THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
August 14, 2013
Guest: Maggie Koerth-Baker
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Thanks to you at home for staying with us this
This is one of those days in the news when there is a lot going on.
Even just -- just in domestic news, there`s a lot going on.
A former Democratic congressman, son of the famous civil rights
leader, Jesse Jackson, Jr. was sentenced to two and a half years in federal
prison today for taking three-quarters of a million dollars in campaign
money and spending it on himself.
Jesse Jackson, Jr.`s wife will also do a year in prison because of the
tax fraud side of what they plead guilty to.
Now that the federal Defense of Marriage Act has been dismantled by
the Supreme Court, the Pentagon announced the new rules for service members
who want to marry their same sex partners. Service members will get leave
time so they can travel to get married if the state in which they are
stationed does not itself have equal marriage rights.
In North Carolina today, where Republicans just passed and signed the
most draconian new voter suppression law in the country, that state`s
Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan today asked the Justice Department to
look into that new law and consider intervening in North Carolina to stop
Florida`s governor is suing Georgia`s governor, saying that Georgia is
stealing Florida`s water from a river the two states supposed to share.
The National Republican Party is holding its annual summer meeting in
Boston, which they probably scheduled back when they thought Massachusetts`
Mitt Romney would be president by now.
Yet, there`s a lot going on in domestic news and domestic politics
today. We`ll get to some of that news in the show over the course of this
next hour. But this is one of those days, when the overwhelmingly most
important news in the world is not happening here, it`s happening in the
streets of another country`s capital city.
In this case, it`s happening in Cairo, the other major cities of Egypt
where the new government of Egypt, which is actually the military, attacked
what can pretty effectively be described now as the other side in that
It was 2011 when a popular uprising in the streets overthrew the
dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak had ruled Egypt for three decades,
but sustained and diverse street protests drove him to the brink. And then
it was the military, the most powerful institution in that country that
pushed him over that brink and out of office.
For about a year and a half, the military held power while the country
prepared for its first truly free elections in a generation. In those
elections, it was the conservative religious Muslim Brotherhood that won
its majority and the presidency, installed Mohamed Morsi as head of state
in the most populous country in the Middle East.
And it did not turn out well, dissatisfied with Morsi`s governance.
Newly empowered Egyptians gave him just 12 months and three days in power
before they turned to the streets again to overthrow their government again
for the second time in two years. The military and the protesters in the
streets ousted Mohamed Morsi and the military took control of the country
It is the military now that is in charge. And this time, the
Egyptians in the streets protesting against those in charge are the
supporters of Morsi, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood president, who
was just ousted from office six weeks ago today.
After a long and occasionally wild and increasingly determined
protests by Morsi supporters trying to get him back in power, maybe, the
military government moved against them today with lethal force. It started
at dawn, security forces moving in to clear with force two separate pro-
Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, that action set off a wave of violence all over the
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):
Egypt is unraveling. It`s hope of democracy obscured behind tear gas and
At first light, Egyptian security forces which ousted the elected
president six weeks ago moved in to finish the job. And break-up two camps
of protesters who demand the former president be reinstated, bulldozing
into one at Cairo University. It was over quickly.
But at the other protests, they held fast. Security forces fired on
them, with tear gas, and then automatic weapons.
(on camera): Egyptian security forces here are firing into the side
streets. The front line positions between protesters, security forces, all
over Cairo. And this one looks like it`s about to get very ugly.
(voice-over): Adel Sanik (ph37-year-old customs broker, guided us
through the streets, warning of government gunmen. Already two journalists
had been killed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even if you won`t take a shoot, take a cover to
take the picture.
ENGEL (on camera): Why? There are snipers trying to shoot?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
ENGEL (voice-over): Sanik says he came here because he believes his
vote was stolen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We`re fighting for principle, for the president we
elected. OK? Doesn`t matter --
ENGEL: They showed us a field hospital, chaotic and grim.
(on camera): It`s impossible to know how many people have been
injured, let alone killed today. This man was shot in the upper thigh with
a live round. Some of the injured are being taken to ambulances and
hospitals. Others are just being treated on the ground.
(voice-over): But there is more to the story. Police uncovered
ammunition hidden in coffins in a protest camp. And video from an Egyptian
newspaper shows demonstrators armed and firing.
Protesters pushed an armored vehicle off a bridge. Five soldiers were
inside. Today, maybe just the beginning. Islamic extremists who backed
the Muslim Brotherhood burned churches and attacked government buildings
Egypt`s military-backed government, a close U.S. ally, today chose to
try to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. It`s unclear if the iron fist will
MADDOW: NBC`s Richard Engel reporting from -- in some cases, some
dire circumstances in Cairo today. This here, this is video from today,
reportedly showing protesters setting a Cairo police station on fire.
Outside of Cairo in southern Egypt, about half a dozen churches were
reportedly attacked and burned. There was fighting in all the major cities
in Egypt and almost a dozen provinces today. People were killed in Suez
and in Alexandria where according to the news agency. Hundreds of pro-
Morsi protesters marched through the city carrying clubs.
As in the capital city, security forces in Alexandria fired tear gas
and there was plenty of gunfire. This afternoon, the interim military
government declared a curfew and a state of emergency that is expected to
last for one month, they say. During which time there will be no right to
a trial or to due process of law.
Egyptians lived under a similar state of emergency that was declared
by Hosni Mubarak, that state of emergency lasted for 34 years.
Also today, as if to underscore that this is a nation under military
rule, the Egyptian government named new governors of the 25 Egyptian pro,
19 of the new governors are generals -- either police generals or army
generals. And several of the ones who aren`t generals are Mubarak
loyalists from the old regime.
The vice president of Egypt, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed
ElBaradei resigned today from the Egyptian government in protest against
today`s crackdown. Unfortunately, covering this most important story in
the world right now is dangerous on the ground. Among an overall death
toll today, widely reported to be in the hundreds, said by the Muslim
Brotherhood to be in the thousands.
Journalists are also being injured in killed. Mick Dean (ph) was a
veteran cameraman for Sky News. He was shot and killed today in Cairo.
The rest of his Sky News team was uninjured.
A 26-year-old journalist with Gulf News was also killed today. She
was not even on an official assignment covering the protest. She was just
home visiting her family in Egypt and she was killed.
A British reporter tweeted today that he was getting arrested and then
harassed. He was eventually let go.
CNN`s Arwa Damon is a great reporter. Arwa was delivering this report
today when she had to dodge gunfire in the middle of her report. She and
her entire team were thankfully unharmed.
You saw the kind of circumstances under which Richard was reporting
This most important story in the world today is a hard thing to cover.
There tonight doing that hard work for NBC News is NBC`s chief foreign
correspondent Richard Engel who now joins us live from Cairo.
Richard, thank you for being with us after what seems like it was an
incredibly intense day.
ENGEL: Thank you, my pleasure. And you gave an incredible summary.
And I think one of the most important things to realize, is that more
people died today outside Cairo than the ones who were killed in the
clashes in the city itself. And I think that says a great deal about the
Muslim Brotherhood, about the support of Islamists in rural areas. I think
it`s an indication that we`re going to have a long story ahead of us here.
MADDOW: Richard, to that point, is it your sense that there are
uniform political schisms and dynamics in this country that aren`t just in
Cairo or are throughout Egypt. Or is this a situation we`ve seen in some
other sort of post-Arab spring environments where some of the country is
pro Islamist and some of the country is not?
ENGEL: There is a campaign right now against the Muslim Brotherhood.
And you have to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood in this country has
a long history. This is the party of the president that was just ousted,
Mohamed Morsi, the group that was leading the campaign today to protest the
group that did most of the dying today.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been fighting for power for 85 years. It
was crushed under Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was crushed under Sadat. it was
crushed under Mubarak.
And, finally, when the United States threw Hosni Mubarak under a bus,
there were the elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood finally came to power.
The military didn`t like it, it never liked it. It waited until Morsi was
so unpopular that people were out on the streets, and came out and said, we
are acting to help the people, and now with that emergency law that has
just been passed, I think we`re going to see the government and the
military and the police force really go after the Muslim Brotherhood in a
The Muslim Brotherhood does have some supporters, it has a core group
of several million. And now, after so much blood on the streets, the
Muslim Brotherhood has this campaign -- this campaign describing itself as
a martyr for Islam. It will have more supporters.
MADDOW: Richard, what do you think happens next? If this campaign as
you describe it is sustained, I mean the declaration of emergency today
they said was for one month. We`ll see how long it actually lasts, and if
the Muslim Brotherhood is strengthened by being seen as the victim of state
violence today, what happens here? Does this continually escalate? What
do you think happens over the next few weeks?
ENGEL: Well, I think it becomes -- over the next few weeks, I think
it becomes a very dangerous place to become -- to be a Muslim Brotherhood
leader. They`re going to be arrested. They can be tried with treason or
terrorism, or any of these national security charges very easily, because
of the normal judicial process being suspended.
It could force a group of Islamists, perhaps a splinter group from the
Muslim Brotherhood or a group of radicals, to become an insurgency in this
country. And then I think that`s a real possibility, particularly in
generally traditional hard line areas, some parts of rural Egypt, that
we`ve already seen lashing out in violence, going out and attacking
churches like you mentioned earlier.
I think that is certainly to come where you have a hard line
insurgency coming in certain rural areas, and the brotherhood going into a
Richard, when you were out in the streets today in Cairo, like in your
reporting there, we saw that man who was shot in the leg, it was very
nearby you. One of the things that I was wondering, who was providing
medical care? Was there any government presence? Were the emergency
services out in the streets today, or were civilians just out doing what
they could to help each other?
ENGEL: These were field hospitals, so it was mostly just civilians
volunteering, trying to put pressure on wound. That field hospital was
very grim. The person I was talking to was shot by a live round in the
upper thigh. Other people I saw were shot in the head. There was another
field hospital around the corner from there that I stumbled upon, I didn`t
know it was there.
I saw personally maybe 10 or 15 bodies on the street. People didn`t
know exactly what to do with them. They were just laid out wrapped in
blankets and they were waiting to be collected by relatives.
Eventually, ambulances were coming and taking people out. But they
were doing so at great risk. There was a lot of gunfire. So, yes, the
social services were sort of working, but most people were -- at least for
the initial part of care -- helping themselves.
MADDOW: Richard, with two reporters that we know killed today, many
more harassed and accosted.
MADDOW: Four killed today? Is it your sense that --
ENGEL: Two foreign, working for foreign agencies and two local
Egyptian reporters, bloggers. That`s the latest word here.
MADDOW: Are -- is it your sense that journalists are being targeted
or are they just getting caught up in what`s a big, messy, sprawling
ENGEL: It`s a very -- it`s very hard to know. When we spoke to
people today, including the one I interviewed in the piece you showed from
"Nightly News" earlier, the -- they certainly believed, Egyptians believed
that journalists were being targeted, that we were being shot at
deliberately, and actually as we were doing our reporting tonight, we took
a pretty direct shot at us. We were walking at a single shot, went into
the cement wall just a few inches above our heads. It felt very much like
somebody was trying to shoot at us.
I can`t prove that, I don`t know. People did believe that journalists
were being shot at. But I can`t know the intention of somebody who was
firing -- an unseen person who was firing a weapon at us. And there were a
lot of bullets firing around.
MADDOW: Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent --
Richard Engel, please stay safe. Thank you for joining us.
MADDOW: All right. There`s a lot of other news in the world today,
including some unexpected and unexpectedly kind of hilarious heroism
against al Qaeda of all people. That`s ahead.
MADDOW: The H.J. Heinz Company is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
It`s better known to people who eat as the Heinz Ketchup Company, with 57
Like most companies, Heinz has a suggestion box for suggesting how to
make things better at Heinz. It`s had that suggestion box for a long time
-- a place where employees could slip a piece of paper into a box to make
suggestions about how to make the company a better place. This photo shows
a woman at Heinz in the early part of the last century, slipping a
suggestion into a box that is labeled female, because apparently the
suggestions had to be segregated by gender.
During World War II, the U.S. government used propaganda posters to
drum up support for the war. And get people to buy war bonds and stuff,
but they also used them to solicit suggestions from the general public on
how the United States should go about winning the war, how to have a speedy
victory to be a 100 percent production soldier, you must submit an accepted
These days, the suggestion box looks more like this. If you`re
perusing eBay, maybe looking to see if the Virginia governor`s Rolex has
turned up or something. If you`re browsing through eBay and you have a
suggestion for how to make eBay better, you can send them that suggestion
Here`s where you can make your suggestions for how to improve things
at the Apple Corporation. Don`t worry online customer, your unanimity is
Asking for suggestions on how to improve things is an old idea that`s
lasted for a long time, because it is a good idea for all kinds of
organizations. Still, though, it was a little unsettling to see the
organization behind this, which popped up yesterday among the bazillion
tweets available to be seen by everyone on earth who has access to Twitter.
It`s a guy writing in Arabic, tagging a bunch of his buddies. And
then he introduces a Twitter hashtag that in effect he`s telling other
people to use. And the hashtag translates roughly to suggestions for the
development of jihadi media.
So this is a guy writing from a pro al Qaeda perspective, and he`s
using Twitter to essentially put out the suggestion box. He`s saying, hey,
use this hashtag and post your creative suggestions for how to improve al
Qaeda`s media effort, how to help the jihadi al Qaeda cause.
And he posted that yesterday and it starts working. Last night, that
hashtag starts getting some pickup. This guy, for example, is suggesting a
biweekly TV show to discuss jihadi events and religion in general. In just
a matter of hours, there are hundreds of tweets popping up, all using that
hashtag, all making suggestions for how to improve al Qaeda`s media
The al Qaeda online suggestion box is working. But then about 13
hours into it, this guy, JM Burger, who is a terrorism analyst, he really
gets the party started in a totally different way, when he posts in English
about what is going on with this al Qaeda effort on Twitter. In response
to a question, he translates what they are doing and explains, basically,
how they`re using this hashtag in Arabic.
And he suggests to the whole internet that everybody start copying and
using that # in Arabic to send al Qaeda our own suggestions for how they
can improve. Essentially, he`s saying, let`s stuff the suggestion box,
right? In effect, let`s make it impossible for these al Qaeda guys to find
any sincere suggestions from people who really wish them well who are
really giving them ideas. Let`s find those good ideas impossible to find.
Amid the tidal wave of mockery that everyone else should start trolling
So, instead of just ideas of twice weekly jihadi television shows,
that hashtag starts turning up things like this -- have you considered
creating a boy band?
Or this one -- don`t forget to enable location in your tweets. Also,
the helpful, people are really into cats and unicorns, you guys. Or this
one, keep apples from browning by soaking them in sprite or lemon juice.
This one, two words: taco Tuesdays.
BuzzFeed rounded up a bunch of the best of these today. Need a
suggestion for the development of jihadi media, I hear porn is pretty
popular with the kids these days.
Every organization since the dawn of middle management has used the
whole suggestion box idea to try to improve what they do. Al Qaeda can`t
even do something that boring now without getting trolled mercilessly by
everyone who hates them online, totally shutting down their honest efforts
to get better at being al Qaeda.
Well done, Internet trolls. Well done. One of the best and most
constructive uses of Internet trolling I have ever seen.
We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: People who are from New York or who live in New York tend to
think of their being two distinct eras of the New York City Times Square.
Old Times Square when it was super-seedy and grimy and your parents would
be alarmed if they knew you were there, unless you have very special
And then, of course, new Times Square, which is super brightly lit,
fun for the whole family. Thanks in part to giant consumer friendly
companies who turned what used to be awesomely skezzy into now basically a
giant outdoor mall with traffic.
But between awesomely skezzy Times Square and feels like a mall Times
Square, for a brief moment in time, there was a third Times Square.
Blackout Times Square, this is it, in which the only lights, those that
driving bewildered motorists and fire engines.
It was a hot August night when what on earth became electricity, 50
million people in America, eating their ice cream as fast as possible -- 10
years ago tonight, good times. And it turns out, thanks to a lot of stuff
nobody noticed, we have come a long way since then toward keeping the
And that story is coming up. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Do you know any 9-year-olds? Specifically it`s a little bit
sensitive of a question -- but do you know anybody who was born on May
14th, 2004, in the Northeast, whose parents lived in New York City maybe?
I mean, I don`t mean to imply anything untoward, but nine months before May
14th, 2004, which happens to be 10 years ago tonight, all sorts of people
in New York City had no choice but to find one another in the dark.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: This is an NBC News special report. Here is Brian
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Good day once again, from like all
office buildings here in midtown Manhattan, what is an increasingly warm
interior of our headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, where we
are in the midst of a colossal blackout in the eastern United States on
North into Canada.
That is the scene live at this hour outside this building, on Sixth
Avenue. Here are some of the major cities we are reporting blacked out at
this hour. It has been this way as far as we can tell from the start of
this at around 4:14 Eastern Time. It is now just seconds after 6:00
That is a remarkable scene unfolding right now in New York. That is
the Weehawken Ferry, the ferry across the Hudson River from the Manhattan
West Side over to New Jersey. And those are all commuters flooding into
the ferry entrance. New York City officials are trying to prevent any kind
of panic in the streets.
And so far, they are doing a good job of it, from all the reports we
are getting in.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: And around 4:00 in the afternoon on August 14th, 2003, out of
nowhere, almost the entire Northeast section of this country lost power.
It happened right around the time that most people who had been working all
day in 90 degree heat were starting to get on trains and buses and subway
cars to go home.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: Commuter trains stopped. New York subway service came to a
complete halt. Leaving an estimated 350,000 riders stranded on the tracks.
Many trapped underground for several hours in steamy temperatures up to 90
degrees. All New York City airports closed, as did Toronto, Ottawa and
Cleveland. Flights were diverted and passengers waited for planes that
didn`t take off.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: The area affected by this was just ginormous. The power went
off all across the Northeast, past of the Midwest, parts of Canada, at the
start of the evening rush hour. It did not come back on a few minutes
later or a few hours later, it stretched on and on and on and on into the
night for tens of millions of people.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let`s take a look at New York City. Somewhat
illuminated skyline of New York right now. New York`s largest metropolitan
center had been without power for almost five hours.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let me show you what it looks like behind me in
midtown Manhattan. Some of the buildings, Brian, maybe just pan up to the
one that has a few lights on it. Some of the buildings have sporadic
lights, probably generators.
But look over to the left. If you can see the massive black shadow,
that is 30 Rockefeller Center, almost not a light to be scene anywhere.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: The thing that caused all that chaos 10 years ago tonight was
a tree in Ohio. A single overgrown tree branch in northern Ohio, and a
sagging power line near Cleveland. It tripped some circuit breakers in the
area. That rerouted the power to a different nearby line that in turn
overheated itself and itself shrunk down into another tree tripping another
circuit. The world of electricity is interconnected and mysterious, within
about a half hour of those two rogue tree limbs touching lines in Ohio,
power utility operators started to get indications that something was about
to be very seriously wrong.
Within about another half hour from those first bad indications, the
Ohio region surrounding Cleveland and Akron was totally blacked out, and
that pinch point in the power grid starting with one tree limb and then a
second tree limb ultimately started a cascading rolling failure that shut
down 265 power plants, 508 generating units, including 10 nuclear power
stations. All of that happened in the span of eight minutes.
By 4:15 p.m. outages had cascaded across Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania,
New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and parts of
Canada, parts of Ontario blacked out. Fifty million people without power,
the largest outage in North American history. Power was not fully restored
for 48 hours -- all because of what started with that one tree.
It became a huge, hunking problem what happened with that one tree
because of the shocking vulnerability of this electrical grid that we`ve
got, which we started building in the 1800s with wires and wooden poles.
Ten years after that giant blackout of the whole Northeast, question,
of course, is, could it happen again? And the answer is -- maybe, but it
is in fact probably less likely now, because since then our country decided
to try to fix it, at least we decided to spend a bunch of money trying to
fix the problem.
After the blackout, utility companies spent a lot to maintain what
they`ve got per mile of line, transmission line, they`ve been spending
nearly three times what they spent in the 10 years before the blackout.
The federal government also stepped up, five days before the `08
presidential election. Then-Senator Barack Obama came on this show and
name checked the U.S. power grid as something that maybe we ought to focus
on more as a country.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), THEN-U.S. SENATOR: I think we have to rebuild
our infrastructure. If you look at what China`s doing right now, their
trains are faster than us, their ports are better than us, they are
preparing for a very competitive 21st century economy. And we`re not.
One of the, I think, most important infrastructure projects that we
need is a whole new electricity grid, because if we`re going to be serious
about renewable energy, I want to be able to get wind power from North
Dakota to population centers like Chicago.
MADDOW: On something like the electrical grid, that`s an issue of
American resilience. Even against the threat of terrorism, a lot of times
when you look at counterterrorism officials, the things they game out are
an al Qaeda attack on the electrical grid. Well, you know, at this point,
a snowstorm is an attack on our electrical grid.
OBAMA: That`s exactly right.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Five days later, Barack Obama won the presidency. I`m still
waiting for my follow-up interview.
But four months after he won the presidency, he signed the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus. The bill
included $4.5 billion that went towards construction of a smarter electric
grid in this country, including hundreds of advanced grid sensors and
meters that help power companies monitor the entire system. That spending
as part of the stimulus is part of why a 2003 style blackout is probably
less likely today.
Yes, there may still be rogue tree limbs in Ohio, but they are less
likely today to shut down everything up to Ontario in terms of power for
two days at a time.
Now, that we are not doing that sort of spending any more as a
country, the stimulus was a temporary thing, now that we, instead are in
sort of this budget cutting, belt-tightening mood, instead of a stimulus
mood, are we now in a position to backslide? Have we shored things up
Could things get worse? Or are they likely to get better in the
Joining us now is Maggie Koerth-Baker. She`s science editor at
boingboing.net. She`s the author of "Before the Lights Go Out," a book
about electricity, infrastructure and the future of energy.
Ms. Koerth-Baker, thanks very much for being with us.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER, "BEFORE THE LIGHTS GO OUT" AUTHOR: Thanks for
having me on.
MADDOW: So is the electric grid in better shape than it was 10 years
ago? Have we improved it in substantive ways?
KOERTH-BAKER: Yes, we definitely have. The big thing is these things
called phasor measurement units which are little boxes in a server farm
somewhere. But they really improve our ability to understand what`s going
on the grid as a whole and prevent those kind of cascading blackouts before
The issue is, that you have these people that are working behind the
scenes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to make sure that the
balance between electric supply and electric demand is almost perfectly
maintained. And in order to do that, they have to see the big picture.
But in 2003 -- they weren`t getting updated with that nearly as quickly as
they needed to.
So if you have a power plant go offline in Arizona, you can see the
effects of that in Canada in less than a second. But in 2003, the grid
controllers were only getting big picture update every 30 seconds. So,
there`s a big lag time in what they`re missing.
MADDOW: In terms of what we have done since then, have we brought
things up to state of the art? Are we best in the world? Are we behind
other countries that are still doing it better? How much progress do we
need to make in order to be truly resilient?
KOERTH-BAKER: We definitely still need to make a lot of progress. We
-- thanks to those phasor measurement units, we`re up to the point where we
now get updated on the big picture every 10 seconds. But that`s still not
really where we want to be. We want to be closer to like, you know, three
or two, and it`s really hard to say whether we`re best in the world,
because what I found is that everybody`s grid is screwed up, but they`re
all screwed up in their own special way.
So, we have problems, but everybody else`s grids have different kinds
of problems, because they all sort of evolved. Nobody sat down and
designed the things. They just sort of came together and were left with
these mistakes or weird decisions people made 60, 70 years ago, but still
affect what happens to us now.
MADDOW: There are broad philosophical divisions in American politics
about infrastructure in general, about whether or not, as a country, we
collectively should be investing in things that make other forms of
commerce and private activity possible. Things like transportation.
Things like Internet access, things like electrical grids and who should do
that work, whose responsibility is it and how long should we think.
The president talking about trying to dramatically increase broadband
access, for example, for schools. In terms of this specific issue, though,
looking back at that blackout 10 years ago, policy-wise, is there something
specifically that we ought to be investing in right now, that we ought to
be doing as policy, that we haven`t done yet, that would really shore us up
KOERTH-BAKER: Well, the problem is, that there`s lots of different
things that we need to be doing to shore up the grid. It`s not just one
problem, it`s 10 or 12 different problems and they all kind of intersect
and interact with each other. And part of the issue is s that we`ve done
some things over the past 30 or 40 years that have been good in some ways
policy-wise, but left us with holes in others.
So, we`ve deregulated the electrical industry in a lot of places,
which means we don`t have as much of a monopoly system to be beholden to,
which is good. But, on the other hand, it means you have all these little
companies that are all in charge of little tiny chunks of the grid. And
we`re kind of in a place where there`s not really -- in a lot of places,
anybody who has a big incentive to care about what happens in the long
term, you know, 30 or 40 years down the line.
So it`s kind of hard to say if there`s one thing you have to do, but
there`s a lot of different things we have to do, and we need to pay more
attention to this infrastructure than we have been.
MADDOW: Hearing the president in 2008 making the exact same case then
is kind of heartening, I feel like he`s got his eyes on the prize there,
actually getting it done and approaching it as a federal priority, with all
the funding that it requires, that is a different story.
Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor at Boingboing.net, author of
"Before the Lights Go Out", Maggie, thank you so much for being here. I
really appreciate your time tonight.
KOERTH-BAKER: Thanks for having me on.
MADDOW: I was going to wish a happy blackout anniversary. But I
don`t think that`s a thing that we should celebrate.
All right. Do you remember getting a disappointing grade on a test
and telling your parents it`s not the end of the world? Ahead a test we`re
failing could actually mean the end of the world. That`s a good news
story. That`s coming up.
MADDOW: Imagine if you will, the year is 1964, just a couple years
after the Cuban missile crisis, and Stanley Kubrick`s classic satire which
is called "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
Bomb", that movie brought new meaning to the words, nervous laughter.
A communication breakdown, plus one reckless Major T.J. Kong means the
end of the world.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Target in sight. Where is Major Kong?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about Major Kong?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Something about the long cut there as he rides the whistle
all the way to the ground before that -- the moral of the story, do not
goof around with nuclear weapons.
That`s a relatively simple moral to the story that has not been
learned. Coming up next on the show tonight is an equally absurd and
preposterous story from right now about missile silos this time in real
life. This is a doozy.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: OK, the nuclear football is the presidential brief case that
has its own 24-hour military escort who follows the president around
If President Obama ever wanted to unleash nuclear warfare, he would
turn to that military escort, open up the nuclear football brief case
thingy, get the launch codes and give the command, to launch the world-
altering nuclear bomb or nuclear missile.
If President Obama ever decided to do that, said nuclear missile could
very well be launched from here, lovely Minot, North Dakota, the Minot Air
If you are lucky enough to be a part of the Air Force`s 91st Missile
Wing in snowy Minot, North Dakota, part of your job is storing and
maintaining and ultimately being ready to launch nuclear-tipped
intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. Air Force maintains about
450 of them. And the missiliers who take care of those nukes are at Minot
and also at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, and also at
Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Up on the high plains, those
are the three spots.
These intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs, which we built them
by the thousands to point at the Soviet Union back in the day, while the
Soviet Union built thousands of their own to point back at us.
They may not still seem like the most pressing national security
priority anymore now that the Soviet Union does not exist, but we never got
rid of these things. And with hundreds of them still around and ready to
go, somebody has got to keep them around and ready to go. They have got to
be cleaned and maintained and kept track of, and occasionally moved around
the country. So we employ U.S. Air Force personnel to take care of that.
On August 29th, 2007, one of the Air Force`s weapons handling team at
Minot, North Dakota, was tasked with the de-commissioned missiles from
their base in North Dakota down to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
The missiles were not supposed to be shipped with their live nuclear
warheads, the warhead part was supposed to be taken have you the missiles
and replaced with dummy weight for balance.
But on that August day in 2007, instead of picking up the missiles
with the dummy weights on them, the Minot crew did not check to see what
exactly they were doing and what exactly they were moving. They didn`t
follow the procedures they were supposed trained to follow and, yes, oh,
jeez, they accidentally, without meaning to, without knowing that they had
done it, they loaded onto that Louisiana-bound Air Force bomber six
missiles tipped with real live nuclear warheads.
Half a dozen nuclear warheads, each with roughly the capacity to cause
Hiroshima times 10 were sent up into the air on a cross-country domestic
American flight without anybody knowing they were there.
Happily the plane had no trouble in flight. And because nobody knew
to worry about the -- you know, jeez, it just seemed like a normal flight,
that B-52 and the six live missiles sat unguarded on the tarmac in
Louisiana for nine hours after the plane landed, before the ground crew
finally realized they had accidentally become a nuclear-armed out post
without clearance and without anybody following any of the procedures you
need to follow to protect the nuclear weapons.
Well, in the wake of that incident in 2007, the secretary of the Air
Force and the Air Force chief of staff both lost their jobs, as did a
number of lower level commanders. Minot temporarily had all its nuclear
operations suspended. And when they first tried to win back the right to
handle nuclear weapons, Minot did not help matters when they failed their
At Malmstrom in Montana, too, they also failed a nuclear surety
inspection in 2008, which was the year after the accidentally flying the
nuclear bombs to the Louisiana thing. Malmstrom failed inspection in 2008.
Malmstrom also failed inspection again in 2010, and now this week, the Air
Force says Malmstrom failed again. They failed another nuclear surety
In Minot, they did eventually win back the right to handle the nuclear
weapons, once they accidentally lost them in Shreveport. But by March of
this year, Minot was failing again, at least coming very close to failing.
This spring, the inspections at Minot earned the nuclear missile wing there
the equivalent of a D letter grade, which if you remember from school isn`t
failure but really isn`t good.
After that D-grade inspection, the deputy commander of Minot`s
operations group complained publicly that the United States was suffering
from a rot in the nuclear weapons handling force. That was his word --
Seventeen officers removed from launch control duty. They were
temporarily stripped of their authority to launch number weapons.
Then, in June, the Air Force relieved from duty the commander in
charge of training the nuclear missile crews at Minot. And now, this week,
it`s the base in Montana that is reportedly failing again.
It is one thing to be bad at something that doesn`t really matter,
like this, right? If we screw up in cable news, or if I screw like in
fishing or something, that`s bad. But that`s not like the end of the
world. Handling nuclear weapons is something that you just can`t keep
failing at. But we do.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee had a spokesman
give a statement for him after this latest failure saying, quote, "Two
troubling inspections in a row at two different missile wings is
But what does he say the solution is to this unacceptable problem? He
says, "The Air Force should recommit itself from the top down to the
nuclear deterrent mission, and ensure a daily focus on the centrality of
that nuclear deterrent mission to our nation`s security."
Refocus on the centrality of that mission? Really? How central is
The idea here is that we would stop losing nuclear bombs and flanking
our tests in the missile silos if only we could focus on how central the
power of nuclear bombs is to our everyday national security now. Yes, why
can`t we just wake up every morning and go to sleep every night, knowing
it`s our nuclear bombs, our hair-trigger alert nuclear missiles pointed at
the former Soviet Union that are central to American national security in
this century, today?
Either we convince ourselves of that and hope that Minot and Maelstrom
become the new A-game top of the class performers in the U.S. military
because everybody is so psyched that nuclear bombs are the key to the
future and all the brightest kids go there, or maybe alternatively, we
might start to have a conversation about just not having quite so many of
these bombs laying around to baby-sit anymore.
When your nuclear weapons handlers are failing consistently, something
really needs to change. There is a lot of places that can endure failure,
nuclear weapons handling is not one of those areas.
That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow night.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."
Thanks for being with us.
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