Imagine the western United States without power for six months.
No computers, no phones, no air-conditioning, no refrigeration, no manufacturing, no American Idol.
The devastation to the U.S. economy would make September 11 look like a fender-bender.
Al-Qaida likely has the technology and know-how to make this nightmare real, says Jerry Brady, a guy I thought was another Apache Junction conspiracy-theory nut, until I listened for a couple hours.
I listened to him because this is the season of doomsday scenarios, a season in which the ludicrous has begun to sound likely. Just last week we learned of two more methods of our destruction radioactive "dirty bombs" (I had thought all bombs were dirty) and "scuba-based terror," which apparently means that terrorists are learning the tricks of our own Navy SEALs.
Dick Cheney already has told us that the question isn't whether we'll be attacked again by Muslim radicals; the question is when and how.
Jerry Brady has the answer.
It will happen in August at an electric power switching station near Prescott, Arizona, with the detonation of an easily manufactured magnetic pulse bomb, which, because of design flaws and excessive loads in the electric power transmission lines of the western United States, will set off a chain reaction stopping electricity from flowing into every home and business in the west for months.
I wish these were just the rantings of a black-helicopter goober. The problem: Although Brady speaks in that annoying military/industrial complex vernacular often feigned by doomsday nuts, there's reason to believe he knows what he's talking about.
After all, he was a cog in the military/industrial complex.
In the late 1980s, researchers discovered that a giant transformer at a Washington state naval station was disrupting power transmission and electronic equipment in the vicinity of the station.
Brady was hired by the U.S. Navy inspector general to investigate and fix the problem. He was hired because he had worked on similar problems for the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the Naval Ocean Systems Command.
While researching the technology of the transformer, Brady came across some startling information. Because of the transformer's flawed design, it was basically acting as a giant scrambler of all the electromagnetic waves passing through that part of Washington.
In fact, by accident, the transformer was performing exactly like a type of directed-energy weapon developed decades earlier by the Soviets.
Brady discovered that those suitcase-size weapons can easily be purchased on the black market. Or they can easily be built.
All you do, basically, is wrap a special transmitter with plastic explosives. Much like a nuclear bomb, the explosion collapses the bomb's core, which greatly magnifies the disruptive waves emanating from the transmitter.
According to Soviet studies, which can be found out there on the Internet, such a device can wipe out power and other transmissions for miles. But if the power system itself is flawed or overloaded, Brady says, such a weapon can do infinitely more damage by triggering a chain reaction throughout the system.
The electric power system in the western United States, he says, is one giant web of outdated, overloaded and improperly designed wires and transformers.
Shortly after the World Trade Center attack, former Corporation Commissioner Renz Jennings was invited to a National Academy of Sciences colloquium that included academics, engineers, scientists and energy policy analysts. The gathering focused on the security of the nation's power grid from terrorist disruption.
"We sat around for a while," said Jennings, "and 'what-iffed.' It was clear from the comments that the system is vulnerable."
Making it clear that he had no opinion on Brady's theory, Jennings said no attack would be simple.
"There is lots you would have to know. There's lots of stuff you'd have to have," observed Jennings. "But the people in that room knew enough to bring the country to a stop and it made them nervous just talking about it."
Deregulation has confounded the issue, says Brady. Now more and more power providers are selling power over greater and greater distances. The system is maxed-out and teetering.
Electric power executives have admitted as much in the last year. That's the reason they're madly pushing the Arizona Corporation Commission and other western governmental agencies to allow more high-voltage power lines to run across the region.
It is particularly precarious on a hot August day, Brady says, when unprecedented amounts of electricity are flowing south toward Arizona and west toward California.
He says that this Soviet-style, directed-energy weapon detonated at the nexus of all this crisscrossing summer power would create a tidal wave of electric current that would burn up critical equipment, which, in some cases, would take at least six months to rebuild.
Now, the last bit of bad news:
Any member of the bin Laden family would be very familiar with the technology at the heart of this electromagnetic bomb, Brady says. The same technology has been widely used in meteorological devices in Saudi Arabia. The bin Laden family's massive Saudi construction company would have come into contact with the technology "all the time," Brady says.
Also, he adds, intercepted bin Laden communiqués had discussed attacking "the critical civilian infrastructure of the United States."
There are few things more critical to the operation of the United States than electric power. Brady has thousands of documents to back up his claims. He's in Arizona looking for more documents stored at federal document repositories in area libraries.
I met him at his brother's house in Apache Junction at the base of Superstition Mountain, appropriately enough where's he's staying when he's not combing through local archives.
The FBI might want to make a trip to Apache Junction before Brady heads back to Washington state.
Maybe they'd discover he's entirely off-base. Paranoid.
All I discovered for sure was that I am considerably more interested in doomsday theories or more gullible than I was a year ago, or even a month ago.
I used to smugly hang up on the Jerry Bradys of the world. But this is a different world. Now an airliner is a bomb, hospital garbage is a bomb, scuba-diving trainees are bombers.
FBI agents Kenneth Williams and Coleen Rowley had grand conspiracy theories. Their FBI bosses blew them off. The grand conspiracy theories were fact.
Every day now, it seems, we again see that paranoia was actually foresight.
Which means anxiety is justified, that "the bomb" is once again a part of our nightmares.
Which means al-Qaida still has America by the throat.
Contact the author at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.