WarGames Is a Blast at the Box Office, but a Bomb at the Pentagon

updated 08/15/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A high school student tries to impress his girlfriend by showing her what a whiz he is on his home computer. He brings her up to his bedroom, taps into the school principal's office and changes her grades. Then he taps into something more mysterious and, after probing further, finds himself plugged into a supersecret computer at the country's missile defense headquarters. Intrigued, he begins a reckless game with the computer that precipitates the countdown to World War III. Suddenly there's no way to stop it, and it's no longer a game. Improbable? Farfetched? Perhaps so, but this scenario has made WarGames one of the summer's hottest movies and the subject of a high-level controversy. Military officers at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) say the movie has vastly exaggerated the vulnerability of our computer-aided nuclear missile force to electronic sabotage. WarGames supporters, including former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, a retired four-star general, take a significantly different view. While conceding that complex security measures would not allow a launch to be triggered by tricksters, Haig warns, "I'm confident that saboteurs or other enemy agents could penetrate segments of the system in an even more competent way than depicted by the teenager in WarGames." Haig, who sits on the board of directors of MGM/UA, makers of the film, and earns more than $50,000 a year in consulting fees from the company, adds that the movie teaches a valuable lesson: Don't trust the computers when it comes to the life-and-death issue of thermonuclear war.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Brandt disagrees. A member of the NORAD high command, he considers WarGames "unfair and grossly inaccurate." Four major separate security procedures and constant human checks safeguard NORAD's 87 computers against electronic penetration, he says. "It's a highly secure system electronically," he declares. "But to me the man-to-man validation process is probably the ultimate protection against a computer being able to drive you in the wrong direction."

The plot of WarGames suggests that one giant computer hidden under a mountain controls all U.S. responses to an incoming nuclear attack. And that, says Brandt, is flat wrong. The NORAD system is only one part of the nuclear alert system, he says, and the ultimate decision to launch U.S. missiles must be made by the President. "It just couldn't happen like it's portrayed in the movie," he says, "and it's a disservice to the public to mix fact and fiction."

But that's exactly what Hollywood has done, to the tune of over $51 million—the box office take of WarGames in just seven weeks of release. And that's only the beginning: There are reportedly nine other movies in various stages of development, all dealing with nuclear war. This fall ABC is expected to air a controversial TV movie, The Day After, depicting the effects of a nuclear attack on Kansas City.

Although no one contends that accidental tap-ins like the one shown in WarGames have ever taken place at NORAD, there have been occasional glitches, the most recent on June 2, 1980 when NORAD computers reported 20 to 2,000 Soviet missiles heading for the U.S. According to General Brandt, the mistake was caught and corrected in minutes—by a many-tiered checking system that NORAD experts believe is all but foolproof. But even critics within the military say there are electronic chinks in the Defense Department's computers. Writing in the prestigious U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings last month, two career U.S. Navy officers warned that America's computerized defenses could conceivably be turned against her by unfriendly powers.

Haig maintains that NORAD's family of interlocking computers must be subject to constant human surveillance. "WarGames may be overdramatized," he says, "but the possibilities it raises cannot be ignored as frivolous." Indeed, in one version the movie ended with a nuclear holocaust, but the producers test-marketed it and found, not surprisingly, that most audiences preferred a more upbeat ending. "Frankly, I wasn't upset by this movie," says Haig. "WarGames suggests that we have to be constantly on the alert."

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