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False Alarms and Exaggerated Threats

Photo by Anthony Quintano | CC BY 2.0

Three days after the January 13 false alarm of a North Korean nuclear attack on Hawaii, Japan’s public TV broadcaster NHK issued its own false alarm around 7 p.m., warning in error that North Korea had launched a missile at Japan. As reported by CNN, Jan. 17, and by the New York Times, National Public Radio, and Reuters Jan. 16, the shocking message was received by Japanese smart phone users and by NHK TV website viewers.

Like in Hawaii, the Japanese public was amazed to read, according to a translation from Reuters: “NORTH KOREA APPEARS TO HAVE LAUNCHED A MISSILE. THE GOVERNMENT URGES PEOPLE TO TAKE SHELTER INSIDE BUILDINGS OR UNDERGROUND.”

Unlike Hawaii’s scare, which threw the state’s population of 1.4 million into a panic, NHK Japan’s fake news was broadcast nation-wide to about 127 million people. The TV network blamed the terror alert on a “switching error” and corrected it in less than 10 minutes. “We are deeply sorry,” NHK announced on its 9:00 p.m. news Jan. 16.

In Arsenals of Folly, author Richard Rhodes documents how US government “officials frequently and deliberately inflated their estimates of military threats facing the United States, beginning with … exaggerated Soviet military capabilities.” A review in the Feb. 7, 2008 New York Review of Books said, “The exaggeration of foreign threats, however pernicious, is a tactic,” and quotes Rhodes’ study: “Threat inflation was crucial to maintaining the defense budgets… Fear was part of the program …”

The New York Review also noted that in 1998, the US Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States “warned that Iran and North Korea could hit the US with missiles within five years.” Twenty years later, neither country can do so. Still the success of the steady drum beat of anti-North Korea messaging from the White House, State Dept. and the Pentagon is showcased by National Public Radio online which announced: “Both Hawaii and Japan have been increasingly concerned about North Korea’s continued weapons testing. As NPR’s Scott Neuman reported, North Korea ‘routinely conducts test launches of its ballistic missiles over Japanese territory.'”

But like with most news organizations’ superficial reporting, NPR never asks what North Korea could possibly hope to gain by attacking Japan or the United States. The Reuters report of Japan’s false alarm continued in this vein, noting: “The mistake took place at a tense time in the region following North Korea’s largest nuclear test to date in September and its claim in November that it had successfully tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the entire US mainland.” China, Russia and Pakistan nuclear powers considered hostile to the United States, but today’s fearmongering is pointed instead at North Korea.

Following shooting wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and throughout the Cold War, the US public learned that well-publicized threats or provocations that became “common knowledge” were in fact unreal, notably the famously false 1957-59 “missile gap” favoring Russia, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin “incident” which led to the US invasion of Vietnam, and Iraq’s fake weapons of mass destruction that led to the US’s 2003 invasion.

After decades living with the fearsome “Soviet threat,” dozens of news accounts in 2001 reported that “every major assessment from 1974 to 1986 ‘substantially’ overestimated” the Soviet threat, according to an internal CIA review. In 1988, wire services reported that “The Soviet Union is highly unlikely to launch a sudden military attack on NATO forces in Europe, despite Western military leaders’ fear about a Pearl Harbor-type strike, a congressional study said.” On Oct. 1, 1991 the AP reported that “American taxpayers may have wasted tens of billions of dollars arming to confront a Soviet empire that was in a state of decline…”

A 2004 Star-Tribune headline corrected the record noting: “No Iraq Links to Al-Qaida: 9/11 Panel’s Report Contradicts a US Justification for Going to War.” Iraq’s missing arsenal voided the other justification for war, but too late to prevent the waste of many more tens of billions in tax dollars.

Today’s endless “war on terrorism” likewise requires that manufactured fear which be endlessly hyped. Dick Meyer reported for Newsday in 2015 how the threat of terror “is massively exaggerated in both the public and official mind.” This is crucial, as Rhodes wrote in Arsenals of Folly, especially with the new military budget jumping to $786 billion (including $182 billion in military spending outside the Pentagon), $80 billion over last year’s.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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