WarGames

An Oral History of How the Movie ‘WarGames’ Inspired Ronald Reagan’s Cybersecurity Policies

From the movie’s writers to the people who were in the room with Reagan when he watched it, here’s why you can thank Matthew Broderick for the lack of accidental nuclear wars

“Could something like this really happen?” 

This was the question posed by President Ronald Reagan on June 8, 1983, to a room full of cabinet members and congressmen in the White House. As author Fred Kaplan explains in his book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, Reagan had recently viewed the movie WarGames and “he couldn’t get that movie out of his mind. At one point, he put down his index cards and asked if anyone had seen it. Nobody had… so he launched into a detailed summary of its plot.”

As Reagan recounted the film, the room full of defense experts sat uncomfortably, suppressing smirks, as the leader of the free world described to them the plot of a Matthew Broderick movie about a teenager who hacks into NORAD, thinking it’s a computer game, nearly kicking off World War III. At the conclusion of his synopsis, Reagan turned to General John Vessey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and asked if such a thing were possible. Unsure, Vessey promised to look into it.

A week later, when Vessey returned, Reagan got his answer. Vessey said, “Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.”

WarGames

While the film would be directed by Saturday Night Fever director John Badham, WarGames began as a screenplay by writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, who did a surprising amount of research for their sci-fi thriller.

Lawrence Lasker, screenwriter of WarGames: I saw a documentary on TV about Stephen Hawking and I was fascinated by the idea that one day, he might find the solution to the unified field theory and not be able to express it. That suggested to me that he needed a protege or someone who could read his mind, as it were. That suggested an interesting character to me, a juvenile-delinquent-type whose problem was that he was just too damn smart. 

Later on, when I’d moved back out to California — where I grew up — I met with my friend Walter Parkes, who I’d roomed with at Yale and who had been Oscar-nominated for his documentary California Reich, about the American Nazi party. Parkes had asked me what I was working on, I told him, and he said that he himself was toying with an idea of a smart kid, juvenile-delinquent-type, so we decided to write and produce it together.

We got an agent attached, and we explained that we were going to produce it ourselves and do some research on the subject to be sure it had a degree of accuracy. I lived very close to the RAND Corporation, and I started haunting their library and eventually met a wonderful man named Willis Ware, a computer scientist who was the first person to warn of the dangers of the internet. Ware became an advisor on the film, and he was the kind of advisor you want because you’d ask him a question, and he’d come back with a solution. So he’d say, “Sure, you could hook into NORAD. They say that their computer systems are invulnerable and not in contact with the outside world, but that’s a load of malarkey. A lot of these guys will leave an open door so that they can work from home over the weekend.”

Then I made friends with a guy who was a member of the UCLA computer club named David Scott Lewis. He also became an advisor on the film, and some of what Broderick’s character, David Lightman, does in the movie is based on what Lewis did in real life with computers.

David Scott Lewis, hacker: I’ve always been interested in technology. When Popular Electronics had the first PC on its cover in 1975, that was a big moment for me. I started hacking when I was a teenager — I did a lot of “war dialing,” where you used the computer to randomly dial numbers to search for a computer to hack. 

I met Larry Lasker and Walter Parkes around the time of the whole Reagan/Star Wars thing, so I was hoping that they’d do a story about a space-based defense shield. But after getting to know me a bit, what they basically came back with was having David Lightman modeled on me in many ways. It wasn’t just me, but it was mostly me as it was based upon what I’d done. 

I can’t say exactly what I’d been involved with back then, but I’ll say that it was more “white hat” than “black hat.” I don’t like to say testing, because that’s too basic, but I can say it was basically acting as security, on contract. People knew what I was doing — I was told to do it and given free range to play, basically. It’s similar to WarGames, but people knew what I was up to and they wanted me to do this. This kind of thing is more common nowadays — penetration testing is very common now, but back then it was unheard of. 

Lasker: Another invaluable advisor on the film was Duncan Wilmore, the Lieutenant Colonel who was in charge of the public information office for the Air Force. I kept bugging him to get us on a tour of NORAD and he finally agreed to let us piggyback on a tour with some VIPs. We went to NORAD at the Air Force base at Colorado Springs, and we had the tour of the crystal palace, which wasn’t anywhere near as exciting as the war room in WarGames.

At the end of the tour, Parkes and I felt two hands on our shoulders and a voice says, “Boys, I understand you’re writing a movie about me!” It was General James Hartinger [the inspiration for the character General Jack Beringer] who was in charge at the base. Looking to the tour group, Walter says to the general, “But, we’ve got to get back to our hotel,” and the general looks at Walter like he’s a complete idiot and says, “Young man, I’ve got 50,000 men at my command, I think I can get you back to the hotel.” 

He invited us for a drink, and we got to talking. He loved the message that we were putting in the movie, which was “don’t get humans out of the loop” when it comes to nuclear weaponry. Hartinger was saying, “The DOD is always trying to get me to speed things up and get humans out of the loop so we can move faster. There have been some false alarms — I sleep well at night knowing that I’m in charge.”

In addition to NORAD, we also did a tour of the Palo Alto research center and later met with a futurist group. And then we found out from Walter’s partner from California Reich, Keith Critchlow, that computers were hooked up over phone lines. We had no idea, and that’s what made it click, that was how our character would get into this other world, over the phone lines. So all of that — most of which happened back in 1979 — went on to inform WarGames, which would eventually be released on June 3, 1983.

Ronald Reagan and the Camp David Movie Nights

Before entering the White House, our 40th president was an actor in Hollywood. While he’d left acting behind in the 1960s to become president of the Screen Actors Guild and later the Governor of California, film continued to be an important part of Reagan’s life. While in the White House, he often received prints of new movies that he’d watch at Camp David — among them was 1983’s WarGames

Lasker: When I was growing up, the Reagans were frequent guests at my parents’ Saturday night dinner parties — my mom was actress Jane Greer and my dad was Edward Lasker, a businessman and film producer. As a kid, my job was to greet the guests as they entered and to pass the hors d’oeuvres around. Years later, Reagan had given a speech at Yale in my senior year, and I approached Mrs. Reagan afterwards. She was excited to see me, and she called out, “Ronnie, Ronnie! It’s Lawrence Lasker!” He came over and asked how my parents were and then we left together so I could give them a tour of the campus. It was especially funny because here I was, this bearded, long-haired kid in a bomber jacket talking to the Reagans in a room full of young conservatives in their tweed jackets, wondering who I was.

Ten years later, WarGames was about to open and I’m on the Santa Monica freeway and I see this motorcade. Then I see First Lady Nancy Reagan, and she sees me. I make the sign for “I’m going to call you,” and she said okay. The next day I called her office, and I arranged for them to screen the movie at Camp David. President Reagan loved the Saturday night movies at our place years ago, and I guess he’d kept that tradition going.

Mark Weinberg, former assistant White House press secretary and author of Movie Nights With the Reagans: A Memoir: From their first weekend at Camp David onward, the Reagans invited a small group of staffers to join them in their aspen lodge to watch a movie in the living room on Friday and Saturday nights. At the time, I was the assistant press secretary to the president, so I was present for most of those movie nights. 

Reagan’s relationship to the movie business was twofold. He’d had an extensive career in film and made over 50 pictures — many are quite well-known. The movie business is also where he met Mrs. Reagan and where their relationship developed. It was an important part of his life and he wrote about it extensively. He was very fond of his days there, particularly of his days at Warner Bros. The other aspect of his relationship with movies was as a movie watcher. He watched movies on a regular basis and found them very entertaining.

On Saturday, June 4, 1983, myself and other staffers were with the Reagans when they viewed WarGames at Camp David. I remember there was one part in the movie where the general said, “Get me the president!” so everyone in the room turned and looked at the phone next to the coffee table where the president and Mrs. Reagan were sitting, half expecting it to ring. 

There was also a part in the movie where the Matthew Broderick character used a ring top from a soda can to activate a payphone. That was a funny scene. 

Overall, I remember it being a very sobering movie. At the time, the president was in the midst of discussions with the Soviets about ways to reduce the threat that nuclear weapons posed, and here was this picture that identified yet another reason why nuclear weapons were bad. It asked the question, “What if all of the protocols in place didn’t work?” and it made clear that there was still the potential of great harm that could be caused accidentally. 

When it was over, everybody was kind of quiet and waiting for somebody to speak first. It was Mrs. Reagan who broke the silence. She said, “Could that really happen?” referring, of course, to the plot of the film and how a computer malfunction nearly led to a nuclear disaster. No one responded until the president’s personal physician, Dr. Ruge, spoke up and said, “Yes, it could happen. I’ve done it,” at which point everyone looked at him and couldn’t understand what he meant. Then he continued, “I’ve used a ring top to activate a payphone,” and that amused everybody.

We do know the movie weighed on the president’s mind a bit, as he later brought it up with a group of congressmen in the White House. I’d say it reinforced the president’s commitment to ridding the world of the threat that nuclear weapons posed. 

“Could Something Like This Really Happen?” 

On the Wednesday after the WarGames viewing, Reagan posed his question to the room full of congressmen and intelligence officers, but he specifically looked to John Vessey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. As previously mentioned, while no one in the room seemed to take the question that seriously — especially since Reagan’s lampooned “Star Wars” speech had been given just a few months earlier — Vessey promised to look into the question and get the president an answer.

Fred Kaplan, excerpt from Dark Territory: When General Jack Vessey came back from that White House meeting after Ronald Reagan had watched WarGames and asked his aides to find out whether someone could hack into the military’s most sensitive computers, it was only natural that his staff would forward the question to Don Latham [formerly of the NSA and, in 1983, the current assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence]. It didn’t take long for Latham to send back a response, the same response that Vessey would deliver to the president: “Yes, the problem is much worse than you think.”

Reagan’s question set off a string of interagency memos, working groups, studies and meetings, which culminated, 15 months later, in a confidential national security decision directive, NSDD-145, signed September 17, 1984, titled “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security.” 

It was a prescient document. The first laptop computers had barely hit the market, the first public internet providers wouldn’t come online for another few years. Yet the authors of NSDD-145 noted that these new devices — which government agencies and high-tech industries had started buying at a rapid clip — were “highly susceptible to interception, unauthorized electronic access and related forms of technical exploitation.” Hostile foreign intelligence agencies were “extensively” hacking into these services already, and “terrorist groups and criminal elements” had the ability to do so as well. This sequence of events — Reagan’s oddball question to General Vessey followed by a pathbreaking policy document — marked the first time that an American president, or a White House directive, discussed what would come to be called “cyber warfare.”

Kevin Bankston, a lawyer specializing in technology privacy and former director of New America’s Open Technology Institute: Two strands of policy-making happened in direct response to WarGames. The first was the issuance of NSDD-145, which stated that they were going to create a committee called the National Telecommunications and Information Systems Security Committee, which would be responsible for making sure these systems are secure and reliable.

Kaplan, excerpt from Dark Territory: Latham was put in charge of [drafting] NSDD-145. He knew the various ways that the NSA — and, among all federal agencies, only the NSA — couldn’t only hack but also secure telecommunications and computers. So in his draft, he put the NSA in charge of all their security…

It was an ambitious agenda, too ambitious for some. Congressman Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat and Capitol Hill’s leading civil-liberties advocate, wasn’t about to let the NSA — which was limited, by charter, to surveillance of foreigners — play any role in the daily lives of Americans. He wrote, and his fellow lawmakers passed, a bill that revised the president’s directive and denied the agency any such power. Had Don Latham’s language been left standing, the security standards and compliance of every computer in America — government, business and personal — would have been placed under the tireless gaze of the NSA.

Bankston: Aside from NSDD-145, the second stream policy-making occurred the next year, in 1984. Multiple anti-hacking bills were introduced in Congress as part of a comprehensive crime bill. WarGames was a critical part of the dialogue and, in fact, clips from WarGames were screened in key committee meeting hearings. It was even described as a realistic depiction of the kind of threat that they were legislating to address. These hacking provisions were the first federal anti-hacking laws ever, and they ultimately were the predecessor to 1986’s comprehensive computer fraud and abuse act, which is still our primary federal law on the subject.

Lewis: To me, the computer fraud and abuse act is something of a joke. Maybe that’s the direct legacy of WarGames, but I think the bigger legacy of WarGames is that both sides — the Americans and the Russians — took their systems more offline. Prior to WarGames, there were enough connected online that weapons could be hacked, but after the provisions were put in place after Reagan saw WarGames, more humans were put in the loop. That’s the true legacy of WarGames — it made the world safer.

The Science-Fiction Feedback Loop

While WarGames is likely the most direct example of a science-fiction film changing the way people — particularly the government — thought about an important issue, it’s just one example of what some have called “The Science-Fiction Feedback Loop,” where real science informs science fiction, and then that science fiction goes on to inform and inspire real science.

Bankston: There are a lot of people — including myself — who do what they do in part because of science fiction that influenced them. Science fiction has inspired real developments; for example, the inventors of the first cell phone were inspired by the communicators on Star Trek. Arthur C. Clarke, the writer of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was one of the first people to come up with the idea of communication satellites.

In 2018, I was asked to write a piece for Future Tense about my favorite movie, and I really wanted to talk about WarGames because it’s the one movie I can think of that’s had the most direct influence on any technology policy issue. The funny thing is, back when the screenwriters of WarGames were writing the movie, they consulted a computer scientist named Willis Ware who had designed some of the systems at NORAD, and for years, Willis Ware had been warning the Department of Defense that computer intrusion was an issue, but they ignored him. Then, it gets back to the DoD indirectly through Reagan, because he watched WarGames. They then made a new policy to address what this guy had been talking about for years. So it turned out that making a Hollywood movie was a more potent way of escalating the issue.

I’m not the only one who’s spoken about this either. There’s a social scientist named David Kirby who has done a lot of work studying what he calls “The WarGames Effect,” which relates to how science consultants have used movies to popularize an issue, which later informed policy discourse.

David A. Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema: I first got the idea for what I’ve dubbed “The WarGames Effect” from a film theorist named Joel Black, who cited WarGames as an example of how filmmakers can scare people into action in reality. For my book, Lab Coats in Hollywood, I wanted to look into the scientists working on these movies, and through that, I found that many of those scientists are working on movies with the intent of scaring the public into providing financial, political or scientific support for scientific causes. 

A good example of this, considering coronavirus is in the news, is the movie Contagion, where people from the CDC, primarily a guy named Ian Lipkin, worked on the film with the intent of waking people up. I also talked to the people who were consulted on the movie Outbreak, which did a similar thing back in 1995. Additionally, the scientists who were advisors on Deep Impact and Armageddon were looking to reduce the “giggle factor” that people had about the idea of an asteroid hitting Earth, which people weren’t taking seriously before 1998. But afterwards, since it was taken seriously in a movie, the idea is now taken more seriously and even brought about public hearings concerning “near Earth objects.”

Basically, I like to describe “The WarGames Effect” as like the Ghost of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol. These scientists are presenting a scary vision of the future, but it also tells them that they have the power to prevent this future from happening. They’re saying, “Pay attention to this issue and take it seriously.” Which is what happened with WarGames and some also say The Day After, which supposedly got Reagan thinking about more nuclear controls. 

Bankston: What’s interesting about Reagan too is that WarGames wasn’t the only sci-fi film that influenced him. Reagan was a huge science-fiction fan, and he grew up on, amongst other things, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books. He was also directly inspired by sci-fi writers like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in the formulation of the concept for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” which was this idea of a system of missiles, lasers and satellites that could blow Soviet missiles out of the sky before they hit the U S. The idea was far ahead of where the technology was then — and even where it is now — and it was widely dismissed as crazy, yet the Reagan administration spent untold billions of dollars on it. Some even believe that the Star Wars idea came from these giant domes in the John Carter of Mars books, and that this was a Cold War era version of that.

Weinberg: There are those who have suggested that movies influenced President Reagan’s policies with regard to the Soviet Union and his efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and that’s just not true. Ronald Reagan saw movies essentially to be entertained, not to have his thinking changed or to have a life-altering experience. He wanted to enjoy a movie on a Friday or Saturday night, and there wasn’t much more to it than that. Now, he did think about WarGames a bit afterwards, as he mentioned it to the congressmen later on, but President Reagan’s opinions about the dangers that nuclear weapons posed and the relationship that the United States should have with the Soviet Union was formed well before any of the movies that we saw at Camp David came out. 

The Ongoing Legacy of WarGames

While the National Telecommunications and Information Systems Security Committee was never formed thanks to privacy concerns, and the legislation that resulted from WarGames is now over 30 years old, the film continues to have an impact, both among science-fiction fans and those who handle our present cybersecurity.

Bankston: WarGames was the first popular depiction of what we now recognize as the common archetype of the hacker — both for better and for worse. That image of the loner, young male in a hoodie who’s breaking into stuff began back with WarGames and has carried through to today with the likes of Mr. Robot. And while in some ways this is accurate, it also perpetuates a negative stereotype in a number of ways. For example, many “hackers” don’t break the law, as hacking is a very general term. And while it’s a male-dominated industry, there are plenty of female computer experts. There are also plenty of hackers who are well-adjusted and don’t wear hoodies all the time. 

Lewis: WarGames also inspired DEF CON, which is an annual conference for hackers and IT people that thousands of people attend every year. They even show WarGames there every couple of years or so and people bring their kids to see this movie now.

Bankston: The most important thing about WarGames is that it kicked off a debate that’s still happening today around cybersecurity and our own privacy. To some extent, computer security isn’t a solvable problem. It’s a continuing problem and it’s been a problem now for many decades, and what role the NSA should play in our domestic privacy is still a matter of debate. WarGames was also the beginning of the policy story about nations hacking each other, which of course is still happening now. While these issues had existed prior to 1983, they only began talking about them at the highest levels of government because Reagan decided to watch WarGames at Camp David. 

In fact, I’d say that no single text, movie or anything has had a more direct impact on cybersecurity policy in the U.S. than WarGames