Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
For 38 excruciating minutes last weekend, many people in Hawaii believed they were under missile attack. Some of them were convinced they were going to die – that Saturday, the 13th of January, was their last day.
They hugged their children. They prayed. They uttered a few final farewells.
And then they waited – for an attack that never came.
We now know, of course, that the security alert issued by the Hawaii State Emergency Management Agency just after 8 that morning was false and the mistake of an operator during a shift change. The operator has been reassigned pending the outcome of an investigation.
To his credit, Hawaii Gov. David Ige took full responsibility, assigned the deputy adjutant general to lead a full review of the incident, and promised that necessary changes to the system would be made.
“Children going down manholes, stores closing their doors to those seeking shelter, and cars driving at high speeds cannot happen again,” Ige said. “We will do a better job of educating the public.”
“I am ultimately responsible,” he added.
Ige is right. The responsibility falls on him. It was a state-run agency and a state employee who caused the panic. And it’s reassuring to see him hold himself to account. I would expect to see others involved in the incident likewise held to account in some way.
But, in the main, the Hawaii situation underscores three other important things, for which we as a nation must also hold ourselves to account.
First, and most obviously, the credibility of the threat from North Korea is palpable. We know Kim Jong Un is advancing his nuclear and ballistic missile program at a faster clip than in the past and that, while we can’t say for sure he can effectively target an American mainland city with any degree of accuracy, he certainly has the reach to cause significant damage and loss of life to Hawaii, Guam and our Japanese and South Korean allies – with or without nuclear warheads.
That’s why the pressure campaign the Trump administration has been pursuing is so important. It’s work at which we all desperately need them to succeed. They have helped push through additional and quite stringent sanctions against Kim’s regime, and there appears to be at least a warming of relations between the two Koreas as together they discuss the prospects for North Korean participation in the upcoming Winter Games.
All that is to the good if it can lead to meaningful negotiations about the security situation. But if we get to that point, one would hope for both US and even Chinese participation at the table. We must not allow Kim to drive a wedge between the US and ROK alliance, nor allow ourselves to fall prey to his whimsy, insincerity and bullishness over the issue of denuclearization.
We must take full advantage of the moment before us to drive a more satisfactory outcome, even if that requires a bit of compromise at the outset. After all, if tensions weren’t so credibly high right now, it is doubtful Hawaii would have found it necessary to test since last month its systems of sirens and alerts, which, in turn, surely contributed to the confidence people placed in the frightening alert that went out Saturday morning.
The second thing underscored by Saturday’s alert is the degree to which statewide alert systems need to be re-evaluated and better coordinated with the military and intelligence community. It is upon the military’s vast and sophisticated network of sensors and missile defense capabilities on which national policymakers – and local and state leaders – rely to determine the nature of actual missile threats. No individual state has the ability to detect missile launches from adversary countries. They are so advised by military authorities and then act and advise their populations accordingly.
That’s why the US Pacific Command was able within minutes after the false alarm went out to refute it and to do so authoritatively. By all appearances, this case seems to be one of operator error and flaws in local system architecture. But it couldn’t hurt to take another look at the lash-up with federal authorities to see if there is anything more that can be done to validate the flow of basic information.
It’s also important in this context to note that, while missile defense is hardly perfect, there has since the Obama administration been a much greater investment in those capabilities. In response to the North Korean threat alone, Obama “increased the number of ballistic missile interceptors in Greely, Alaska, and sent an additional TPY-2 radar to Japan,” among other crucial measures.
Americans should not doubt the seriousness with which the US military considers this threat, nor the continued pursuit of military options should diplomacy fail. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters on his way this week to an international conference on North Korea, “We’ll show them (North Koreans) that there are military options. But it is all couched within a framework of strengthening the diplomat’s hands.”
In that vein, and finally, the Hawaii alert also underscores the real risks of potential miscalculation by our adversaries. It is fair to ask whether Kim Jong Un might see the panic caused by Saturday’s alert as some sort of deliberate pretext by the United States of launching a pre-emptive strike couched as something retaliatory. It is also fair to ask what message the false alarm sends to our allies and partners about the soundness of our decision-making process.
For his part, Mattis confirmed that we saw no reaction from Kim Jong Un to the false alarm and expressed his confidence that Hawaiian officials will “figure out what went wrong and they will put procedures in place.”
I believe him on both counts and am grateful he injected some much-needed perspective into this issue. But the thoroughness and transparency of the investigation underway will do much to back up Mattis’ sense of confidence.
It is a good thing the Federal Communications Commission will be involved in the review. Here’s hoping Hawaiian officials take full advantage of that assistance, that they hold themselves to full account, and that every other official of every other state uses this horrible mistake to do some introspection of their own.
We cannot afford another 38 minutes like that endured by the people of Hawaii.