Imagine, if you will, two Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) special agents on the rooftop of a tall building in downtown Los Angeles, furiously attempting to defuse a sinister looking device.
One of the NCIS agents named Callan shouts to his partner, “It is less than a minute.”
Over their radio they hear the tech operator who is remotely aiding their efforts to defuse the device urgently warn them, “Guys, you’re not going to make it.”
“What are you doing?,” Callan asks his partner, Sam Hanna, as Hanna reaches for a container with wisps of white vapor coming out of it.
“Using the liquid nitrogen. I’m going to make sure this thing blows before it can trigger.”
As Hanna pours the liquid nitrogen into a crack in the device, Callan looks at him and says, “We’re going to have to go to Plan B.”
“I hate Plan B,” Hanna replies with distaste.
Well, what is Plan B? I’m afraid you’re going to have to watch the highly-rated NCIS Los Angeles television episode titled “Higher Power” that aired the 13th of December of last year on CBS. In the episode, the fictional NCIS team must locate a microwave E-bomb which “... has the power to destroy Los Angeles that was stolen from a college research facility.”
There were a couple of items about this particular NCIS LA episode that caught my eye as I watched it. The first was the use of an E-bomb as a plot device, especially given the then concurrent controversial news coverage surrounding the threat of nuclear device generated electromagnetic pulses (EMP). The subject has long been a favorite issue of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, with some calling the threat as depicted by Gingrich over-hyped.
The episode also made me wonder about whether the depiction of the E-bomb was indeed realistic, i.e., how much realism was being sacrificed (or substituted) for dramatic effect?
Finally, I was curious about whether one could actually build an E-bomb as shown in the episode, and would the threat posed be similar to that depicted in the episode? My plan was to do a little Web surfacing over the next couple of days to see what I could dig up.
I never got around to my Web search, for by a fortuitous coincidence, the day after I watched the episode I received an email from Dr. Carlo Kopp, Associate Fellow AIAA, Senior Member IEEE, PEng and assistant professor at the Clayton School of Information Technology at Monash University, in Clayton, Australia. Dr. Kopp told me that he served as a scientific advisor in the planning and production of the episode, which was based in large part on his pioneering work on E-bombs (pdf). He asked if I’d be interested in chatting with him about it.
A few days later we had a nice 90-minute chat about E-bombs (see Kopps FAQs about E-bombs here), what it was like being a technical advisor (albeit unpaid) to the show’s episode, and how realistic was the show’s depiction of an E-bomb and its potential effects.
First, Kopp told me that it was mere luck that the show was aired about the same time of the Newt Gingrich EMP flap, a fact confirmed by the episode’s scriptwriter, Joe Sachs (more about him later). Mr. Sachs approached Kopp with the idea of using an E-bomb in the episode months before. He came up with the idea of using an E-bomb because it was new, fresh and different from the usual sources of death and destruction that the show’s characters had been battling the previous 50 episodes.
For his part, Kopp was “...very pleased with the final product, which is in most key respects far more accurate than any of the television documentaries I have seen in this area.” It wasn’t perfect, he said, as “... some of the jargon got modified during production...” to make it understandable to the TV audience. In addition, the use of liquid nitrogen as depicted in the climax was a case of drama winning over the facts.
That said Kopp told me that, “... the important key issues were captured very nicely in a format people outside our community can mostly digest, especially the real risks with cascading failures across interdependent [digital] systems.”
Kopp has long expressed concern that, “... despite the enormous risks we are now carrying with a pervasive digital infrastructure, and the ease with which [an E-bomb built using] 1950s technology can wreck it, there is an astonishing level of either disbelief or plain indifference out there.”
I invited Kopp to do a blog post on his thoughts in this regard, which can be found here.
Kopp went on to tell me that he hopes—but is not expecting—that the NCIS Los Angeles show creates a bit of momentum for a reassessment of the E-bomb threat by governmental policy makers. The operational risks of an E-bomb detonation has not been researched very deeply, especially given the proliferation and routine use of commercial digital devices by the military, first responders and local law enforcement, let alone the commercial and private sectors, over the past 15 years.
Kopp was kind enough to introduce me to the episode’s scriptwriter, Joe Sachs, for his perspective on the episode. I was keen to talk to him about the realism-drama tradeoff, which led to a discussion of how TV shows can indeed influence public policy.
What I didn’t realize that Joe Sachs is really Dr. Joe Sachs, MD, FACEP, an attending physician in the emergency department at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Northridge, California. He was an executive producer (and longtime writer) for the long-running, award winning, and enormously popular show ER. He graduated from Stanford University with a medical degree plus a master’s degree in filmmaking.
Sachs emphasized that as a writer he strives to tell “a story right and accurately,” which if done well, can sometimes impact public policy as many of the episodes from ER did. In the case of the NCIS LA episode, Sachs took the time to read Kopp’s papers on E-bombs, and then, according to Kopp, he asked detailed and insightful questions about how E-bombs worked and what they could potentially do if detonated. Sachs and Kopp also spent time working through the dialogue to ensure that the terms used and explanations given were technically sound.
When there is a conflict between the dramatic telling of the story and technical accuracy, Sachs said that in terms of dramatic license he may have to “bend the rules, but we try not to break them.” For instance, although the NCIS LA episode was about an E-bomb, you’ll never hear the term mentioned. It turns out some in the episode’s production team didn’t want to use the term “bomb” because it could cause audience confusion since an E-bomb doesn’t explode in the convention meaning of the word. So, the term “E-bomb” was changed to EMD, or electronic magnetic device, instead.
And as Kopp’s earlier comment hinted at, the only place in the episode where a technical rule was clearly broken was when the liquid nitrogen was poured into the EMD by Agent Sam Hanna and it was implied that his doing so would reduce the effectiveness of the E-bomb. In reality, it would have had no effect. However, As Kopp pointed out, it is doubtful that the general public noticed or even the few in the know cared.
Kopp told me that the whole experience was “quite good fun” and was pleased he got a credit line at the end of the show for his assistance, something that Sachs fought hard for him to get.
As I mentioned earlier, Kopp is hoping that the episode has some of the same impact on policy maker thinking about E-bombs as many of Sachs’ ER episodes had and still have on public health. Time will tell, but I encourage you to watch the episode. If nothing else, it is highly entertaining and “quite good fun.”
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.