On Saturday, January 13, the Emergency Alert System and the Commercial Mobile Alert system sent an alarm over broadcast media and via cell phones in Hawaii. The alert said: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
That alert went out at 8:07 AM local time. Only three minutes later, military authorities informed civilian authorities that this was a false alarm, there was no incoming missile. But it wasn’t until 8:45 that the EAS sent out a message retracting the initial alert, stating “There is no missile threat or danger to the state of Hawaii. False alarm.”
Soon thereafter, both the Federal Communications Commission and the Hawaii House of Representatives announced that they would investigate how the false alarm went out.
Reporting in the subsequent hours indicated that the alarm went out during an employee shift change at the emergency management agency. The Governor’s explanation was succinct: “An employee pushed the wrong button.”
The incident came amidst a rise in tensions between The United States and North Korea, precisely over the latter’s development both of nuclear warheads and of the missiles that may deliver them, a very highly publicized escalation that made the alert all too believable.
Right Wing View
Jim Geraghty, of National Review, expressed one conservative take on the subject. The incident proves that governments mess up everything they touch, so smaller government is always better than larger. Or, as he put it, “If it hadn’t been terrifying, it would have been comic, having scared the bejeebers out of most residents in the state, the state agency couldn’t quickly figure out a way to tell everyone it had been a false alarm.”
If the alarm had been the consequence of an ill-intentioned hacker, Geraghty also suggested, it would have been a little less disorienting – at least there would have been “a malevolent enemy to blame.”
Josh Kimbrell, at the conservative blog RedState, waxed indignant at comments by George Stephanopoulos, who in Kimbrell’s paraphrase thinks “that the uproar in the Aloha State is entirely Donald Trump’s fault.” The uproar is not the President’s fault, Kimbrell responds, because Trump’s toughness vis-à-vis North Korea is itself long overdue, as a sensible corrective to “decades of passivity” by prior administrations.
Penny Starr, at Breitbart, suggests that the problem is lax employee policy. Breitbart’s headline: “Employee who sent false missile alarm ‘temporarily reassigned’.”
Mark Kern, on twitter, expanded on the inference. “The entire warning operations staff of Hawaii needs to be fired.”
Left Wing View
Barbra Streisand tweeted that President Trump was “on the golf course when the missile was supposedly headed for Hawaii. He could have tweeted immediately to reassure people but instead kept playing golf. This is our commander in chief?”
Daniel Politi, at Slate, expresses the same thought. The headline for his piece reads, “Trump Remains Silent on False Hawaii Missile Alert.” Apparently, his golfing party finished its round and returned to Mar-a-Lago around the time the residents of Hawaii were getting that delayed “all clear” notification.
The one statement the White House did issue on the subject later that day was a brief account letting people know that the President had been briefed, and that the false alarm was “purely a state exercise.”
In Politico, William J. Perry, a former Secretary of Defense, says there are “urgent lessons to review” from the episode. He warns for example, that if somehow a false alert came via a military warning system, to the President, he could have only 5 to 10 minutes during which to decide “whether to launch our ICBMs before they were destroyed in our silos.” Once launched, the news that they were launched on the basis of a false alarm would do no one any good, there would be “no way to call them back or abort them inflight.”