Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser

The best-selling author unpacks his text on nuclear weapons and safety, Command and Control.

Journalist Eric Schlosser tries to explore subjects ignored by mainstream media and give a voice to people at the margins of society. He's turned those explorations into such best-selling books as Fast Food Nation—which was adapted into a feature film—and Reefer Madness, stories of marijuana growers and pornographers and the victims of violent crime. Before turning to nonfiction, Schlosser worked for an indie film company and was a playwright (two of his plays have been produced in London). He began his journalism career as a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. In his latest book, Command and Control, he examines the dangers of America's nuclear age.


Tavis: We hear a great deal about weapons of mass destruction and it seems that we’ve come very close to accidentally detonating a few of those bombs, incidents that have long been kept secret until now.

Award-winning investigative journalist, Eric Schlosser, has pulled back the curtain on what has been kept hidden in a new text called “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety.” Eric, good to have you on this program.

Eric Schlosser: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: Thanks for all the research that went into making this possible.

Schlosser: Thank you.

Tavis: Let’s start our conversation, if I can, on a personal note. As you know, you referenced this the minute you walked on our set before we went on camera here. I grew up in a place called Bunker Hill, Indiana. There’s an Air Force Base there called Grissom Air Force Base.

My dad served in the Air Force for 37 years. I grew up on this Air Force Base and little did I know that, in 1964, the year I was born, there was a major accident in Bunker Hill, Indiana.

Schlosser: Yeah. A B-58 bomber was taxiing on the runway and the plane in front of it hit it with a gust of exhaust. Runway was icy, bomber slid off the runway, caught on fire. Two of the three crewmen got out safely, one was killed. But there were five hydrogen bombs on that plane. Two of them were unharmed, one of them was scorched. One of them caught on fire and one of them melted completely into the runway.

These were weapons that didn’t have adequate safety devices yet. In this case, they didn’t detonate, but it could have been a real problem for Kokomo and that base. I mean, that base had lots of other nuclear weapons on it and it was just very fortunate that none of these weapons detonated.

Tavis: Well, the stuff you learn about your own life [laugh]. I mean, you start…

Schlosser: I mean, that base could have just been completely obliterated.

Tavis: Obliterated, yeah, yeah. The story of what happened at Grissom Air Force Base where I grew up, how common are these stories that we don’t hear about?

Schlosser: A lot more common than we’ve been led to believe.

Tavis: Right.

Schlosser: The book is based on interviews and lots of documents I got through the Freedom of Information Act. And during the Cold War, the government really didn’t want people to question nuclear weapons or be concerned about them. So their standard line was there was never any chance of these things detonating accidentally and, whenever there was an accident, they would neither confirm nor deny a nuclear weapon was involved.

What concerns me is we invented this technology. I think that we build the safest nuclear weapons of any country and yet, if we’ve had this many problems with our weapons, it really makes you wonder about countries like Pakistan, India, Russia, and how they’re managing these arsenals today.

Tavis: That raises a few questions not the least of which is, given all the accidents or near accidents that you have now brought to our attention that we heretofore did not know about, why it is that we’re in the business — and I’m not naive in asking this question.

But why are we in the business of even making nuclear weapons — and I’ll come later to our trying to check other folk for having the same technology we have, particularly some of who we helped develop it and then we want to turn on them later on.

But let’s just start with the first question. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Why are we in the business still of making nuclear weapons?

Schlosser: That’s a good question. And we’re not making new nuclear weapons, but we have thousands of them right now. They’re held over from the Cold War. And one of the reasons I wrote the book is to just remind people these things are still out there.

And at the heart of the book is the story of a weapons accident in Damascus, Arkansas where we almost had a major warhead explode. And by looking at that accident, I’m trying to remind people of the risk of the complexity of these things. You know, it’s hard to explain why we still have them.

You know, we don’t have a major enemy like the Soviet Union anymore and we need to think about this issue, think about how many do we need, how should they be deployed, why do we have them, where are they aimed at? These things are discussed in terms of Iran, but they’re not discussed in terms of the United States.

Tavis: How vast is our supply?

Schlosser: It’s huge. I mean, at the peak of the Cold War, we had about 32,000 nuclear weapons. Now we have closer to 5,000 of which about 1,800 are ready to be used at a moment’s notice. But just one of these weapons is, you know, powerful and destructive beyond our imagination.

Tavis: So why do we need — again, I’m not naive in asking this. But if one is that powerful, why do we need to blow the world up like 100 million times?

Schlosser: Yeah. I guess because Russia still has so many and there’s still this mentality from the nuclear arms race of the Cold War that we can’t let someone else have more than we have. Whereas, 300 nuclear weapons would be enough to completely annihilate any country that there is on earth.

Tavis: Tell me more about this Damascus incident.

Schlosser: Well, Damascus, Arkansas is a small town in the foothills of the Ozarks and, one day in 1980, they were doing routine maintenance in a missile silo. And this was the biggest missile we ever built with the most powerful warhead we ever put on a missile. And one of the workmen on a steel platform dropped a socket off of his wrench.

It was just a routine accident. The socket fell in between the work platform and the missile, fell about 70 feet, bounced, hit the missile and pierced a hole in the metal skin of the missile. And suddenly incredibly explosive dangerous rocket fuel was filling the silo and the Air Force had no idea what to do.

I mean, we had had a missile like that for about 17 years. There’d never been a fuel leak and here was our most powerful warhead on top of the missile. So in a minute by minute way, I go through how the Air Force improvised and tried to figure out what to do to save this missile with a warhead that could have incinerated the whole state of Arkansas.

Bill Clinton was governor at the time. Vice President Mondale was in the state at the time. Chelsea Clinton was just one year old. And it’s one of those things that could have really changed the course of history. But it’s important to look at not just because it’s an incredible story, but also because it shows how much of a challenge it is to manage these incredibly complex technological systems.

Tavis: You started to intimate this a moment ago. Give me some sense of how, in a worst case scenario, how deadly would that accident have been had it not been contained at the last minute?

Schlosser: It would have incinerated the state of Arkansas.

Tavis: The entire state?

Schlosser: The state. And it would have sent deadly radioactive fallout up the east coast. We tested one weapon in 1954 to give you the sense of the power of one hydrogen bomb. This was a very powerful hydrogen bomb.

If you had dropped that one bomb on Washington, D.C., it would have killed everyone in Washington, everyone in Philadelphia, everyone in Baltimore who couldn’t find shelter in a fallout shelter, and it would have killed half the people in New York City.

This is just one nuclear weapon, one powerful hydrogen bomb. And, again, at one point, we have 32,000 of them. So this is just an incredible amount of explosive force, very complicated machines, being run by fallible human beings.

And I just want to say, one of the other major themes of the book is the incredible heroism of ordinary servicemen during the Cold War, many of whom risked their lives, and in this case, lost their lives trying to prevent these nuclear catastrophes.

I don’t know what your father’s duties were, but we haven’t really heard about the heroism of a lot of these Cold War veterans in the same way we now know about Vietnam War veterans and we honor our Second World War veterans.

Tavis: What’s your sense of that level of heroism? Are there numbers we can attach? I’m trying to get a ballpark of what the sacrifice has been by these individuals.

Schlosser: You know, the greatest sacrifice would be loss of life and certainly dozens of members of air crews and first responders lost their lives. But in looking at the people in this book, it’s not a simplistic, you know, bad war-mongering people with nuclear weapons. This system was so complicated and the implications of going to war were so unbelievable that the daily stress of these jobs involving nuclear weapons was enormous.

I mean, if you had a top security clearance to be working on these nuclear weapons, you couldn’t talk to your family about it; you couldn’t talk to your friends outside of the military about it. And yet lots of people live with this knowledge that there was a very thin margin between peace time and, I’m not exaggerating, I mean, just total annihilation and nuclear war. We are so fortunate that we got out of the Cold War without a major city being destroyed by a nuclear weapon.

And my concern is, as a new generation of young people has no knowledge of these weapons, the risk increases. You know, the more of these weapons there are in the world, the more countries have them, the greater a chance that a city’s going to be destroyed and we haven’t seen anything like that since the Second World War.

Tavis: So you’re on PBS tonight. You were elsewhere talking about this gut check, this reality check.

Schlosser: Absolutely.

Tavis: I’m glad you are. So that once this new generation becomes aware of this, what exactly do we want them to do? What are we asking those fellow citizens once they become aware of the fact that we’ve had all these near misses? What power, what agency, do we have?

Schlosser: We have huge power and we need a national debate and discussion about weapons of mass destruction. For too long, the decisions about nuclear weapons have been made by a small group of policymakers acting in secret in Washington. This is information that has been deliberately kept from the American people.

Our president, I think, really understands these issues about nuclear weapons and put himself out on a limb in 2009 when he called for abolition of nuclear weapons. He continues to call for a reduction in the number, but there’s no public support. There’s no public awareness.

At the end of the Cold War, there was a real national movement in this country that arose pretty quickly in the 1970s that was calling for a nuclear freeze, a reduction in the number, or a freeze in the number, of nuclear weapons. And that movement played a very central role in persuading Ronald Reagan who started office as a bellicose Cold Warrior calling the Soviet Union an evil empire.

At the end of his administration, he was calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons and his change of mind had a great deal to do with the huge pressure that the public put on him. So it’s important that we are aware of this issue in the same way it’s important we’re aware of global warming.

I think the two greatest threats the United States faces are global warming which is occurring slowly and may be reversible, and a nuclear weapon going off which is going to happen instantaneously, irreversible, and will just have consequences beyond our imagining and I think is preventable.

Tavis: Where policy making or policymakers are concerned, given that we’re now on this side of the Cold War, why does this conversation, the president’s call notwithstanding, why does this conversation not get traction amongst policymakers?

Schlosser: Yeah. I just think it’s so off the public radar. You know, the Soviet Union collapsed; everyone was delighted that the Soviet Union vanished without a world war. People forgot these weapons are still there in silos, thousands of them ready to be used. So the Soviet Union went away, the Cold War ended, but the danger didn’t go away.

You know, most elected officials aren’t aware of these details and this information. And part of doing this book, which is based on documents from the Freedom of Information Act, but lots of interviews with people who worked on a day-to-day basis with nuclear weapons, is to provide this information and this awareness. The most anti-nuclear people in the United States are in their 80s, in their 90s. They worked with these weapons, they helped design these weapons.

And what’s ironic is, when I was growing up, it was like young people on college campus who were anti-nuclear weapon. Well, young people on college campuses don’t know anything about it now. It’s the people who really understand these weapons that want to see the number of them greatly reduced and maybe even eliminated like our president has called for.

Tavis: So what happens then when those persons die off?

Schlosser: It’s an awareness that goes with them. I mean, the last time the United States tested a nuclear weapons outdoors was in 1962. So that means it’s been 51 years since anyone’s actually seen one of these things detonate.

And the former head of the Los Alamos lab who I interviewed for the book, Harold Agnew, who passed away this past week, he said to me he would love to gather every world leader and show them the detonation of a hydrogen bomb from 20 miles away.

The power of that explosion so chilled him, he thinks that these world leaders with this sort of, you know, authority over life and death should see for themselves what these weapons can do. But it’s a knowledge that’s really fading away and I think it’s very dangerous that we’re losing this awareness.

Tavis: Let me ask what may be a silly question, but I want to build, Eric, on the point you’ve just made now about the former head of this Los Alamos lab. Would it be possible for the president of the United States to arrange for that kind of explosion from 20 miles away so that the American people could see what that means? I mean, he’s the president of the United States. I don’t know what he can and can’t do in this regard.

What I’m getting at here is, in the age of social media, in the age of YouTube, in an age of cable television and the like, if you could actually on any given day turn on any of these outlets, turn to any of these outlets, and see for yourself what this explosion would look like. I’m just trying to make the case for how that would galvanize the American public if they could see. Seeing is believing.

Schlosser: Seeing is believing.

Tavis: I mean, is this a pipe dream? Is that possible?

Schlosser: Well, if you go onto YouTube, there’s been an enormous amount of footage declassified by the government of nuclear detonations. I was able to obtain a fair amount of footage that I’m going to try to put online. I think it’s really important for people to see these things. In terms of doing an actual test, thankfully we have signed a treaty against nuclear testing.

Tavis: Testing at all.

Schlosser: And we don’t want other countries testing, but we do want this knowledge to be spread. Now I’m not a filmmaker. I’m a writer, so writing a book is my way of doing it. But we need to have a national dialog about it. Again, it’s highly unusual for the president of the United States to take a position so far in advance of the public.

Most presidents are responding to public pressure, and this is an instance where I think the American people have failed to move forward with the president on this issue and that’s one of the aims of this book is to just remind people of how important this issue is.

Tavis: Okay. So let me try this on for size. I could give you — and you’re the expert here, so I’m playing devil’s advocate. But I could give you a litany of reasons, if I had the time to make the case tonight, for how and why I think our government is hypocritical where nuclear weapons are concerned, starting with what we still have in our arsenal, number one.

Number two, with the technology we have shared with others that oftentimes turns out to be used against or threatened to be used against us, etc., etc., etc. Give me some sense of whether or not I’m overstating the case when I say where nuclear weapons are concerned, vis-à-vis our foreign policy, there is some level of hypocrisy. Is that too strong a word?

Schlosser: There has been in the past, but I think really since the end of the Cold War, we have tried hard to reduce the size if our arsenal. And what’s remarkable is the biggest reductions in our nuclear arsenal have been done by Republican presidents, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, his son George W. Bush. We went from 32,000 nuclear weapons. Now we’re down — we’ve got about 2,000 that are actually deployed.

The Soviet Union had 35,000. They’ve gone down to about the same number we have. So we’ve made very sincere steps to reduce the size of our arsenal. And one of the points I think the book makes is that any country that chooses to have nuclear weapons puts itself at grave risk from its own weapons.

So I’m strongly opposed to other countries getting nuclear weapons and they may say, well, the United States has nuclear weapons. Who are you to say that we shouldn’t have them? And I would say look at our history. We invented them and we’ve almost blown ourselves up on numerous occasions because of having them. Nuclear weapons are not going to make you safer. They’re going to endanger you in all kinds of ways.

And what’s happened is there’s like an ego status thing associated with having nuclear weapons that we’re a more powerful country, we’re a world power if we have them. And I would say, well, look at Germany, look at Japan, look at the economies that they’ve built without having nuclear weapons.

Tavis: But wouldn’t that argument, Eric, with all due respect…

Schlosser: Yeah.

Tavis: Wouldn’t that argument be more robust if we didn’t have nuclear weapons or, at the very least, got down to that 300 number that you suggested earlier could blow the whole world up? So there’s still a huge number between — still a gap between 300 and 2,000, not that we need even one of them. But wouldn’t that argument be made stronger if we didn’t have 2,000 of them?

Schlosser: It would be made stronger and we need to sit down with the Russians. You know, between the United States and Russia, we have a huge proportion of the nuclear weapons in the world. We need to bring China into these talks, England, France, Israel, India, Pakistan. And I’m just saying, if we don’t bring down the number of nuclear weapons in the world and if the number of countries with nuclear weapons increase, it’s just the law of averages.

One day one of these things is going to go off and it’s going to destroy a city and it’s going to make Katrina, it’s going to make the tsunami, it’s going to make the kinds of natural disasters that we’ve seen seem like nothing when one of these things go off.

Tavis: So one of the arguments that President Obama has made and other leaders have made, and on this argument, I am in solidarity with him, and that is that one of the dangers — not that America is perfect — but one of the dangers in certain countries getting them is that there is a greater propensity, I think, a greater opportunity in certain nations for these weapons to end up in the hand of rogue individuals.

Schlosser: Absolutely.

Tavis: How concerned are you about that?

Schlosser: I’m very concerned about Pakistan. I mean, one of the most interesting things that came out of Edward Snowden’s revelations is he put online a document that showed that our intelligence community knows very little about how Pakistan is storing, transporting, handling its weapons. There’s also a very disturbing change in warfare at the moment. I mean, the United States has tried very hard with varying degrees of success not to target civilians.

Our military tries to come up with precision weapons and yet right now in the Middle East in particular, you’re not just seeing suicide bombers, you’re seeing the deliberate targeting of civilians in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, bombs in, you know, markets and stalls trying to kill as many civilians as possible.

Well, a nuclear weapon gives that power, you know, beyond belief to target civilians. So we really don’t want these weapons spreading. I mean, serious chemical weapons are insignificant compared to one nuclear weapon.

Tavis: Can you give me any solace, any consolation, about the fact that we now have better policies for how to store, for how to care for, the bombs that we do have? Because this whole book is about all the near accidents. Are we better at least at controlling the arsenal that we do have?

Schlosser: We are better and our weapons and our bombs are safer than they were 30 years ago. One of my concerns, though, is that a lot of the weapons they’re attached to, the bombers, the missiles, are aging. Some of them are 30, 40, 50 years old. Some of the infrastructure is aging, so we’ve continued to have problems.

I mean, in 2010, we lost communications with 50 of our land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles for an hour. The launch control centers, the crews, couldn’t communicate with our missiles. This was traced back to a single computer chip that had failed in a processor.

But there’s some concern — and this sounds like a Hollywood movie. There’s some concern that’s been brought out this year in senate testimony about the threat of someone hacking into our nuclear command and control system. And you don’t want a hacker being able to disable our missiles or even launching one.

Now the odds of that are not great, but the fact that it’s even conceivable means we have to invest in these systems, pay attention to them and, if we are going to have nuclear weapons, make sure that the people managing them are top rate. We had two of our three Minuteman squadrons this year were cited for safety violations.

So things are better than during the Cold War. The fact that we have fewer weapons makes it easier to manage them than when we had 32,000. But you’ve got to be constantly vigilant and there’s no room for one serious mistake because one of these things going off would be a catastrophe.

Tavis: See, that’s an argument I think I’m going to pull to my side. You helped me with my argument because I believe that hackers these days and certainly into the future are capable of doing just about anything. And I’m not so convinced that, at some point down the road, hackers couldn’t figure this out. They seem to figure out everything else.

Schlosser: Absolutely.

Tavis: You set your devious mind to it, you know, you can figure this stuff out which, I think, makes the argument for why we don’t need to have them. If you don’t have them, they’re not going to be hacked.

Schlosser: Well, you know, if you had said five years ago that a low level software guy at the NSA would get the most top secrets of the most secret agency, you would have said that’s a Hollywood movie.

Tavis: Stop, Eric, stop, stop. You’re making my point [laugh].

Schlosser: Yeah. No, I agree. I agree with that.

Tavis: Yeah. All jokes aside, though. So I want to come back to this in case somebody tuned in this conversation late. So you have done us, I think, a great national service by putting this information, this intelligence, out there. What do we do with it at the moment?

Schlosser: First step is to become aware, second thing is to do something about it. There are different organizations now working on nuclear weapons issues. One is called Global Zero; one is called the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Just by getting aware and active and letting our politicians know that we care about this issue has an impact because, if the elected officials don’t hear anything from their constituents, they don’t do anything on an issue. And, again, we have a president who, I think, really understands this, is really trying to do the right thing and needs some backup on it.

Tavis: His name is Eric Schlosser. His new book is called “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety.” Eric, thank you for your work, and thanks for coming on the program.

Schlosser: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: Appreciate it. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching from Los Angeles. Keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm