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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  October 12, 2013 12:00am-12:31am PDT

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tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. thatht a conversation pulls back the curtain on how close we have come to accidentally deploying weapons of mass distraction right here in the good old u.s. journalist eric schlosser coming up right now. ♪
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>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. tavis: we hear a great deal about weapons of mass destruction and it seems we have come close to detonating two of those bombs, incidents that have been kept secret until now. award-winning journalist eric schlosser has pulled back the information on what has been his book,n in
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"command and control: nuclear weapons, the damascus accident, and the illusion of safety." let's dart our conversation on a personal note. i grew up in a place called bunker hill, indiana. there is an air force base and my dad served for 37 years and 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. >> a be 58 bomber was taxiing on the runway. the runway was icy and the bomber slid off the highway -- the runway and caught on fire. one was killed but there were five hydrogen bombs on that plane. two of them were unharmed and one of them was scorched and one caught on fire and one of the melted completely into the runway. these were weapons that did not have adequate safety devices yet and in this case they did not detonate but they could have been a problem for kokomo and that base. that base had lots of other
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nuclear weapons on it and it was very fortunate that none of these wind -- weapons detonated. tavis: the stuff you learn about your own life. >> that base could have been obliterated. happenede story that on grissom air force base, how common are they? rex a lot more common than what we have been led to believe. the book has been based on interviews and documents i got through the freedom of information act. 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 we build the safest nuclear weapons of any country and yet, if we have had this many problems with our weapons, it makes you wonder about
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countries like pakistan, india, russia, and how they're managing these arsenals today. tavis: that raises a few questions. not the least is given all the accidents that we are -- we did not know about, why is it that we are in the business of even making nuclear weapons and i will come later to our checking others for having the same technology we have, especially ple we helped develop it. why are we in the business of making nuclear weapons? >> we have thousands of them. they are a holdover from the cold war. the reason i wrote the book is to remind people these things are still out there. this is the story of a weapons accident in damascus, arkansas where we had -- almost had a major warhead exploded. it
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is hard to explain why we still have them. we do not have a major enemy like the soviet union anymore. 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 an these things are discussed in terms of iran but not in terms of the united states. our supply?ast is rex it is huge. at the peak of the cold war we had 32000 and now we have closer to 5000, of which 1800 are ready to be used at a moments notice. weapons is these powerful and destructive beyond our imagination. tavis: i am not naïve and asking this but if one is that powerful, why do we need to load the world the 100 million times? >> because russia still has so many and there is this meant how the from the nuclear arms race cold war that we cannot let someone else have more than we have.
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whereas 300 nuclear weapons would be enough to completely annihilate any country that there is on earth. more about this damascus incident. >> damascus, arkansas is a small town in the foothills of the ozarks and 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. one of the workmen on a steel platform dropped a socket off of his ranch. just a routine accident. the socket fill 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 feeling the silo and the air force had no idea what to do. we had had a missile like that for 17 years and there had never been a fuel leak and here is our most powerful warhead on top of the missile. in a minute by minute wait, i go
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through the 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. though clinton was governor at the time. vice president mondale was in the state at the time. chelsea clinton was one-year-old and it is one of those things that could have changed the course of history but it is important to look at it not because it is just an incredible story but it shows how much of a challenge it is to manage these incredibly complex technological systems. tavis: give me some sense of how in a worst-case scenario, how that accident have been had it not been contained at the last minute? rex it would have incinerated the entire state of arkansas. t deadly have sen radioactive fallout up the east coast trade we tested one weapon in 1954, to give you a sense of the power of one hydrogen bomb.
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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 could not find shelter in a fallout shelter and it would have killed half the people in new york city. this is one nuclear weapons, one powerful hydrogen bomb. at one point we have 32,000 of them. this is an incredible amount of explosive force, very competent it machines being run by fallible human beings and i want to say one of the other major themes in the book is the incredible heroism of ordinary servicemen during the cold war, many of whom risk their lives and in this case, lost their lives trying to prevent these nuclear catastrophes. i do not know what your father's duties were but we have not really heard about the heroism of a lot of these cold war veterans in the same way we now know about the vietnam war veterans and we honor our second world war veterans.
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tavis: what is your sense of are there of heroism, numbers we can attach, i am trying to get a ballpark of what the sacrifice has been by these individuals. >> the greatest sacrifice would be loss of life. oftainly dozens of members aircrews and first responders lost their lives. in looking at the people in this book, it is not as simplistic, bad, warmongering people with nuclear weapons. the 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 in or miss. if you had a top security clearance to be working on these nuclear weapons, you could not talk to your family about it, you could not talk to your friends outside of the military about it, and yet, lots of people lived with this knowledge that there was a very thin margin between peacetime, and i am not exaggerating, just total
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annihilation and nuclear war. we are so fortunate that we got out of the cold war without a major city being destroyed i 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 that are in the world, the more countries have them, the greater a chance that a city will be destroyed and we have not seen anything like that since the second world war. tavis: you are on pbs tonight and urls were talking about this gut check, this reality check and i am 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 a fellow citizens once they become aware of the fact that we have had these near-misses? what power, what agency do we have? >> we do have power. for too long the decisions about nuclear weapons have been made by a small group of policymakers
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acting in secret in washington. this is information that has been deliberately kept from the american people. our president really understands these issues about nuclear weapons and put himself out on a limb in 2009 when he called for the abolition of nuclear weapons . he continues to call for a reduction in the number but there is no public support. there is 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 1970's that was calling for a nuclear freeze, a reduction in the number, 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 the evil empire, at the end of his administration, he was calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. his change of mind had a great deal to do with the huge pressure that the public put on him. it is important that we are aware of this issue in the same
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way it is important that we are aware of global warming. the two greatest threats the u.s. faces are global warming which is occurring slowly and may be reversible, and a nuclear weapons going off which is going instantaneously, irreversibly, and we will have consequences beyond our imagination. i think it is preventable. tavis: where policymaking or policymakers are concerned, why get this conversation not traction amongst policymakers? >> yeah, i think it is so far off the of the greater. the soviet union collapsed. everyone was so delighted without asked that the soviet union vanished without a world war. they forgot thousands are there in silos winning -- waiting to be used. the danger did not go away. most elected officials are not aware of these details and this information. part of doing this book which is
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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 80's and their 90's, they worked with these weapons, they helped design these weapons and what is ironic is when i was growing up, it was like young people on the college campus who were anti- nuclear weapons, young people on college campuses do not know anything about it now. it is 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: what happens when those persons die off? >> is an awareness that goes with them. the last time the u.s. tested a nuclear weapons outdoors was in 1962. that means it has been 51 year since anyone has seen one of these things detonate.
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the former head of the los alamos lab who i interviewed for the book who passed away this past week, he said to me, he would love to gather every world leader and show them the designation 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 authority over life and death should see for themselves what these weapons can do. it is a knowledge that is fading away. i think it is very dangerous that we are losing this awareness. be a: let me ask what may silly question but on the point you just made about the former head of this loss and loss 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? he is president, i do not know
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what he can or cannot do in this regard. in this -- the age of social media and youtube and cable television and the like, if you could on any given day turn on any of these outlets, turn into any of these outlets and see for yourself what this explosion would look like, i am trying to get a sense of -- trying to make the case for how that would galvanize the american public if they could see -- seeing is believing. is this a pipe dream, is that possible? >> if you go onto youtube, there has been an numerous amount of footage declassified by the government of nuclear detonations and i was able to obtain a fair amount of footage that i will try to put online. it is really important for people to see these things. in terms of doing an actual test, thankfully, we have signed a treaty against nuclear testing. we do not want other countries testing, but we do want this
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knowledge to be spread. now, i am not a film maker, i am a writer so writing a book is my way of doing it. we need to have a national dialogue about it. it is 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 is one of the aims of this book is to just remind people of how important this issue is. tavis: ok. let me try this on for size. i could give you and you're the expert here so i am playing devil's advocate. i could give you a litany of reasons of i had the time to make the case tonight for how and why i think our government nuclearritical, where weapons are concerned, starting with what we still have in our arsenal, number one. number two, with the technology we shared with others, that oftentimes turns out or threaten
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to be used against us, etc., give me some sense of whether i am overstating the case when i say where nuclear weapons are concerned, he's a be our foreign policy, there is some level of hypocrisy. is that too strong a word? >> there has been in the past but since the end of the cold war, we have tried hard to reduce the size of our arsenal and what is remarkable is that 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 and now we're are down, we have 2000 that are deployed. the soviet union had 35,000. they have gone down to about the same number we have so we have made very sincere steps to reduce the size of our arsenal and one of the points the book makes is that any country that chooses to have nuclear weapons
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puts itself at grave risk from its own weapons. i am strongly opposed to other countries getting nuclear weapons and they may say the united states has nuclear weapons, who are you to say that we should not have them and i would say, look at our history. we invented them and we have almost loughner self -- blown ourselves up on several occasions. nuclear weapons will not make you safer. they will endanger you in all kinds of ways and what has happened is there is like an ego status thing associated with having nuclear weapons. we are a more powerful country, we are a world power if we have wine and i would say look at germany, japan, look at the economies they have built without having nuclear weapons. dn't that argument be more robust if we did not have nuclear weapons or at the very least, got down to that 300 number that you suggested earlier, could blow the whole world up. there is still a huge number andeen -- a gap between 300
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2000, not that we need even one but with that argument be made stronger if we did not have 2000 of them? >> it would be made stronger and we need to sit down with the russians, we have a huge proportion of nuclear weapons, we need to bring china into these talks, england, france, israel, india, pakistan, and i'm just saying if we do not bring down the number of nuclear weapons in the world and if the number of countries with nuclear weapons increase, it is the law of averages. when day, one of these things is going to go off and it is going to destroy a city and it will make katrina, make the scene on may, make the kinds of natural disasters that we have seen seem like nothing when one of these things go off. arguments of the president obama has made, 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, a great opportunity
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in certain nations for these weapons to end up in the hands of rogue individuals. >> absolutely. tavis: how concerned are you about that? >> i am concerned about pakistan. one of the interesting things that came out in edward snowden's revelations, he put out a document showing that our intelligence committee knows for a little about how pakistan is transporting, storing, handling its weapons. there is a disturbing change in warfare. the u.s. has tried very hard with varying degrees of success not to target civilians. our military tries to come up with precision weapons and right now in the middle east in particular, you're not just saying suicide bombers, you're saying the deliberate targeting of civilians in syria, and a rack emma in afghanistan -- in in afghanistan. a nuclear weapons gives that power beyond belief to target civilians so we really do not want these weapons spreading.
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syria's to michael weapons are insignificant compared to one chemicaleapons. =-- weapons are insignificant compared to one nuclear weapon. tavis: can you give me any soulless about the fact -- solace about the fact that we have better policies on how to store these, are we better at based at controlling the arsenal that we do have? >> 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 are attached to, the bombers, the missiles, are aging. some are 30, 40, 50 years old. some of the infrastructure is aging and so we have continued to have problems. in 2010, we lost to medications with 50 of our land-based -- communications with 50 of
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our land-based icbm's. this was traced back to a single computer chip that had failed at a processor but there is some concern and this sounds like a hollywood movie, there is some concern that has been brought out this year in senate testimony about the threat of someone hacking into our nuclear command and control system and you do not want a hacker being able to disable our missiles or even launching one. the odds of that are not great at the fact that it is 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 have two of our three minute man squadrons this year were cited for safety violations. things are better than during the cold war. the fact that we have fewer weapons makes it easier to 32,000,hem than we had but you have got to be constantly vigilant and there is no room for one serious mistake
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because one of these things going off would be a catastrophe. tavis: that is an argument i will pull to my side. you are helping me with my argument. i believe that hackers these days and in the future are capable of doing just about anything and i am not so convinced that at some way down the road, hackers could not figure this out. they seem to figure out everything else trade you set your devious mind to it, you can figure this stuff at which makes the argument to why we do not need to have them. if we do not have them they will not be hacked. >> if you had said five years ago that a low level software guy at the nsa would get the top secret of the most top-secret agencies -- tavis: you're making my point. >> i agree. done a greatve national service by putting this information, this intelligence out there. what do we do with it at the
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moment? >> first step is become aware of a second is to do something about it. there are different organizations working on nuclear weapons issues. one is called global zero and 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 emma because if the elected officials do not hear anything from their constituents why they do not do anything on an issue and again, we have a president who i think really understands this come i is really trying to do the right thing to my and need some backup on it. tavis: his name is eric schlosser and his book is "command and control: nuclear weapons, the damascus accident, and the illusion of safety." thank you for your work and thank you for coming on the program. >> i appreciate it. tavis: that is our show.
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thanks for watching and as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with the writer of the new biography of muppet creator jim henson. that is next time. we will see you then. ♪ >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you.
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thank you. >> be more. pbs. tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a
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