Annie Jacobsen: Nuclear War, CIA, KGB, Aliens, Area 51, Roswell & Secrecy | Lex Fridman Podcast #420

Annie Jacobsen: Nuclear War, CIA, KGB, Aliens, Area 51, Roswell & Secrecy | Lex Fridman Podcast #420

Launch procedure (00:06:57)

  • The president has 6 minutes to launch a nuclear attack after the first warning.
  • The president has sole presidential authority to launch a nuclear war without permission from anyone else.
  • Nuclear war will unfold so fast that only one person can be in charge, the president.
  • President Reagan referred to the six-minute window as irrational and questioned how anyone could make a decision to launch nuclear weapons based on a blip on a radar scope.
  • Most presidents know little about the responsibility of launching nuclear weapons.
  • Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta realized the weight of the responsibility when he became Secretary of Defense and knew he would be the person the president would turn to in case of a nuclear attack.
  • The Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are the first people to brief the president about a nuclear attack.

Deterrence (00:12:36)

  • Nuclear deterrence is the idea of having massive arsenals of nuclear weapons pointed at each other to prevent nuclear war.
  • Nuclear threats are coming out of the mouths of leaders for the first time in decades.
  • The assumption that no one will launch nuclear weapons falls apart once the first launch happens.
  • If nuclear war starts, there will be no battle for cities, it will be a push-button war.
  • The United States has 1,770 deployed nuclear weapons, and Russia has 1,674 deployed nuclear weapons.
  • All these weapons can be launched in seconds or minutes.
  • Top-tier National Security advisers believe that a nuclear war could happen.
  • Using a tactical nuclear weapon is not just an escalation, it's far more than that.

Tactical nukes (00:16:09)

  • Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller warheads designed for use in battle, while strategic nuclear weapons are larger systems like ICBMs, bombers, and submarine-launched missiles. Their use could be a catalyst for a larger conflict, as it would be difficult to walk back from such an action.
  • Land-launched missiles, once launched, cannot be recalled or redirected, making them particularly dangerous.
  • The time it takes for a nuclear warhead to travel from one continent to another is measured in minutes, with a journey from the Soviet Union to the US East Coast taking approximately 26 minutes and 40 seconds. North Korea's geographical advantage allows for a shorter missile travel time to the US, estimated to be around 33 minutes from launch to the east coast.
  • Despite having two superpowers with nuclear weapons for 75 years, the threat of nuclear war persists, and experts believe we are closer to its realization than ever before. Communication is seen as the key to preventing nuclear war, as it allows for understanding and potentially defusing tense situations.

Nuclear submarines (00:25:35)

  • Nuclear submarines are considered "second strike capacity" and are extremely dangerous to civilization.
  • Admiral Michael Connor, former Chief of the nuclear submarine forces, stated that it's easier to find a grapefruit-sized object in space than a submarine under the sea.
  • Nuclear submarines from various countries, including the US, Russia, China, and possibly North Korea, are constantly moving around the oceans.
  • These submarines have been detected within a couple of hundred miles of the east and west coasts of the United States.
  • Nuclear submarines can launch ballistic missiles from 150 feet below the surface, making them undetectable in real-time.
  • The technology involved in submarine warfare is incredibly advanced and expensive, with trillions of dollars spent to prevent nuclear war.

Nuclear missiles (00:28:35)

  • The US has 400 underground silos called Minutemen, which can launch ICBMs within a minute of receiving the launch order. Submarines can also launch ICBMs within 14-15 minutes of receiving the launch command.
  • Russia and North Korea use Road Mobile launchers, which are large trucks that can move stealthily around the country, making them difficult to target. The US does not have Road Mobile launchers due to political concerns.
  • The Federation of American Scientists and intelligence agencies monitor the number of warheads and weapon systems through the Nuclear Notebook and other sources to track reported and hidden information.
  • Russia's development of new nuclear-capable weapon systems increases tensions and prompts the CIA to focus on monitoring these advancements.
  • Both the US and Russia have hypersonic weapons programs, with DARPA leading the US efforts to create advanced weapon systems. DARPA operates on the principle of responding to advancements made by other countries, ensuring the US has countermeasures in place.
  • Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works operates in secrecy, limiting public knowledge of their impressive engineering achievements.
  • War has historically been a significant driver of innovation and engineering advancements, with the threat of annihilation serving as a powerful motivator.
  • The United States remains capable of developing advanced weaponry, including nuclear weapons.

Nuclear football (00:35:46)

  • The 'nuclear football' is a leather satchel that accompanies the US President and Vice President at all times, containing the Presidential Emergency Action Directives (PEADs) for launching a nuclear counterattack in case of an incoming nuclear attack.
  • The President uses a laminated 'menu' to choose targets and weapon systems for the counterattack, which is non-digital and likely outdated.
  • There are three command bunkers involved in nuclear war: the Pentagon bunker (Beating Heart), Cheyenne Mountain bunker (Brains), and Stratcom bunker (Muscle).
  • The Stratcom commander receives launch orders from the President and directs 150,000 personnel beneath him. After receiving the orders, the Stratcom commander boards the 'Doomsday plane' for further operations.
  • Nuclear war contingency plans involve a "Doomsday plane" that flies in circles around the US to launch nuclear weapons if ground systems are destroyed.
  • The deputy director of STRATCOM believes that deterrence will hold, but if it fails, everything unravels.
  • In the event of a nuclear launch, the president has only six minutes to make decisions before the first wave of missiles hits.

Missile interceptor system (00:44:53)

  • The US has 44 interceptor missiles, 40 in Alaska and 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
  • The interceptors have a 50% success rate.
  • The interceptors are not being actively developed or improved.
  • Systems like Iron Dome cannot be used against nuclear warheads.
  • Ground-based and vessel-based systems can only shoot down a few rockets at a time and are not effective against a large-scale attack.
  • US interceptor systems are deployed overseas, leaving the US vulnerable to attack.
  • After 9/11, Congress considered deploying interceptor missiles along the west coast to counter North Korea, but this has not been done.

North Korea (00:49:10)

  • North Korea possesses approximately 50 nuclear weapons and lacks transparency in its nuclear program, making it a unique threat.
  • The current interceptor system faces challenges in defending against a North Korean attack due to limited time and the number of interceptors available.
  • Mistakes, accidents, and false alarms pose significant risks in nuclear scenarios, as exemplified by a notable incident where a training tape with a nuclear war scenario was mistakenly inserted into a system at the Pentagon, leading to a false alarm of a Russian nuclear launch.
  • Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry experienced intense emotions during this incident, realizing he was about to recommend the launch of nuclear weapons based on false information.
  • Perry, a weapons designer, reflected on the madness of nuclear arsenals and the lack of wisdom in their origin stories.
  • Perry believed that those involved in the creation of nuclear systems may have a different perspective and stewardship compared to those who inherit them.

Nuclear war scenarios (00:55:46)

  • The Pentagon conducts highly classified nuclear war gaming scenarios, such as the declassified "Proud Profit" exercise from 1983, which revealed that any nuclear war would likely result in global catastrophe.
  • The concept of deterrence, relying on the threat of nuclear retaliation to prevent war, has been widely used for decades.
  • The "escalate to deescalate" strategy involves responding to a nuclear attack with an even greater attack to force the enemy to stop, but carries significant risks due to potential errors and misinterpretations.
  • Communication breakdowns during nuclear conflicts could lead to further escalation and potential Armageddon, as exemplified by the false report of a Russian missile hitting Poland in November 2022.
  • General Mark Millie's inability to reach his Russian counterpart during this incident highlights the importance of reliable communication during potential nuclear conflicts.
  • The author emphasizes the need for non-political individuals with diverse opinions and advisors to provide balanced counsel to leaders, especially in nuclear-armed nations, to avoid disastrous decisions.

Warmongers (01:04:38)

  • The president of the United States receives advice on nuclear counterstrikes within a six-minute window.
  • Advisers must consider both the nuclear counterstrike and the continuity of government during a nuclear attack.
  • The term "jamming the president" refers to military advisers pushing for an aggressive counterattack.
  • Some people worry that hawkish military advisers may pressure the president into making hasty decisions about nuclear targets.
  • Historically, many generals and admirals believed that a nuclear war could be fought and won, despite the potential loss of hundreds of millions of lives.
  • The concept that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought emerged over time, with Gorbachev and Reagan's joint statement solidifying this idea.

Refusing orders (01:15:19)

  • Dr. Glenn McDuff, a nuclear weapons engineer and historian at Los Alamos, believes that the STRATCOM commander is unlikely to defy orders due to their history of following orders and the rigorous selection process for the position.
  • During the Trump-North Korea tensions, STRATCOM commanders were speaking out publicly to Congress more than ever before, raising concerns about their willingness to follow potentially unreliable presidential orders.
  • Experts, including Al O'Donnell, an engineer who worked on the Manhattan Project, and Annie Jacobsen, who has interviewed many people directly involved in nuclear weapons, express concerns about the current nuclear weapons system and the possibility of nuclear war.
  • Jacobsen has observed a growing movement among former Cold Warriors who believe that something must be done to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.

Russia and Putin (01:23:17)

  • Annie Jacobsen's information about Russia comes from experts like Pavel Podvig, a top Western expert on Russian nuclear forces.
  • Russia and the US have been in a nuclear standoff for 75 years, leading to similar command and control systems.
  • The Russian satellite system, Tundra, has flaws such as mistaking sunlight for flames and clouds for nuclear launches.
  • Russia's nuclear policy shifted two years ago when Putin announced they would no longer wait to absorb a nuclear attack but launch upon detecting the trajectory of incoming missiles.
  • Putin's background in intelligence may influence his mindset, potentially leading to paranoia and a higher likelihood of responding to false signals.
  • Distrust and conflict between Russia and the West, fueled by Putin's advisors, make direct communication between leaders less likely.

Cyberattack (01:28:23)

  • Cyberattacks can disrupt communication channels and cause chaos.
  • General Tohill, Obama's first cyber Chief, was interviewed for insights on cyber security.
  • The nuclear command and control system operates on analog systems, making it less vulnerable to hacking.
  • The book explores the impact of cyberattacks on communication after a nuclear attack.

Ground zero of nuclear war (01:29:45)

  • A bolt out of the blue attack on Washington DC, targeting the Pentagon, is a major concern.
  • A one Megaton nuclear weapon can cause widespread destruction, with a fireball spanning 19 football fields.
  • The blast wave can reach several hundred miles per hour, knocking down buildings and creating deep rubble.
  • Mega fires ensue after the initial destruction.
  • Third and fourth degree radiation burns occur, with winds ripping skin off people's faces miles away.
  • The nuclear mushroom cloud's stem creates 300 mph winds, sucking people and debris into it.
  • The mushroom cloud can block out the sun, and radiation poisoning follows.
  • The power grid and essential systems fail, disrupting modern life.

Surviving nuclear war (01:34:24)

  • After a nuclear strike, there is no population protection, everyone is considered dead.
  • People's true nature may come out in such conditions, with brutality, stealing, and murder likely to occur.
  • Post-apocalyptic television shows and films explore these themes, but this is science fact, not fiction.
  • FEMA director Craig Fugate shared his thoughts on what would go through the president's mind in such a scenario, describing it as incomprehensible and devastating.
  • The FEMA director would be taken to a safe place like Mount Weather, but military bases may not be able to function long-term due to reliance on diesel fuel and disrupted supply chains.

Nuclear winter (01:38:42)

  • A full-on nuclear war could cause "nuclear winter," a catastrophic climate event resulting from soot blocking out the sun.
  • Nuclear winter would lead to frozen bodies of water, plummeting temperatures, and the collapse of agriculture and food sources.
  • The lack of sunlight and a severely depleted ozone layer would make the sun's rays poisonous, forcing survivors to live underground.
  • The thawing of ice sheets would release pathogens and plagues, causing further devastation.
  • Nuclear war could lead to the extinction of larger animals and the regression of society to a primitive state, resembling the oldest known archaeological site, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey.
  • The recovery of Earth's capacity to grow food after a nuclear war could take decades or even centuries.
  • Annie Jacobsen warns of the potential consequences of a nuclear war, including the loss of human knowledge and technological advancements, and emphasizes the importance of communication to prevent such a catastrophe.

Alien civilizations (01:49:05)

  • The speaker ponders the existence of alien civilizations and the possibility of a "great filter" that prevents their success.
  • Ed Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, believed that human consciousness is deeply connected to the Galaxy and that this connection could explain the lack of observed alien civilizations.
  • Mitchell had a profound experience during his return from the Moon, which led him to believe that the mysteries of the universe and the human mind are intertwined.
  • The speaker suggests that understanding alien civilizations is similar to understanding the human mind and that both involve questions about our existence, purpose, and potential for self-destruction.

Extrasensory perception (01:54:40)

  • The US government and the Soviet Union engaged in a "psychic arms race" after World War II, sparked by the division of Nazi occult program documents.
  • Despite the CIA's belief in the legitimacy of ESP, attempts to weaponize it and teach people to be psychic proved unsuccessful.
  • The Navy explores the "spidey sense" phenomenon, where soldiers sense danger preemptively, based on data from the war on terror.
  • The Thomas theorem highlights the power of belief, as situations defined as real can have real consequences.
  • Dr. Henry Beecher's CIA-funded research introduced the concept of placebo.
  • Annie Jacobsen's work reveals conflicting feelings about the CIA's activities and emphasizes the importance of trust in building relationships with sources.
  • Jacobsen highlights the exceptional capabilities and sacrifices of individuals involved in war, weapons, national security, and government secrets.
  • Billy, a veteran CIA operator, participated in significant operations in Afghanistan and Libya despite his advanced age.
  • The author accompanied Billy on a trip to Hanoi, where he revealed a sentimental gesture by bringing an American flag to honor fallen friends.
  • The author received the flag as a gift, symbolizing their relationship and the importance of human details and unspoken emotions in understanding people's actions.

Area 51 (02:08:25)

  • Annie Jacobsen wrote a book about Area 51, a legendary center of secrecy and intrigue.
  • Area 51 is a top-secret military facility within the Nevada Test and Training Range.
  • It began as a testing site for the U2 spy plane and later became the home of the A12 Oxcart, the CIA's stealth Mach 3 spy plane.
  • Many of the pilots and personnel who worked at Area 51 were World War II heroes.
  • The base had various perks, such as the ability to have lobsters delivered from Massachusetts in record time.
  • There was a lot of incredible technological work going on at Area 51.

UFOs and aliens (02:12:23)

  • Annie Jacobsen, author of "Phenomena," interviewed individuals involved in national security and military intelligence but found no evidence of alien visitation.
  • Jacobsen suggests that many UFO sightings can be attributed to strategic deception campaigns employed by the CIA, such as the case of Paul Bennewitz.
  • Intelligence agencies may create hysteria and confusion during times of war, and the Thomas theorem suggests that perceived realities can have real consequences.
  • The current narrative about aliens may divert public attention from other issues.
  • The strict control the defense department exerts over its airspace makes the argument for a strategic deception campaign plausible.
  • The possibility of alien spacecraft raises questions about advanced technology and the nature of consciousness.
  • The idea of the government hiding bodies and crafts related to UFOs trivializes the potential significance of alien civilizations.
  • Some believe alien civilizations exist and may have visited Earth, but their presence and nature may be beyond human comprehension.
  • The question of alien intelligence extends beyond military implications and delves into fundamental human inquiries about consciousness and the uniqueness of life in the universe.
  • The belief that humans are alone in the universe can motivate efforts to become multiplanetary and ensure the survival of consciousness in the face of potential threats.

Roswell incident (02:22:51)

  • Annie Jacobsen suggests that the Roswell incident may have been a disinformation campaign orchestrated by Joseph Stalin to cause mass hysteria in the United States, similar to the War of the Worlds radio program.
  • Al O'Donnell, a highly credible nuclear weapons engineer, confessed to Jacobsen his involvement in an American program to develop a similar disinformation campaign, resulting in human experiments and deaths.
  • O'Donnell wanted the information to be made public to prevent future abuses of power by those in positions of authority.
  • Jacobsen emphasizes the importance of responsible reporting and closing the loop on sensitive topics, highlighting the unethical actions taken by both the Soviet and American sides in these programs.

CIA assassinations (02:29:30)

  • The CIA was heavily involved in assassinations during the Cold War and uses modern terms like "targeted killing" and "drone striking."
  • The CIA operates under Title 50 of the National Security Code, which allows for assassinations, while the military operates under Title 10.
  • The CIA carried out the Bin Laden mission because it is allowed to operate in Pakistan, unlike the military.
  • The Vietnam War involved covert "SOG missions" where CIA-trained soldiers carried out assassinations without identifiable markings.
  • Billy Waugh, a renowned CIA operator, shared insights into classified missions, including a hypothetical plan to capture or kill Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
  • Assassinations can be challenging due to the need for accurate intelligence, reconnaissance, and the involvement of multiple parties and potential cover-ups.
  • The CIA and Mossad collaborated on the operation to kill high-profile terrorist Imod Mugia using a car bomb in Damascus.
  • Different intelligence agencies have their own strengths and weaknesses, with the CIA known for its global reach and technological capabilities.
  • Annie Jacobsen employs multiple sourcing, corroborates information with the National Archives, and interviews multiple people involved in the events she writes about to ensure accuracy in her reporting.
  • Alexi Navalny's death in prison raises questions about the cause of his death.
  • Russia has a history of assassinating dissidents.
  • A former KGB assassin named Kov defected to the United States after having a crisis of conscience and deciding not to kill his target.
  • Kov was later poisoned by Russian assassins with polonium but survived and revealed secrets about Russian assassination programs and poison labs.
  • Navalny's death appears to fit the pattern of Russia's past actions against dissidents.

KGB (02:50:48)

  • The KGB and CIA have different approaches to espionage, with the KGB known for its ruthlessness and the CIA attempting to maintain democratic ideals.
  • The US government conducts extensive surveillance both internally and externally, including biometric surveillance, which involves collecting personal data from civilian companies and social media platforms.
  • Advanced surveillance technologies, such as drones with high-resolution cameras, have raised concerns about privacy and can be used for tracking and monitoring individuals, including Lex Fridman.
  • This technology can be used for tagging and tracking people's movements and is used in the military for "Find, fix, finish" operations, which involve finding a target, determining their location, and then eliminating them, often through a drone strike.

Hitler and the atomic bomb (02:57:24)

  • Hitler's racial prejudices prevented Germany from developing the atomic bomb.
  • The decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is controversial, but it is believed to have ended the war and saved lives.
  • The development of the thermonuclear bomb after World War II was a decision that was made despite the destructive power of atomic weapons.

War and human nature (03:01:27)

  • Churchill believed that war is the natural state of humanity, with brief periods of peace.
  • The optimistic view is that humans can evolve beyond this tendency towards war.
  • Annie Jacobsen's book serves as a reminder that human civilization could end in this century due to the increasing power of weapons.
  • The use of autonomous weapons and artificial intelligence in warfare adds further complexity to the issue.
  • Jacobsen hopes that humans will become a multiplanetary species as a backup plan for the survival of civilization.

Hope (03:04:53)

  • Annie Jacobsen is fundamentally optimistic about human civilization and believes in evolution.
  • She is inspired by her family and the idea of leaving a positive legacy.
  • Jacobsen emphasizes the need to reconfigure the human desire for conflict in light of new technologies and the accelerating pace of peril.
  • She appreciates being considered a great journalist, writer, and human being.

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