While there have been several close calls during the cold war, the one in 1983 was actually far worse. And no one knew about it.
From a TV documentary I watched.
According to a review of classified documents, in 1983 a young man named David Lightman was using his computer and modem to locate the telephonic backdoor access points of computer game designers. He eventually stumbled upon a link to a highly classified Department of Defense NORAD computer system called the War Operations Planned Response, or W.O.P.R for short.
Agency investigators and the FBI discovered the intrusion, but not before Lightman had triggered a war simulation game called “Global Thermonuclear War” – a simulation designed to test readiness preparedness of the nations nuclear response. Under normal circumstances, the simulation is coordinated with other major commands to test operational readiness across multiple theaters of operation.
The system was developed by mathematician and theoretical physics scientist, Dr. Stephen Faulken. An early version of computer artificial intelligence (AI), the software program was designed to predict responses and recommend courses of actions based on possible enemy actions. Faulken was listed as deceased several years prior to the incident.
The documents also revealed that no one at the time knew the program was actually running. Over a 24 hour period, the W.O.P.R began running escalation simulations of Soviet activities which prompted actual responses from the military. In one instance, F-15 fighters were scrambled over Alaskan airspace to intercept Soviet bombers. The intercepting pilots reported no contacts despite insistence of NORAD operators looking at radar images.
At one point, the DEFCON level, known as Defense Readiness Condition, had been raised to 1, its highest alert level for over an hour, prompting military bases around the world to begin war preparations. While at the highest alert level, the simulation reported that the Soviet Union had launched a first wave of ICBMs.
It is unclear as to why the military did not issue a launch order. When the W.O.P.R. did not record the launch command, the system attempted to communicate to the missile silos via a new automation network installed US based silos. The network was built in response to earlier simulation exercises that showed more than half of the silo commanders might refuse a valid launch order.
However, the W.O.P.R. could not launch the missiles because it did not have the programmed codes. According to witness reports in the documents, the W.O.P.R. attempted to break the codes by running random number sequences through the launch computers. Two personnel, both of their names were redacted, stated a young computer hacker had been brought in to get the computer to stop.
In the span of 10 minutes, the computer simulation had shut down. The reports redact the name of the game used to get W.O.P.R. to stand down, but some witness accounts said command personnel ordered it to play “Tic Tac Toe”. Interviews with higher ranking officials rejected the claim as preposterous.
The military has publicly denied the incident actually took place.
“The US Strategic Command regularly trains using simulations. Military bases that were participating during the exercise in question are often brought to the highest alert level to help better train military personnel in wartime activities.”
It should be noted that a line item in the following year’s Defense Budget was for modification of the “missile silo automated launch configuration” of over 300 missile silos at a price of $38.6 million. Sources speaking on condition of anonymity say it was to remove the computer link to the NORAD command center.
David Lightman was never prosecuted. It has been speculated that he might have been the person who disarmed the W.O.P.R., but the FBI says that Lightman was questioned and later released for unrelated computer activities. They would not comment if they were involved with the incident, but also didn’t deny the incident took place.