, an alleged minor fire -- pretty scary stuff. Surely the cloth a national emergency is woven from.

Sheymov: Additional example of an [EMP] attack was when the KGB used it to induce fire in one of the equipment rooms in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1977. A malfunction was forced on a piece of equipment. It caught fire, which spread over a sensitive area of the Embassy. The KGB tried to infiltrate its bugging technicians into the sensitive area under the cover of the firefighters who arrived immediately after the fire started.

Subsequent to his appearance on 20/20, Sheymov was placed on the payroll of the National Security Agency where what was unclassified trivial testimony for TV reporters is, apparently, now classified. [Crypt Newsletter asks the question: How does one measure the incentive for alleged KGB defectors to embroider their stories for American handlers in hopes they will be put on a taxpayer-derived salary?]

Update -- March 23, 1999: The Yellow Peril gambit: The EMP gun hallucination is now intermingled with the hysteria over Chinese spying.

In a mid-March Newsweek story on alleged Chinese penetration of the U.S. network of nuclear bomb-making national laboratories, magazine reporters write:

"[The Chinese] may also have stolen secrets about U.S. efforts [emphasis added] to devise a nuclear weapon tailored to create an electromagnetic pulse; a man-made lightning bolt that would short out anything in an enemy nation that uses electricity."

By the 19th, the Newsweek rumor had quickly mutated into a tale of stolen electromagnetic pulse guns, courtesy of the New York Times.

Initially, during a White House press conference, President Clinton was asked by a Fox News reporter:

"Mr. President, you said just a short while ago that no one has reported to you they suspect Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear labs during your administration, sir. But sources tell Fox News, and we are reporting this evening, that China stole the technology for electromagnetic pulse weapons from several nuclear labs during your first term in office, sir, and that the Chinese have successfully tested these weapons in China. And the sources also say that the administration, at least, was aware of this.

"Can you tell us, sir, were you not personally aware? Are you concerned about this? And what will be your administration's response to the report?"

This raises an interesting question. How can the President determine if a weapon is stolen if it is not known to exist?

Ambushed by phlogiston, the President nevertheless gamely tried to answer:

President Clinton: "Well, you didn't say what the source of what they sold was. You say they 'stole, is that the word you used?"

Fox reporter: "Yes, sir, the technology for EMP weapons, from four of the 11 nuclear labs."

The President susbsequently said he knew nothing of the matter and that he forgot little of what went on during national security briefings.

By Saturday, the New York Times had picked it up. This time, the statements on EMP guns, not nuclear weapons tuned for EMP broadcast, was attributed to the standard EMP red herring, the anonymous government source.

The reader will notice the confusion and chronic abuse of anonymous sourcing common to all of these stories.

From the New York Times, "When asked by a reporter from Fox News about whether China stole information from the labs about a nuclear device called an electromagnetic pulse warhead, during his tenure, the president said he knew nothing about that."

"A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Friday night that intelligence reports show that China is satisfied that it has obtained the technology to develop a so-called electromagnetic gun. That gun, the official said, shoots an electromagnetic pulse."

"It is not a nuclear weapon, however," continued the New York Times, "and is different from the electromagnetic pulse warhead in the U.S. nuclear arsenal."

In June 1997, the House Joint Economic Committee entertained testimony from a retired general, Robert Schweitzer, who claimed China was attempting to obtain EMP gun technology from Russia. During the same hearing, a great deal of effort was spent in bloviation about the Red Chinese peril.

In early 1999, a KGB-defector named Victor Sheymov claimed on national television that the KGB had used EMP guns to attack the U.S. embassy in Moscow, causing an alarm system to ring and the instigation of a minor fire. As a result, Sheymov was hired as a consultant to the National Security Agency.

One month later, amidst more Yellow Peril hysteria, the Chinese are accused of stealing not only the plans for a standard nuclear weapon, but also electromagnetic pulse guns, which have not been demonstrated to exist, and -- maybe -- plans for a nuclear weapon-tuned to create maximum EMP. [Perhaps the NSA should be paying "the national labs" for consultation?]

The reader may notice how none of these rumors, or news reports, appear to be on the same page.

Update -- April 11, 1999: The war against Yugoslavia has spawned its own EMP weapon chupacabras.

Rumors of new weaponry in use by the US Air Force floating around the Usenet and in and out of mainstream news organizations which should know better appear to stem from a brief article of extremely suspect credibility originally published by the Moscow ITAR-TASS news service on March 29.

In "US Uses [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] as Test Site for New Bomb," reporter Anatoly Yurkin writes:

"The USA is using Yugoslavia as a testing ground for its latest secret offensive weapons. The ITAR-TASS correspondent was told today at the Defence Ministry that, besides cluster bombs, which are extensively being used during the air strikes, the American bomber crews are using experimental samples of the latest aircraft bombs, the specifications of which differ considerably from those of conventional offensive weapons.

"This aircraft bomb was developed in secret laboratories in Los Alamos, where the first American nuclear bomb was created. The new weapon is designed to disrupt the enemy's radio-electronic equipment. When it explodes, it generates an electric impulse, similar to the electromagnetic waves during a nuclear explosion. In its military specifications this bomb is a cross between a conventional weapon and a nuclear one, which provides grounds for regarding it as a weapon of mass destruction.

"It is reported that the US air force is using two strategic B-2 bombers, developed with the 'Stealth' technology, to test the latest American aircraft bomb."

Crypt Newsletter reminds its readers that "official Russian news agencies" like ITAR-TASS have much in common with editorial practices at tabloids like the Weekly World News and National Enquirer. Traditionally, intelligence analysts have regarded it as a good source of fairy tales.

For example, on December 16, Komsomolskaya Pravda, like ITAR-TASS, one of "Russia's largest circulation and most outspoken dailies," published a feature entitled: "Electronic 'Hiroshima' Already Hidden in Moscow; 21st Century Wars Will Be Like Computer Horror Games."

An interesting and rather amusing myth passed on by the Russian news agency was framed around the appearance of Richard Pryce, one of two British hackers who broke into the Department of Defense's Rome Labs installation at Griffiss Air Force Base in 1994. Pryce and his [accomplice], claimed the Russian article, launched a "[space] shuttle" remotely and switched all of "New York's traffic lights to green."

In the same piece, the EMP weapon chupacrabras is invoked. However, instead of U.S. bombers using it over Yugoslavia, the situation is quite the opposite: The Russian military will use EMP bombs, which it calls "beer cans," to destroy U.S. "supercomputers."

One hallmark of the EMP weapon chupacabras is its extreme flexibility.

One month it can be your secret weapon; the next it can be your enemy's.

George Smith is the author of the book "The Virus Creation Labs: A Journey Into the Underground."

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