By Paul M. Weyrich

Although the risk of your house catching fire and burning to the ground is remote, are you willing to risk not having fire insurance?

That's a question that Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) poses, and the answer that I think you and I would give without hesitation is "no."

Our country is unprepared to deal with a nuclear explosion at a high altitude. The danger would be more than merely life or limb. A nuclear explosion over Chicago, for example, could plunge a large portion of our country into darkness, with electricity lost for days, even months, perhaps in some places years. All computerized activity in the region would cease. The culprit: High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse.

The very day the 9/11 Commission report was issued another report, that may one day prove itself to be even more important to our security, also was released. "The Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack" stated that our country has the ability to prevent the worst-case scenarios from occurring in this age of international terrorism.

When NATO started to bomb the Serbs in the spring of 1999 to stop Slobodan Milosevic's expulsion campaign against ethnic Albanians, the Russians were very unhappy about our military aggressions against one of their longtime allies. Rep. Bartlett was part of a bi-partisan delegation assembled by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) to examine the situation. They conferred with some counterparts from the Russian Duma. One Duma member, Vladimir Lukin (at the time chairing the Duma's International Affairs Committee and formerly a high-level member of the Soviet national security apparatus under Gorbachev), threatened that if Russia really wanted to hurt without fear of retaliation, Russia would launch a missile against us from a submarine, explode it high over our skies and shut down our power grid and communications for six months.

Rep. Bartlett was very disturbed by what he had heard; he wanted to know if the Russians were bluffing and sought the opinions of our country's military experts. After he found that the Clinton Administration was ignoring the threat, Rep. Bartlett decided to establish the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Commission. The EMP Commission was established by unanimous consent of the House and Senate.

If a nuclear blast occurred in high altitudes over our country, people would not be killed by the fallout from the blast itself. The most serious and far-reaching damage would be done by the EMP emissions. The result? According to the report, "the 'electromagnetic shock' that disrupts or damages electronics-based control systems, sensors, communication systems, protective systems, computers, and similar devices. Its damage or functional disruption occurs essentially simultaneously over a very large area." One scenario outlined by the EMP Commission predicted that a blast over Chicago, where 70% of our country's total power generation occurs, would instantly impact cities as distant as New York and Washington, D.C.

Important economic and life-sustaining sectors that stand to be severely damaged or shut down are our electronic power infrastructure, telecommunications, banking and finance, transportation, fuel/energy, food and emergency services, water supply, space systems and government operations.

An EMP attack cannot be compared to an ordinary blackout, even a very large blackout, because it will occur over a greater area, damage major electronic systems and cause recovery to be measured in months.

Here is some of the damage that stands to occur immediately after an attack unless sensible "hardening" precautions are taken to protect data and systems. They are:

Electronic records in computers, such as your savings and checking accounts, would be inaccessible.

Your telephone line, even for a cellular, would go dead.

The systems that operate petroleum refineries would be stopped, forcing energy production to halt for some time.

Transportation would be disrupted. Car and truck engines, train engines would be disabled. Traffic signals would become inoperable. Our air traffic control system would cease to exist.

Calling 911 would be a thing of the past.

The EMP Commission report warned: "Many citizens would be without power, communications and other services for days - or perhaps substantially longer - before full recovery could occur. During that interval, it will be crucial to provide a reliable channel of information to those citizens to let them know what has happened, the current situation, when help of what types for them might be available, what their governments are doing, and the host of questions which, if not answered, are certain to create more instability and suffering for the affected individuals, communities, and the Nation as a whole."

The Boy Scout motto -- "Be prepared" -- is sound advice for our nation's policymakers in this era of global terrorism. They cannot afford to ignore this report or its warnings or other warnings that biological and chemical warfare agents, cyber attacks and surface-burst nuclear weaponry are other significant threats. Those types of attacks would be the more deadly when combined with an EMP attack.

There are steps we can take to increase our ability to quickly recover from an EMP attack. For example, the Department of Homeland Security should have a list that prioritizes emergency electricity delivery to hospitals, regional food warehouses, water supply and critical communications and transportation. Preparing and protecting spare transformers could quickly repair the power grid and permit the recovery of electric power, enabling other important infrastructures to be functional. The EMP Commission made the point that we need wise and effective planning; it needs to be done now.

The Wall Street Journal did not ignore the Commission's report on the perils of an EMP attack. It published an editorial warning that China and Russia have the capability to launch an EMP strike against us. Over the next 15 years our relations with these countries are likely to be volatile and unpredictable. Russian Duma members threatened us five years ago. Chinese publications have carried articles about EMP, including threats to use EMP to neutralize our aircraft carriers if we were to war with China over Taiwan. The Commission appeared most concerned about an EMP attack from terrorists or rogue states who believe they have absolutely nothing to lose.

Wall Street is indeed concerned about this problem. The EMP Commission delivered a briefing to the Securities Industry Automation Corporation, which handles the communications networks responsible for the New York Stock Exchange. EMP Commissioner Lowell L. Wood, Jr. estimated in an Aerospace Daily & Defense Report article published earlier this fall that, all told, an EMP attack that shuts down our critical infrastructure systems could carry a $10 trillion dollar price tag.

The nine members who served on the EMP Commission have strong credentials: Commission Chairman, Dr. William R. Graham, served as Director of the White Office of Science & Technology Policy and as Science Advisor to President Ronald Reagan; General Richard L. Lawson, USAF, Ret., is a former President and CEO of the National Mining Association; Dr. Lowell L. Wood is Senior Staff Scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Rep. Bartlett brings a unique skill set: With a master's degree in physiology, he worked at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, directing a unit in Space Life Sciences and at IBM on biomedical engineering projects. He speaks on this issue with a background in the sciences. At 78 years of age, he has the energy and drive that would shame many young people.

Bartlett is undeterred by the lack of response from the establishment news media, driven by his understanding of what may truly be at stake if our nation's policymakers and business leaders continue to ignore the EMP Commission's work. Some have called the 9/11 Commission report a look in the rear view mirror. By contrast, the EMP Commission report is a look down the road at the kind of attack that instantaneously could change our status as the world's superpower to that of a nation with an infrastructure so diminished that Third World nations might be envied.

Many important issues will be taken up by the next Congress, starting in January. This issue deserves strong consideration as does our ability to deal with other kind of attacks, such as biological warfare, that represent the deadly future of warfare and terrorism. If the worst case scenario were to occur, it also would be important that our public officials respond in a manner that seeks to preserve our liberties and heritage as much as possible.

Rep. Bartlett advises that sensible steps taken now can prepare us to deal with, even thwart, the mayhem caused by terrorists and rogue nations. I hope we have some lawmakers who share Mr. Bartlett's concern in preserving our American way of life for future generations. If we do, then I expect Congress will delve further into the work of the EMP Commission and its unsettling findings.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.