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Inside Politics

What a blast!

1962 nuclear test still shaking things up, half a world away

By Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

Sedan crater in Nevada, shortly after the 1962 detonation.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Mark Twain

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- There's an old saying that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts its boots on.

Let it be known that mistakes can travel just as fast -- and just as far.

Take the case of Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-California, who at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week spoke about a 1962 nuclear test in the Nevada desert. The test was code named "Project Sedan."

Tauscher's remarks were little noticed, until they were transcribed -- incorrectly -- in an unofficial transcript of the hearing. One letter was changed. The "Sedan" nuclear test became the "Sudan" nuclear test.

And the government of Sudan took notice.

Less than a day after Tauscher uttered her words, and after they were incorrectly transcribed, Sudanese officials evidently were alerted to the transcript.

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. charge d'affaires in Khartoum and demanded an explanation about the supposedly secret nuclear tests in the east African country.

The Arab language satellite channel Al-Jazeera picked up the story. It put the Sudanese foreign minister on the air. "The Sudanese government takes this issue seriously and with extreme importance," he told the world.

The Chinese news service picked up the story. In a story appearing only one day after Tauscher spoke, the news service reported that the Sudanese government held the U.S. responsible for "cancer spread in Sudan" caused by "U.S. nuclear experiments in the African country in 1962-1970."

The quickly evolving story got little notice in the United States.

At the offices of the Federation of American Scientists, however, government watchdog Steven Aftergood was reviewing the CIA public translations of overseas newscasts, and came upon the story.

"I thought, Wow!," said Aftergood. "Here's a historical revelation that will cause the history books to be rewritten. No one's ever heard of a U.S. nuclear test in the Sudan in 1962."

Aftergood went to work. He tracked down the transcript of a March 2 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing during which the 43-year-old nuclear secret was supposedly revealed.

Aftergood read Tauscher's comments about a 1962 test involving a 100 kiloton blast that displaced 12 million tons of earth and dug a crater 320 feet deep. He noted that the transcript referred to it as the Sudan nuclear test site, but quickly recognized that the blast described was identical to the "Project Sedan" test -- which was conducted to determine if nuclear devices could be used for peaceful purposes such as cratering or earth moving.

"So somehow the notion that the U.S. had conducted a nuke test in Sudan had gotten into the news food chain and had triggered alarms on the part of the Sudanese government," Aftergood said.

Now comes the job of rectifying the error.

A State Department official told CNN that U.S. officials have explained the mix-up to the Sudanese.

And Tauscher this week issued a terse statement: "When speaking at a March 2 briefing ... I referred to nuclear testing that occurred on July 6, 1962, at the Nevada Test Site code named 'Sedan.' I was not referring to the African country Sudan."

For Aftergood, this is a cautionary tale.

"It is an amazing demonstration of the way information flows in our world today and how it has enormous potential to mislead as well as inform," he said. "In this case, the changing of a single letter altered the meaning from a meaningless code name into a foreign country with repercussions that are still unfolding."

"I think the saving grace in this case was that the concern expressed by the Sudanese government was not classified. They didn't say, 'We have a secret source that has informed us that there was a nuclear explosive test in 1962.' The fact that they laid it out on the table at least makes it possible to correct it in a matter of a day."

So corrections, like mistakes, also can travel with warp speed, although they rarely do.

Take, for instance, the lead of this story. While the old saying about "lies" is often attributed to Mark Twain, Twain scholars say it did not originate with him. They attribute it to another wit.

But that truth is just getting its boots on.

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