Annie Jacobsen: Nuclear War, CIA, KGB, Aliens, Area 51, Roswell & Secrecy | Lex Fridman Podcast #420

Added: Mar 23, 2024

In this podcast episode, Annie Jacobsen, an investigative journalist and author, discusses the terrifying reality of nuclear war in her new book. She highlights the devastating consequences of a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia, estimating that it could result in the deaths of 5 billion people. The book delves into the minute-by-minute timeline of a nuclear war, from the initial launch to the aftermath of nuclear winter.

Key takeaways


The terrifying reality of nuclear war and its devastating consequences are highlighted in Annie Jacobsen's new book, estimating the deaths of 5 billion people in a conflict between the US and Russia.


The concept of 'launch on warning' gives the President only six minutes to decide on a nuclear counterattack, emphasizing the gravity of the situation and the immense responsibility placed on the President.


Nuclear submarines play a crucial role in the nuclear triad, providing a second-strike capability that can launch missiles within minutes.


The potential aftermath of a nuclear war paints a grim picture of a post-apocalyptic world, with challenges like ice sheets forming, agriculture failing, and the emergence of pathogens and plagues.


The risks of communication breakdown, mistakes, and false alarms in nuclear warfare scenarios underscore the chaotic and high-pressure nature of decision-making processes.

Launch on Warning and Sole Presidential Authority

Jacobsen explains the concept of "launch on warning," where the United States would launch nuclear weapons in response to a detected attack before the enemy's missiles reach their targets. This policy gives the President only six minutes to make a decision to launch nuclear weapons. Additionally, Jacobsen discusses the concept of sole presidential authority, where the President is the only person authorized to initiate a nuclear war without seeking approval from other officials.

The Role of Nuclear Submarines

Nuclear submarines play a crucial role in the nuclear triad, providing a second-strike capability. These submarines are described as "hell machines" that are undetectable and can launch nuclear missiles within minutes, making them a significant threat in a nuclear conflict. Jacobsen reveals that nuclear submarines can get within a couple of hundred miles of the United States' coast, reducing the time it takes for a missile to reach its target.

Timeline of Nuclear Attacks

Jacobsen provides insights into the timeline of a nuclear attack, detailing the phases of a missile's journey from launch to impact. She explains that it takes approximately 26 minutes and 40 seconds for a missile to travel from a launchpad in the Soviet Union to the East Coast of the United States. The boost phase lasts five minutes, followed by the midcourse phase of 20 minutes, and the terminal phase of 100 seconds.

Detection and Response

The United States relies on early warning systems, such as satellites and ground radar, to detect incoming nuclear missiles. Once a launch is detected, the President has a limited time to decide whether to launch a counterattack. The speed and complexity of the decision-making process highlight the gravity of the situation and the immense responsibility placed on the President in such a scenario.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Jacobsen discusses the distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, with tactical warheads designed for battlefield use. The use of tactical nuclear weapons could escalate a conflict and blur the line between conventional and nuclear warfare, posing a significant threat to global security. The potential consequences of crossing this line are explored in the book, emphasizing the need for clear communication and deterrence strategies.

The Need for Communication and Understanding

Throughout the discussion, Jacobsen emphasizes the importance of communication and understanding in preventing nuclear war. She highlights the critical role of dialogue and transparency in averting a catastrophic conflict and calls for a reevaluation of nuclear policies and strategies. The book serves as a stark reminder of the destructive power of nuclear weapons and the urgent need to address the risks associated with their proliferation.

Intelligence Agencies and Nuclear Capabilities

Jacobsen highlights the role of intelligence agencies in monitoring nuclear capabilities of countries like Russia. She mentions the Federation of American Scientists and their annual nuclear notebook, which tracks the number of warheads and weapon systems. The focus now is on new weapon systems being developed by Russia, which poses a new threat. Jacobsen emphasizes the importance of staying ahead in terms of technology and intelligence to ensure national security.

The Nuclear Football

She explains the concept of the nuclear football, a satchel containing the president's orders for launching nuclear weapons. The football is always with the president, ready to be used in case of a nuclear threat. Jacobsen recounts a story shared by former Secret Service director Lou Merletti about a tense moment in an elevator when the football was questioned by a foreign official.

Interceptor Capabilities and North Korea

Jacobsen reveals that the United States has 44 interceptor missiles to defend against incoming nuclear warheads. She discusses the limitations of these interceptors, including a success rate of around 50%. In the case of a North Korean attack, the interceptors may not be sufficient to stop all incoming missiles. The potential threat posed by North Korea's 50 nuclear weapons is a cause for concern, especially given the limited interceptor capabilities.

Mistakes and False Alarms

The discussion shifts to the possibility of mistakes, accidents, and false alarms in the nuclear warfare scenario. Jacobsen recounts a historical incident where a training tape was mistakenly interpreted as a real nuclear launch, causing panic. She emphasizes the human element in these high-pressure situations and the potential for errors to occur. The consequences of false alarms can be catastrophic, as seen in past close calls.

Pentagon War Gaming Scenarios

Jacobsen touches on the classified nuclear war gaming scenarios conducted by the Pentagon. One declassified scenario called Proud Prophet from 1983 revealed that no matter how nuclear war starts, it ultimately leads to Armageddon. The escalation of conflict and the devastating outcomes are explored in these war games, shedding light on the grim reality of nuclear warfare.

Communication Breakdown and Flaws in Systems

The conversation delves into the risks of communication breakdown during a nuclear crisis. Jacobsen mentions a scenario where erroneous reports of a Russian missile hitting Poland led to a breakdown in communication between military leaders. She highlights a critical flaw in the U.S. ICBM system, where missiles must fly over Russia to reach certain targets, raising concerns about misinterpretation and potential conflict escalation.

The Six-Minute Window

In the event of a nuclear attack, the President has only six minutes to make crucial decisions regarding a counterattack. This short timeframe is filled with intense pressure and requires the President to choose targets and issue launch orders. The President's decision-making process is influenced by advisors, but ultimately, the responsibility falls on the President to give the final command.

Jamming the President

There is a concept known as "jamming the president," where military advisors may push for an aggressive counterattack immediately. This pressure from advisors can lead to hasty decisions that may not be in the best interest of national security. The President must navigate these conflicting viewpoints and make a decision that aligns with the country's best interests.

Character of the President

The character of the President plays a significant role in the nuclear decision-making process. A President with strong cognitive abilities, sound judgment, and a commitment to peace is essential in handling the complexities of nuclear war. The President's character influences how they respond to advisors, potential threats, and the overall strategy for dealing with a nuclear attack.

Concerns and Risks

There are various concerns and risks associated with the nuclear command and control system. Cyberattacks, false signals, errors, and security vulnerabilities pose significant threats to the system's integrity. The potential for chaos and confusion in the aftermath of a nuclear attack raises questions about communication channels, decision-making processes, and the overall ability to respond effectively.

Russian Perspective

Jacobsen also delves into the Russian perspective on nuclear weapons and nuclear war. She highlights the shift in Russian nuclear policy, particularly regarding the decision-making process and the willingness to launch a counterattack without waiting to absorb an initial strike. The paranoia and distrust prevalent in Russian leadership, especially under Putin, contribute to the complexities of nuclear diplomacy and strategic decision-making.

Effects of a Nuclear Attack

The devastating effects of a nuclear attack are described in graphic detail, emphasizing the catastrophic consequences for humanity. The destruction caused by a nuclear explosion, including the immediate impact on infrastructure, casualties, and long-term radiation poisoning, paints a grim picture of the aftermath of a nuclear war. The breakdown of societal systems and the fight for survival in a post-apocalyptic world further underscore the horrors of nuclear conflict.

Survival and Fallout

In the aftermath of a nuclear attack, survivors are left to fend for themselves, facing challenges such as scarcity of food and water, radiation exposure, and the breakdown of essential services. The fight for survival becomes a stark reality as individuals grapple with the harsh realities of a post-nuclear world. The scenario paints a bleak picture of the consequences of nuclear war and the challenges of rebuilding society in its aftermath.

Aftermath of a Nuclear War

Jacobsen delves into the potential aftermath of a nuclear war, drawing insights from her conversations with experts like Craig Fugate, the former FEMA director. Fugate emphasized the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear strike, highlighting the lack of population protection in such a scenario. 

Jacobsen delves into the long-term effects of a nuclear war, painting a grim picture of a post-apocalyptic world. She discusses how the Earth would struggle to recover from the devastation caused by nuclear weapons, with ice sheets forming and agriculture failing. The depletion of the ozone layer and the emergence of pathogens and plagues further compound the challenges faced by any surviving humans. The concept of a "great filter" is introduced, suggesting that other alien civilizations may have faced similar challenges and failed to find a solution, leading to their demise.

Human Nature in Extreme Conditions

The discussion shifts to human nature in extreme conditions, with Jacobsen pondering how brutality and survival instincts may manifest in a post-nuclear war world. She reflects on the potential breakdown of societal norms and the rise of violence and desperation as people struggle to survive. She also explores the idea of legacy and what future generations may remember from the devastation caused by a nuclear war. She contemplates the possibility of lessons being forgotten and the cycle of destruction repeating itself if humanity fails to learn from its past mistakes.

Exploring Extrasensory Perception

Jacobsen transitions to a discussion on extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis, drawing from her book "Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis." She delves into the origins of ESP research, which dates back to the aftermath of World War I and the influence of Nazi occult programs. Jacobsen highlights the CIA's interest in ESP and its attempts to harness psychic abilities for intelligence purposes. She explores the concept of the placebo effect and the implications of mind-over-matter phenomena in the realm of espionage and national security.

The Power of Trust in Journalism

As a journalist, Jacobsen reflects on the importance of trust in her work, particularly when interviewing powerful and influential individuals. She emphasizes the willingness to listen and learn from her sources, who often share personal and sensitive information with her. She discusses the conflicting feelings she experiences when delving into the world of intelligence agencies like the CIA, balancing the positive contributions of individuals with the darker aspects of covert operations and espionage.

Area 51 and the U2 Spy Plane

Jacobsen delves into the history of Area 51, a top-secret military facility known for its association with classified aerospace programs. She highlights its origins as a testing ground for the U2 spy plane and the CIA's covert operations during the Cold War. Jacobsen interviewed individuals who worked at Area 51, including pilots who flew reconnaissance missions over China in the 1960s. She uncovers details about the development of advanced spy planes like the U2 and the A12 Oxcart, shedding light on the technological advancements of that era.

Aliens and UFOs at Area 51

Addressing the popular lore surrounding Area 51, Jacobsen discusses the speculation about aliens and UFOs at the facility. She emphasizes her agnostic stance on the existence of extraterrestrial life and shares insights from her interviews with experts in the field. She explores the possibility of strategic deception campaigns by intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, to manipulate public perception regarding UFO sightings. She references historical incidents like the Paul Benowitz case, where disinformation was used to mislead individuals about UFO sightings.

The Roswell Incident and Stalin's Disinformation Campaign

Jacobsen reveals a controversial theory from her book about the Roswell incident, suggesting it was part of a disinformation campaign orchestrated by Stalin to create mass hysteria in the United States. She discloses the source behind this theory, Al O'Donnell, a nuclear weapons engineer with top-secret clearances. O'Donnell's confession about the hoax involving surgically altered individuals in a crashed craft sheds new light on the Roswell mystery. Jacobsen defends the credibility of her source and the plausibility of such covert operations in the context of Cold War espionage.

The President's Third Option and Covert Assassinations

In her book "Surprise, Kill, Vanish," Jacobsen explores the CIA's involvement in covert assassinations as part of the President's third option in national security strategy. She discusses the legal framework under Title 50 that allows for targeted killings and executive actions by the CIA. Jacobsen highlights the historical use of assassination as a tool of statecraft during the Cold War and beyond. She delves into the ethical considerations and moral implications of such operations, drawing on insights from former CIA officials like John Rizzo.

Ethics of Assassination and Geopolitical Strategy

Jacobsen reflects on the ethical dilemmas surrounding assassination as a military tactic and its role in geopolitics. She presents differing perspectives from operators like Billy W, who participated in covert missions involving targeted killings. She emphasizes the complexity of decision-making at the highest levels of power when considering the use of assassination in military operations. She explores the justifications and consequences of such actions, drawing on real-life examples from history and contemporary national security practices.

Assassination Missions

Jacobsen recounts stories of failed assassination missions, including a hypothetical scenario involving the capture of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. She highlights the ruthlessness of Russian assassination programs compared to American operations, emphasizing the historical context of such activities. She also touches on the involvement of women in special operations and their effectiveness in getting closer to targets.

Surveillance Technologies

The conversation shifts to the topic of surveillance, with Jacobsen discussing the evolution of surveillance capabilities over the years. She mentions the use of biometric data and the impact of civilian sector companies collecting vast amounts of personal information. She shares a story about a police chief using facial recognition software to track her movements, illustrating the extent of surveillance in modern society.

Nuclear Warfare

Reflecting on the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, Jacobsen explores the ethical implications and the role of nuclear weapons in ending the war. She considers the possibility of Hitler and Germany developing the bomb first, highlighting the magnitude of power and destruction associated with thermonuclear weapons. She raises questions about the necessity of such weapons and the potential for global deterrence.

Human Civilization and the Future

Jacobsen delves into the concept of human civilization potentially ending in the 21st century, citing the growing power of weapons and the emergence of artificial intelligence in warfare. She expresses optimism about the future of humanity, emphasizing the importance of legacy, family, and passing on knowledge to the next generation. She acknowledges the challenges posed by evolving technologies and the need to reconfigure human tendencies towards conflict.

Multiplanetary Exploration

While discussing the prospect of becoming a multiplanetary species, Jacobsen expresses support for adventure and the idea of establishing civilizations beyond Earth. She reflects on the legacy we leave behind and the belief in human evolution, both in terms of technological advancements and societal progress. She emphasizes the need to address the human inclination towards conflict in the face of rapid technological developments.


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