In December of 1986, the Pentagon, the CIA, FBI, the Department of Energy, and just about every other federal agency you can think of came together in Indianapolis for an enormous training exercise code-named Mighty Derringer. The plan was to simulate a nuclear terrorist incident and explore how every agency would react and whether they would cooperate. To enhance the verisimilitude of the war games, the U.S. government went so far as to record a fake news broadcast about a nuclear bomb exploding in Indianapolis.
Until now, no one outside of the government has seen the video.
Gizmodo obtained the Mighty Derringer footage through a Freedom of Information Act request with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which operates under the Department of Energy.
As you can probably guess from the name, the NNSA’s work is serious business. When the U.S. started to see a sharp rise in terrorist threats in the early 1970s involving nuclear material (or at least claims of nuclear material), the NNSA formed the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, or NEST, in 1974. The team’s mandate was to stand at the ready to deploy a group of experts to anywhere in the country on a moment’s notice in response to threats that mentioned nuclear material. And when large public events happened and nuclear experts were needed just in case, NEST team members were the people who mobilized surveillance vehicles, helicopters, and other special equipment to sweep for anything radioactive.
While the NNSA is still very much an active organization, and while NEST still exists, the words that make up the acronym have changed to the Nuclear Emergency Support Team.
The fake newscast from 1986 is a brief snapshot of how the U.S. government believed a nuclear attack would play out at the tail end of the Cold War. The video opens with a newscaster, “Jeff Schwartz,” explaining that it’s day four of an emergency situation in Indianapolis. It’s unclear is Schwartz is a pseudonym, though that seems extremely likely. Things are clearly not going well for Jeff and viewers of “Channel 9 Eyewitness News” as he tries to keep everyone watching at home calm.
“You know that few details are available, but this much we know,” Schwartz tells the imaginary audience of Americans at home. “A large portion of downtown Indianapolis remains evacuated. Now, reports are sketchy at this point, but we do know that apparently there are terrorists holed up in the downtown part of our city with nuclear devices.”
Shwartz presents the arrival of nuclear experts sent by the federal government to Indianapolis, presumably NEST personnel, as a scoop for Channel 9. The nuclear firefighters are en route to defuse the bombs.
“But we have just learned here at the Channel 9 newsroom that a federal response team has been sent in to neutralize the threat,” the broadcaster says.
Schwartz goes on to explain that it’s unclear how many nuclear devices the terrorists have obtained. He throws the camera to an unseen reporter, Anne Miller, who’s broadcasting from a helicopter over Indianapolis.
“We’ve just passed over the speedway. We’re heading East towards downtown,” Miller says over the loud noise of the helicopter, explaining that traffic is understandably light because of the bomb.
“Is any traffic moving at all?” Schwartz asks in true local news reporter fashion.
“Yes. There are police down there in the streets making sure everyone stays out of town,” Miller says. She also says police are guarding against something “just in case,” though it’s difficult to make out with the poor quality sound mix.
“Just how close can we get to where the terrorists have been holed up?” Schwartz asks.
“The FBI and police have cordoned off the area and they’ve restricted airspace above it,” Miller responds. “We’re headed in that direction now. But we can only....”
Then a bright white dome appears on the ground before the camera and expands until it overwhelms the video of downtown Indianapolis. There’s a buzzing electric noise where Miller’s voice used to be. The camera goes to static.
The feed returns to the TV news studio and Schwartz explains to viewers that they’ve lost contact. Innocently, he expects it’s just a technical error with “chopper nine” and cautions the audience “against over-concern.” But then the news anchor hears a boom and looks up in fright.
“Oh my God,” he says before we lose sight of his own broadcast, and the video ends.
Just who were the imaginary terrorists in the Mighty Derringer scenario? Bad guys from the fake country of Montrev, a stand-in for Mexico, according to historian Jeffrey Richelson, author of the book Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad. The terrorist ringleader even got a name: Gooch.
What happened after the nuclear bomb went off in Indianapolis during this fake storyline? There are a lot of unanswered questions about the exercise that still haven’t been declassified. But we do know real radioactive material was hidden around Indianapolis in order to give the teams something authentic to look for during their exercise, according to Richelson’s research. Not only that, an Energy Department test site was chosen as one of the main locations of the exercise so that actual explosions could be part of the exercises. There’s no indication the explosions were nuclear in nature, especially since above-ground tests stopped in the 1960s, but it’s wild to think about any large explosions being tied to what amounts to government agency play-acting.
While the Mighty Derringer exercise was focused on downtown Indianapolis, the two main planning stations for the drills were just outside the city in Camp Atterbury and in Nevada at Area A-25, a Department of Energy test site, as Richelson explained in a blog post from 2012. A national security expert, he obtained fascinating documents about the Mighty Derringer exercises before he died, though they paint an incomplete picture. You can read them at the National Security Archive. He never did get his hands on this fake newscast used to simulate the nuclear explosion in Indianapolis, though. Or, if he ever did, he never shared it with anyone online.
The Mighty Derringer exercise was a success, based on documents Richelson was able to obtain through FOIA requests. But the documents he did receive still only give us a limited view of the drills all these decades later. There were also plenty of difficulties with coordinating such a large number of government agencies and the “hundreds and hundreds” of people who took part, according to Richelson’s book which quotes former NEST official Alan Mode.
We do, however, have an official look at what Indianapolis under nuclear attack might look like, thanks to a fake newscast produced by the U.S. government and the Freedom of Information Act. This imaginary scenario from 1986 might begin to feel a little too fresh for comfort if the U.S. and Russia don’t cool tensions quickly over the war in Ukraine. Given President Joe Biden’s latest comments about regime change in Russia and President Vladimir Putin’s cryptic threats about going nuclear, we might need to rely on expertise of NEST and the lessons learned from Mighty Derringer sooner rather than later.