June 3, 2004 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Nuclear codes = 00000000 Remember Johnson's Daisy ad, which led to the question whose finger do you want on the button? Well it seems it was not the President's finger alone. SAC took it upon itself (if this article can be believed) to set all the nuclear launch codes to 00000000 and then to tell all of the launch operators. Any one of those crews could have by themselves started WWIII. Apparently, that whole "nuclear briefcase" trick was nothing but a charade for many years. YIKES! (via Geekpress and Slashdot).
posted by caddis (25 comments total)
OK, flame me for triple posting (if you believe posting from another blog constitutes multiple posting). I am guilty. However, this article scares the living S*** out of me! I think the responsible parties should pay, and pay big. They put the entire world, not just their own country, at risk of annihilation. They committed treason against the US and an even worse moral crime against the world. Life imprisonment only begins to address their wrong. What we have here is the military class removing the decision for world destruction from the politicians (with some military oversight) to just the military. I have visions of Slim Pickens riding that bomb.
posted by caddis at 8:48 PM on June 3, 2004

WOPR would have gotten all zeroes in no time at all.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:30 PM on June 3, 2004

Oh sure, just advertise to the terrorists that they could take over!

I like to think that should those bombs go off, they'll be full of Skittles like in the ads, and then Skittles will fall everywhere.

That's what I *like* to think. Don't step all over my dreams, people.
posted by Salmonberry at 9:47 PM on June 3, 2004

Well, this should be simple enough to verify. All we have to do is find some maintenance guy from the time who was involved with setting PAL codes into the equipment. Los Alamos party conversation notwithstanding, I'd rather get some ops or maintenance weenie who actually did the work to verify this, since the whole point of the PAL system was to NOT have the capsule crews know what the code was.

And having worked with a good amount of equipment around that time that had thumbwheel inputs for data, (damn, has it been 30 years already?) the first step was to zero out the inputs, then put in your data.

Could it be true? Maybe. But, I think, likely not.

posted by JB71 at 9:54 PM on June 3, 2004

Independent of this story, but quite relevant, is that Gen. Curtis LeMay's Strategic Air Command (SAC) was and remains a rogue agency. This has everything to do with Curtis LeMay.

LeMay was the ultimate cold warrior, and he was formiddable. He virtues were his vices. George C. Scott's character in "Dr. Strangelove" was a caricature of LeMay. His achievements include:

...organizing on his own intitiative and through both formal informal channels the American military preparedness for a confrontation with the USSR in W. Europe on the heels of the end of WWII. (Specifically, he informally negotiated with western European regional admistrators and even local facilities to act as ad hoc storage depots and troop waypoints for a quick deployment in the case of the outbreak of war.) This more than anything exemplifies both his strengths and weaknesses.

...invented the deliberate strategy of firebombing, especially in Japan, used to great effect.

...was chiefly responsible for the successful Berlin airlift, a huge political and logistical acomplishment.

...transformed SAC from the small operation to the behemoth it is today, essentially recreating it.

LeMay was extremely anti-Soviet and believed strongly and vocally that the US had a once-only early opportunity to succeed in a crippling nuclear "first strike" against the USSR after which it would not be possible or the cost (to the US) would be too great. He advocated such a plan in the very early fifties.

Although the US President is the only person on whose authority a nuclear launch can be iniated, LeMay believed that in the event of an attack on the US by the USSR, the practical reality was that the President would either be unable to make the decision or, at the very least, do so quickly enough. Therefore, he made seperate, secret, private arrangements with the base commander at Kirtland AFB in Albuqerque, where most of the bombs were kept ready for deployment that, if necessary, he and SAC would be able to access and utilize those weapons without the President's authority.

SAC did and does operate outside the normal military oversight of the other services. It is now known that SAC flew many unsanctioned missions, often very provacative, against the USSR, possibly in an attempt to provoke a Soviet response. It's likely that, in the early fifties at least, LeMay was greatly disatisfied with the political animus against a first strike strategy and attempted to provoke the Soviets into some kind of confrontation. SAC was regularly very aggressive in this manner, and often completely without sanction by the rest of the military or political establishment.

There is reason to believe that SAC performed a fly-over of Cuba during the missile crisis, unbeknownst to JFK or the Chiefs of Staff.

There was occasionally something quite heroic about LeMay, even when he was monstrous. This was a man that could accomplish almost anything he set his mind to, and often things that everyone else thought impossible. This cleary made him both great and useful. On the other hand, he was for the very same reasons extremely dangerous. The only use a man like this has to his political masters (or the rest of us), is if he's kept on a very, very short leash. LeMay wasn't, and we're quite lucky that he didn't single-handedly instigate a nuclear holocaust.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:02 PM on June 3, 2004

It never ceases to amaze me that we continue to exist. We've had the power to destroy the planet for a good long time and haven't actually destroyed the planet yet.

What's the book? Oh yeah, Wump World.
posted by fenriq at 10:39 PM on June 3, 2004

Don't step all over my dreams, people.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


posted by ac at 10:44 PM on June 3, 2004

That's the kind of combination an idiot would put on his luggage!
posted by hal incandenza at 10:58 PM on June 3, 2004

ac that's the second time today I've hear/read that quotation. who is it?
posted by Grod at 11:41 PM on June 3, 2004

Grod: ac's quote is from "He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven" by W.B. Yeats.
posted by misteraitch at 11:46 PM on June 3, 2004

posted by hal incandenza at 10:58 PM PST on June 3

posted by hincandenza at 1:16 AM on June 4, 2004

Fortunately for the United States, the Soviet Union had men like Stanislav Petrov at the button.

(Yes, I know, 6 years after the codes to the nuclear locks were changed from 000000000. )
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:43 AM on June 4, 2004

By the way, there is no such thing as "Strategic Air Command" (SAC) anymore -- it was officially disbanded in (IIRC) 1991, with some assets going to Air Combat Command, others to Air Force Space Command, and others to Air Mobility Command.
posted by davidmsc at 3:57 AM on June 4, 2004

Jesus Christ, I'd never heard that Petrov story before. Now I'll be freaked out all morning.

And regarding the disbandment of SAC... I grew up just north of Omaha, and everyone in the area took this perverse pride in what a high-value nuclear target Omaha would be because of SAC headquarters (I honestly remember a 6th-grade teacher telling us that we wouldn't need to worry about nuclear war, because we'd be the first ones to go, etc). When SAC was resturtcuted, there was this weird period where people went around trying to reassure each other, "No, it's ok, the Russians still have missiles aimed at Offutt."
posted by COBRA! at 7:56 AM on June 4, 2004

All this and we're afraid of terrorists?
posted by briank at 8:05 AM on June 4, 2004

BTW, these aren't the "launch codes" you see in the movies. ("Do you have your card, Mr. President? Upper right corner. Roger Fox Doves. Authenticate.") PALs are probably a lock on the circuitry that enable an electrical path to the detonator.
posted by joaquim at 8:24 AM on June 4, 2004

Somewhat related: the administrative password for Diebold's voting machines is 1111.
"After analyzing Diebold's software source code that had mistakenly been left on an open Internet site, Rubin wrote a scathing report, saying that anyone with a minimum of computer knowledge could manufacture "homebrew" Smartcards and outsmart the system. He excoriated Diebold's software designers, who had built passwords such as 1111 into the machines, and said he would have flunked them in basic computer security classes."
Full Article
posted by fletchmuy at 8:28 AM on June 4, 2004

The Petrov story just made me lose my appetite.

I remember a few years back, Frontline did a set of interviews with senior Soviet missile command generals. One of them told a somewhat similar story that, at the time, made me perversely less disturbed.

It seems (well, we all know) that Brezhnev was fond of his vodka. One night, after a few too many snorts, he phoned for his version of the football and ordered an ascension to their highest alert status. According to the general relating the story (who would have been too young to be in command at the time), the commanding general took the order, then called his subordinates and told them about it, and ordered them not to tell anyone else.

The next morning (so I recall it), Brezhnev didn't remember a thing.

My take at the time: "Cool! They knew the stakes -- they didn't want to lose their daschas and their wine cellars because of a paranoid drunk on a binge."

My take now: ....shit....they were as messed up as we were.

If I believed in a god, I'd thank it for men like Petrov.
posted by lodurr at 9:01 AM on June 4, 2004

But see, the problem is that exercising this (Petrov's) level of personal judgment is institutionally and in many social situations, counter-productive. LeMay, basing his judgments similarly on his intuition and earnest good-intentions likely would have made the opposite judgment. For anything of this political/social/institutional magnitude, it almost never should be structured such that an individual is either allowed or able to exercise such discretion. If he/she is, however, that this is the case should have been a considered judgment by those who designed the institution and its rules. We both expect and require some individuals to make these sorts of judgments. But a lieutenant colonel or even a general? Probably not.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:13 AM on June 4, 2004

For anything of this political/social/institutional magnitude, it almost never should be structured such that an individual is either allowed or able to exercise such discretion.

IMHO, you have entirely too much faith that a technical solution is possible.

In my experience, fully routinizing any system guarantees one or both of two outcomes:

1 - People will be ground like sausage in the system, and human concerns will be subordinated to those of system itself.

2 - People will recognize the (inevitable) ways that the automated system can be gamed, and exploit them for their own purposes.

You can routinze the system all you want. But with stakes this high, I want Petrov in the look at the end.
posted by lodurr at 12:31 PM on June 4, 2004

Petrov needs to be given some kind of medal or recognition, it's a shame no one has heard the story.
posted by Salmonberry at 3:10 PM on June 4, 2004

This Nuclear Age.
posted by homunculus at 3:24 PM on June 4, 2004

I think the key part of my point was that this is more true when the stakes are highest. As a society, we either explicitly have decided to rely upon the judgment of a single individual, or we haven't. Neither LeMay nor Petrov had been granted that exercise of judgment by the polis. Do not judge Petrov's actions on the basis that you agree with his judgment. Judge it based upon the assumption that you don't. (For example, if he launched a counter-attack when his board didn't show a missile, but someone on the phone had told him that Kiev had just been incinerated.) Should he be allowed to exercise his individual judgment when it concerns the fates of billions?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:15 PM on June 4, 2004

Lucky enough... and I guess that's what really matters. Techniques and procedures weren't perfect on either side, but we didn't get into an active nuclear city-busting pissing match - and that's what counts in the end. Moscow and Kiev are still there, so is Washington and New York.

The shit didn't hit the fan. And in the end, that's what really matters.

posted by JB71 at 7:48 PM on June 6, 2004

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