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
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."