Trump Era Sparks Nuke Authority Debate 11/20 06:23
WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's hard to overstate how thoroughly the U.S. military
has prepared for doomsday --- the day America gets into a nuclear shooting war.
No detail seems to have been overlooked. There's even a designated "safe
escape" door at the nuclear-warfighting headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska,
through which the four-star commander would rush to a getaway plane moments
before the first bomb hit.
Procedures are in place for ensuring U.S. nuclear weapons are ready for a
presidential launch order in response to --- or in anticipation of --- a
nuclear attack by North Korea or anyone else. There are backup procedures and
backups for the backups.
And yet fundamental aspects of this nightmare sequence remain a mystery.
For example, what would happen if an American president ordered a nuclear
strike, for whatever reason, and the four-star general at Strategic Command
balked or refused, believing it to be illegal?
Robert Kehler, a retired general who once led that command, was asked this
at a congressional hearing last week. His response: "You'd be in a very
interesting constitutional situation."
By interesting, he seemed to mean puzzling.
Brian McKeon, a senior policy adviser in the Pentagon during the Obama
administration, said a president's first recourse would be to tell the defense
secretary to order the reluctant commander to execute the launch order.
"And then, if the commander still resisted," McKeon said as rubbed his chin,
"you either get a new secretary of defense or get a new commander." The
implication is that one way or another, the commander in chief would not be
The current head of Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, said Saturday at the
Halifax International Security Forum in Canada that he would refuse a launch
order from a president if he believed that order to be illegal. Hyten also
predicted that the president would then ask him for options that Hyten judged
to be legal.
Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer and co-founder of the
Global Zero group that advocates eliminating nuclear weapons, said the Kehler
scenario misses a more important point: The Strategic Command chief might, in
effect, be bypassed by the president.
A president can transmit his nuclear attack order directly to a Pentagon war
room, Blair said. From there it would go to the men and women who would turn
the launch keys.
The renewed attention on these questions reflects unease --- justified or
not --- about President Donald Trump's temperament and whether he would act
impulsively in a crisis.
This past week's Senate hearing was the first in Congress on presidential
authority to use nuclear weapons since 1976, when a Democratic congressman from
New York, Richard L. Ottinger, pushed for the U.S. to declare it would never
initiate a nuclear war. Ottinger said he wanted to "eliminate the prospect that
human ignorance and potential human failure in the use of nuclear materials,
especially nuclear weapons, will lead to the destruction of civilization."
Forty-one years later, the U.S. hasn't ruled out first-strike nuclear
options and is unlikely to do so during Trump's tenure. This troubles experts
who worry about a president with the sole --- some say unchecked --- authority
to initiate nuclear war.
"We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is
so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might
order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national
security interests," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said at the outset of
last week's hearing.
The committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he was not targeting
Trump. But he, too, has publicly questioned whether Trump's aggressive rhetoric
toward North Korea and other countries could lead the U.S. into a world war. In
the end, Corker's hearing produced little impetus for legislation to alter the
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, saw politics at play.
"But I think it's a genuinely important subject, and I think it's one we
should be debating irrespective of who the president is," he said.
Acton said a president rightly has unchecked authority to use nuclear
weapons in response to an actual or imminent nuclear attack. In his view, the
president should otherwise be required to consult in advance with the
secretaries of state and defense, and the attorney general, and get approval
from two of the three before acting.
Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School, says changes of this
sort would put a valuable check on the president and protect his nuclear
authority from potential military insubordination.
Waxman and Richard Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and
Peace Studies at Columbia University, have a proposal: To order a nuclear first
strike, the president would first have to get "certification" from the
secretary of defense that the order is valid and authentic, and from the
attorney general that it is legal.
These added safeguards wouldn't risk delaying a response to an enemy attack
in progress, Betts said. They would apply "only in situations where the United
States is considering starting the nuclear war."