The President while the Bomb, Part III

Here is the third blog post i have written regarding the concern of presidential nuclear authority. When you yourself have unresolved questions, or feel i am using several things for awarded, you could first browse Part I (in which We introduce the issue) and Part II (where I handle several common objections), for those who haven’t already seen them.

One of the several projects I’ve been focusing on the previous many months has, eventually, come to fruition. Way back in late November 2016, i obtained in touch with my friends at NPR’s Radiolab, Latif Nasser and Robert Krulwich, following I’d my Washington Post piece on the question of presidential nuclear weapons authority. The Last product is currently out, as podcast given this is the title of “Nukes”:

Radiolab Nukes

If you’re having difficulty using the Radiolab website to get it (while the podcast begins after having a 5 moment promotion for the next podcast), you’ll download the trimmed MP3 right here.

Radiolab, as numerous of you probably understand, is a show about technology and many other things. The pitches they like have a tendency to revolve around interesting people who, usually, have to be alive become helpful at radio. (and thus, their concerns in many cases are very different from those of historians, whom choose to traffic inside dead.) Latif and I have been friends for some time now (we had been in graduate college together), and also bounced some ideas around for quite some time, and he has pressed me personally before discover “living specimens” for the nuclear age that illuminate interesting concerns.

One of many situations we pointed out in my own Post piece ended up being Harold Hering, the Major who was simply kicked out from the Air Force for asking a “dangerous concern” while training to be a Missile release Officer at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Hering had asked, essentially, exactly how could he, in his Minuteman missile bunker, understand that an order to launch he received from the President have been a appropriate, considered, and sane one? (And if you need to know precisely exactly what Harold asked, pay attention to the podcast, in which we worked to ensure we actually could nail this straight down as most readily useful we could, four years after the reality.) The truth that their determination in asking this question, and their not enough satisfaction using the responses, got him drummed out of the solution had been, I thought, and interesting comment on the nature of just what “reliability” means inside context of nuclear weapons personnel. I had gotten enthusiastic about Harold’s tale as it had been discussed in Congressional testimony from 1976, during the only severe hearings that Congress had on this matter, and there clearly was articles from Parade magazine about him appended towards the hearings.

It had happened to me that while Harold ended up being likely quite old, he had been most likely still alive. We thought it could be worth seeing easily could track him down, and to see if he’d be possibly prepared to speak about their experiences with me, also to be recorded the radio. In tracking him down, We thought I might must use most of my Internet-searching, archive-crawling, database-accessing abilities. A look into Ancestry.com’s documents managed to make it clear he was created in Indianapolis, and aided me personally pin down their precise age. A good start, we thought, but with seniors particularly it could be quite difficult getting beyond that, because they are frequently not very wired in to the modern world.

On a whim, however, before actually starting the heavy-duty work, I would personally place their name into Facebook. Sure enough, there he was: the right age, the right place (still staying in Indianapolis), plus Facebook profile picture of him as an USAF officer in 1970s. A great deal for my researching abilities.

I got in contact with Harold, got in touch with Latif and Robert, and thus started our multi-month means of investigating, interviewing, and digging. There have been a few conditions that we thought works best for the Radiolab format: the nuclear string of demand, the tensions between automation and human judgment, the question of exactly how one might “remedy” the current situation (assuming one thought it absolutely was well worth remedying, that we do).

one of the most dramatic sections of Hering's 1973 journal — where in fact the concern he asked got finally translated as a disqualification, delivered before his household. "A more

One of the most dramatic sections of Hering’s 1973 journal — where in fact the concern he asked got finally translated as a disqualification, delivered before his family. “A more false statement has yet to be made,” writes Herald.

We sat in for a amount of the interviews, and offered many additional research. I’ve caused Radiolab in the past, but never quite this close. It was enjoyable. In the act, i got eventually to talk and match a bit with not just Harold — that has been a complete joy, because was the truth that he previously held a log of their troubles within the 1970s, and was prepared to offer it to us — but additionally with scholar and former missileer Bruce Blair, US Representative Ted Lieu, additionally the estimable William J. Perry, the former Secretary of Defense.

We additionally attempted to observe how far i possibly could dig right into a some of the lingering concerns that had kept approaching after my other pieces. One that i must say i wished i really could nail down more, what exactly is the nuclear string of command? Exactly how many folks are in between the President additionally the real utilization of nuclear weapons? In which exactly is the “jump” involving the “political” wing of this US government (e.g., the Executive Branch) while the “military” wing which actually implements your order?

This is a place in which individuals still had pushed me personally after my Post piece. How much could one actually state about such things, as somebody without having a approval? And on exactly what evidentiary grounds could one say it?

"1st Lt. Pamela Blanco-Coca, 319th Missile Squadron missile combat team commander, and her deputy commander, 2nd Lt. John Anderson, simulate key turns of the Minuteman III Weapon System Feb. 9, 2016, in a launch control center inside F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., missile complex. Whenever directed by the U.S. President an adequately carried out key turn sends a 'launch vote' to virtually any wide range of Minuteman III ICBMs in a missileer's squadron, with two different launch votes allowing a launch. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Wiese)"

The “farthest end” of this chain of demand: “1st Lt. Pamela Blanco-Coca, 319th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, and the woman deputy commander, second Lt. John Anderson, simulate key turns of Minuteman III Weapon System Feb. 9, 2016, in a launch control center within the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., missile complex. Whenever directed by the U.S. President a properly carried out key turn delivers a ‘launch vote’ to virtually any wide range of Minuteman III ICBMs in a missileer’s squadron, with two different launch votes allowing a launch. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Wiese)”

Blair has insisted (in e-mail if you ask me, as well as in our meeting) your entire “could the Secretary of Defense refuse an order” concern was a red herring. The Secretary of Defense, he insisted, was entirely dispensable with regards to the deployment of nuclear weapons. As I noted in my Post piece, there are many descriptions associated with the nuclear chain of demand that imply the Secretary of Defense is necessary, because the “conduit” (my term) involving the political and army globes. It is it true? Blair emphatically said no — but we never ever felt completely comfortable just taking their word because of it. It’s not that We doubted Blair’s sincerity, or their long reputation for research and experience using this subject (besides being a missileer himself, he also invested years researching command and control questions), but I’m a historian, i’d like a document to point to! Collecting good citations is really what historians do.

What’s tricky, here, is there are clear circumstances where in actuality the Secretary of Defense’s work is defined as translating a presidential order as a army outcome. And there are places within the descriptions of various the different parts of the US nuclear demand and control company where in fact the uppermost governmental “unit” may be the nationwide Command Authorities, which will be thought as the President and Secretary of Defense. Which has led a lot of writers to insist that there is a big part here, of some sort. And even we entertain the chance into the Post piece, as well as in the Radiolab piece (my specific meeting ended up being recorded some months ago). The reason is pretty clear — DOD Directive 5100.30 states:

The NCA [National Command Authorities] consists only regarding the President as well as the Secretary of Defense or their duly deputized alternates or successors. The chain of command runs through the President to the Secretary of Defense and through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Commanders of the Unified and certain Commands. The channel of communication for execution of Single built-in Operational Arrange (SIOP) as well as other time-sensitive operations will probably be from NCA through the Chairman of this Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, toward executing commanders.

Which generally seems to arranged the Secretary of Defense as an essential the main string. The directive involved just isn’t especially recent (the unclassified version of the directive  dates from 1974), plus it does not explain how important the Secretary of Defense could be.

But over the last couple weeks, while focusing on this episode and my own further digging into the matter, i’ve become convinced that the weight regarding the available proof points to your proven fact that Blair is correct — the Secretary of Defense is not just unneeded, but not also in the nuclear chain of command. Just what convinced me?

2015 - Annex 3-72 Nuclear Operations

First, I found possibly the only bit of military doctrine that really explained, in a clear and concise fashion, how a nuclear order would be performed. Therefore’s not some ancient Cold War archival document… it is from 2015! On the website regarding the USAF’s (appropriately called) Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, one will discover ANNEX 3-72 NUCLEAR OPERATIONS, last updated in-may 2015. It states, in a quality that (after reading a great deal of DOD doctrine) makes me personally want to weep with joy, inspite of the message:

The President may direct the usage of nuclear tools with an execute purchase via the Chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff towards the combatant commanders and, eventually, towards the forces in the field working out direct control of this weapons.  

Which seems pretty definitive. Your order jumps instantly from President toward army, by means of the Chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and from there percolates through the system of command, control, and interaction to your different individuals who really turn the secrets and place the “birds” into the air.

Could the doctrine be incorrect? Presumably such things are carefully screened before to be had up as official doctrine, plus it seems about because clear as are, but it’s constantly feasible that something got mangled. But another of good use little bit of evidence is that we asked Perry, the former Secretary of Defense, at point blank if the Secretary of Defense was in the chain of demand. The solution had been a clear “no.” Perry explained that while, presumably the Secretary of Defense would express viewpoints and offered counsel, the President had been under no legal responsibility to just take such counsel, and objection of the Secretary of Defense had no bearing either lawfully or practically.

I don’t know very well what your standard of evidence about such a concern could be, but in person I get the testimony of a previous Secretary of Defense, along with a reasonably up-to-date little bit of Air Force doctrine, to settle the truth for me (about, pending more proof). No other assertions in regards to the nuclear string of command that I’ve seen have quite that kind of fat behind them.

Performs this modification our initial concern, about who might say no? It shifts the attention away from the civilian Secretary of Defense (which really is a civilian task, set up individual in the role is really a retired General, as is currently the way it is) towards the military position for the Chairman regarding the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Could such a person disobey the order? Perry proposed they may in practice make an effort to, but there would be legal effects (e.g., a court martial).

We provided a talk on these issues a week ago during the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy class (in which I was a postdoctoral fellow in handling the Atom Program some years ago, and where I keep an active affiliation), and two members associated with audience (one an Air Force officer, another my grad school colleague Dan Volmar, who works regarding the information on nuclear command and control history) remarked that whenever doctrine states “the Chairman associated with the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” it is usually talking about a staff and never someone individual. Which can be to say, it cann’t necessarily indicate someone personage, but alternatively suggests a web of individuals which can be connected to the authority of the personage. I am not sure what would apply in this kind of extraordinary situation, but We thought it was an appealing point out mention.

A slide from my Belfer Center talk on nuclear chain of demand (in the talk, I remove the SecDef from string) — some levity on a severe topic. Graphics constructed with Keynote's form templates (yes, hair is an upside-down message bubble).

A slide from my Belfer Center talk on nuclear chain of demand (inside talk, I wind up getting rid of, the SecDef from the string, per the issues discussed in this article) — the graphical whimsy is just a purposefully some levity on a serious subject. Graphics created using Keynote’s form templates (yes, the hair can be an upside-down speech bubble). And yes, I know i’ve “black boxed” C3 (command, control, and communications) operations in a “and now a miracle occurs” fashion.

I’ve even less faith than before inside indisputable fact that an order of such could be disobeyed. Perhaps not that i do believe the military is desperate to deploy nuclear tools — I’m yes they are not, and in fact I tend to feel that they’ve inside post-Cold War arrive at realize at some deeper level the risks associated with such tools additionally the difficulties they impose on their solutions. But I do think that the nuclear command and control system is set up, both virtually and doctrinally, in order to avoid asking the questions which can be regarded as being into the purview of this “political” part of this equation. From exact same “Annex 3-72” (my focus):

The work of nuclear tools at any degree requires explicit purchases through the President. The type of nuclear tools — overwhelmingly more significant than traditional weapons — is such that their use can create governmental and mental impacts well beyond their bodily impacts. The work of nuclear weapons can result in such unintended consequences as escalation associated with the current conflict or long-lasting deterioration of relations with other nations.  That is why especially others, the decision whether to make use of nuclear weapons is always a political decision and not a armed forces one.

Now, clearly conditions would dictate varying reactions. I’ve faith that the “obviously bonkers” purchase would be in some way prevented (e.g., a frothing, “nuke all of them, ha ha ha,” sort of thing). I’m perhaps not focused on that situation (it’s not outside of the world of individual possibility — all humans are fallible, numerous develop different kinds of mental disease, etc.), but I am focused on the things I give consideration to to be “ill-advised” orders, or “bad idea” sales, or “spur associated with the minute” orders that are considerably less apocalyptic (at the least on the area) than, state, a full nuclear trade.

What would the armed forces do in that situation, in case a properly authenticated, correctly-formatted “execute order” came to them on their protected channels? I don’t have actually faith they’d abort it. Perhaps you do — that’s fine, and I appreciate the company of optimists. But i simply wish to point out, the notion that the system won’t are meant isn’t real “check.” it is simply hoping things will break in a fashion that would be convenient. I do believe we can do better, and I also think that the effects from the risk of the rash use of nuclear weapons by an American President — any President — large enough to warrant trying to produce a better (if not perfect) system, no matter if one believes the likelihood of anything happening is low.

2010s, Command and control, Donald Trump

Citation: Alex Wellerstein, “The President together with Bomb, Part III,” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy weblog, April 10, 2017, accessed April 24, 2017, http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2017/04/10/president-bomb-iii/.

The President and the Bomb: Redux

This finished up being component certainly one of a three part arc: Part I (where I introduce issue), component III (where we mention some “new” discoveries)

It has been a busy thirty days; irrespective of “regular work” kinds of duties (teaching, grading, composing, e-mailing, programming, book reviews, grant proposals, oh my!), I’ve been sucked into various conversations associated with presidential demand and control after my final post, which got me personally a solicitation to write an op-ed for the Washington Post on presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons. I’ven’t really gotten around to screening all commentary to my article, and Post piece has 1,200 comments that i am not likely to bother trying to wade into. We thought though that I would personally post several fast responses right here to typical feedback I’ve gotten on both pieces.

The printing form of my Post article (December 4, 2016). As a result of my DC friends for sending me print copies — evidently one cannot buy the Post any place in Hoboken. You can read the on the web version here.

The printing version of my Post article (December 4, 2016). Thanks to my DC buddies for sending me print copies — apparently one cannot purchase the Post any place in Hoboken. You are able to read the online version right here.

Both pieces are about the history and policy of presidential authorization to utilize nuclear weapons. In summary, in america the President and only the President is the ultimate source of authority in the usage of nukes. This is certainly entirely uncontroversial, plus the articles describe the history behind the specific situation.

The trickier concerns show up when you ask, can anyone stop nuclear weapons from getting used if the president desires to utilize them? Everything i am able to find implies that the answer is no, but you will find ambiguities that different people interpret differently. For example, there are two main split questions hidden because very first one: can anyone legitimately stop the president, and can you practically stop the president? I shall get into these below.

Many curious response that I’ve heard, both personally and second-hand, are those that have heard the things I’ve stated about that, and state, “that can not be real, that would be a dumb/crazy way to set things up.” This is often a purely psychological response, not just one considering any research or specific knowledge — a pure belief that the US could have a “smarter” system in position. We think it is interesting since it is a inquisitive solution to simply reject the whole subject, some type of psychological defense mechanism. Once more, everything there is suggests that this is how the system is established, and in both the blog post and the Post article I attempted to describe the history of just how it reached be in this way, which I think makes it more understandable, even if it’s still (arguably) not really a good plan.

And, naturally, as it showcased the name “Trump,” a somewhat hyperbolic headline (which I don’t write, but cannot actually hate — it elides some caveats and ambiguities, but it’s a headline, not this article), and it is within the Washington Post, there were a lot of people who wondered whether it was just a partisan assault. And amusingly possessed a number of people accuse me personally of being fully a Post employee, that I am decidedly perhaps not. My writing has also been often referred to as “hysterical,” which can be a fascinating type of projection; to my attention, anyway, it is deliberately pretty sober, but i guess we come across what we expect to see, to some extent.

Interpreting a Trump tweet isn't any simple matter, and serves as kind of a governmental Rorschach test. The above is either entirely in line with Obama's nuclear modernization plan, or perhaps a necessitate something totally various. I suppose we will see...

Interpreting a Trump tweet is no easy matter, and functions as sort of a political Rorschach test. The aforementioned is either completely consistent with Obama’s nuclear modernization plan, or even a demand one thing completely various. I assume we are going to see…

It’s true that i believe this issue is specially acute about Mr. Trump; if nuclear war capabilities are vested in person for the professional, then the character of the executive is therefore very important. And I think even their supporters would concur that he’s got a reactive, volatile, unpredictable personality. He broadcasts his thin-skinnedness to your world every day. Plus president whom complains on a weekly basis on their portrayal on Saturday Night Live is, let’s be directly, thin-skinned. Become offended by comedic parody is underneath the section of this job, a thing that any American president had better get beyond.

But frankly I would be just like very happy to happen discussing this in a Clinton management, and would have been very happy to talk about it through the federal government. The problem, and my place, nevertheless appears: I think that vesting such energy in one single human being, any human being, is asking a whole lot. Which has nothing in connection with exactly how dependable they appear at election-time: we’ve historic instances of presidents who had health problems (Wilson), had been heavy users of painkillers (Kennedy) or alcohol (Nixon), or who were later found to be in the first phases of psychological decrease (Reagan). There isn’t any reason to suspect your president you elect twelve months will still be that person 2 or 3 years later on, or that they can be totally reasonable all the time. And I also don’t believe anyone of any political celebration in america would venture out for a limb to claim that the US electorate will constantly elect some one whoever can bear all that obligation. So this does not have to be, and really shouldn’t be, a partisan issue, even in the event Trump particularly gets a lot of people to start dealing with it again.

One of the reactions I’ve heard is any further “checks” on presidential nuclear demand authority are essential because any president who desired to make use of nuclear weapons unilaterally, up against the judgment of the advisors, could be agreed-upon as “insane” and so could be taken from office under Section 4 associated with Twenty-Fifth Amendment for the US Constitution. This will be, i do believe, not adequate.

To begin with, the procedures are understandably complex and require a significant individuals to engage — it is accordingly problematic for a president to be declared “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his workplace,” because if it were effortless, that would be a simple way to dispose of an unpopular president. Therefore it is not the type of thing which can be designed to go into immediate effect with fast turn-around, which does indeed not assist us a great deal in the nuclear situation, I don’t think.

Secondly, although the “insane president” concept usually dominates the conversation right here, which an extreme and not entirely most likely instance. I am significantly more worried about the “president with bad ideas” approach, possibly a “president with bad tips supported with a few advisors” approach. There are many nuclear-use situations which do not include an tried preemptive attack against Russia, including. Only a few is going to be “obviously insane.” As well as a president whom advocated first-use will never always be “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” in line with the those who need to accept that statement. It is a cumbersome, high-stakes approach; in the event that only option to stop a president from doing stupid things with nuclear weapons would be to kick them away from workplace on such basis as them being medically unfit, that is clearly a very difficult bar to climb to. (and now we can add impeachment under the exact same objection — that is not a quick nor simple procedure, nor is it any type of apparent deterrent to the form of president whom might consider using nuclear tools originally.)

outcomes of a poll taken following the very first presidential debate, on or perhaps a prospects could be trusted with nuclear weapons. There are lots of approaches to check this out, but i believe at a minimum we could say that whenever substantial percentages of men and women think that neither major-party nominee may be trusted with nuclear weapons duty alone, it is time to reconsider whether we have to have a system that invests that decision entirely in the president.

Link between a poll taken after the first presidential debate, on if the candidates could possibly be trusted with nuclear tools. There are lots of how to check this out, but i believe at the very least we are able to state that whenever significant percentages (much less a slim majority for just one of these) of Americans believe neither major-party nominee is trusted with nuclear tools responsibility alone, it’s time to rethink whether we should have system that invests that choice totally within the president.

Another objection I’ve gotten is the “maybe you will find checks that you simply don’t know about, because they’re categorized.” Fair sufficient, and I also acknowledged this within my writings. Much concerning the procedures involved are classified, and you will find reasons for that. If an enemy knew precisely how the machine worked, they are able to possibly plot to exploit loopholes inside. But i’ve two primary reactions on this.

First, if complete knowledge within the nuclear world was necessary to mention nuclear policy, then literally no one could or would speak about it. Which means that democratic deliberation would be impossible. So those of us without clearances can, and may, speak about what we do and do not understand, freely on both fronts. I make an effort to make really explicit in which my knowledge begins and finishes. I might be entirely thrilled if these conversations resulted in official clarifications — I think these problems can be worth it, assuming my understanding is wrong, that might be great.

Second, it hits me being an act of tremendous optimism to assume that things in the US federal government tend to be more rationally run than all signs suggest they seem to be. The study of nuclear history isn’t research of unerring rationality, of clear procedures, or of systems create to make sure smart decision-making. It is easy to report that our command and control systems have now been optimized towards three ends: 1. preventing anyone but the president from using nuclear tools in an unauthorized fashion, 2. dependability of reaction to threats and attack, and 3. immense rate in translating sales to action. None of that implies we ought to assume there are elaborate checks and balances inside system. My view: unless good evidence exists a federal government system is adequately rational, to assume its sufficiently rational needs tremendous faith in federal government.

Finally, to access the strongest of the reactions: the president may be the only person who can order nuclear weapons to be utilized, but doesn’t the execution of that order require assent from other people to in fact get translated into action? Simply put, if the president has to transmit the order to your Secretary of Defense (as some, although not all, information associated with procedure say must take place), as well as the Secretary of Defense then needs to send it towards military, therefore the military needs to transfer it into functional requests for soldiers… aren’t there many places for the reason that string where some body can say, “hey, it is a terrible idea!” and not transfer the order further?

In contemplating this, i believe we have to create a distinction between a appropriate and a practical hinderance. A appropriate barrier would be the chance for someone having the ability to state, legally and constitutionally, “we refuse to follow this order,” and that would stop the string of demand. This might be mentioned in the 1970s literary works on presidential authority as type of “veto” energy. It isn’t at all clear that this is legitimately allowable in the region of nuclear tools — it really is, to be sure, an ambiguous issue of constitutional, military, and worldwide law. I have seen folks assert that the usage of nuclear weapons would be unquestionably a war crime, and so any officer who was offered this order would recognize it being an illegal order, and thus won’t obey it. I don’t think the government, and/or United States military, views (United states) utilization of nuclear weapons being a war criminal activity (a topic for the next post, maybe), and whether you and I do or otherwise not issues not at all.

And from a practical standpoint, we realize the system is initiated so your people during the really bottom, individuals “turning the tips” and in actual fact introducing the missiles, are trained to maybe not question (and sometimes even deeply contemplate) the orders that reach them. They’ve been trained, rather clearly, that when the order will come in, their task is to perform it — nearly like robots, but close-enough compared to that. The rate and dependability associated with the system requires they to do this, plus they are not in a position to inquire concerning the “big picture” behind the order (and would not presume become qualified to judge that). So whenever we simply take that for given, we might ask ourselves, at what level within the hierarchy would individuals be asking about this? You can imagine many various opportunities, ranging from a continuum of second-guessing that was fairly evenly gradated towards the “top,” or the one that was really “band-limited” toward absolute top (age.g., after the order gets made by the president, it is followed through on without questioning).

I suspect that perhaps the military isn’t 100% clear on the answer to that concern, but We suspect your situation is more just like the latter than the former. Mainly because, once more, the united states armed forces tradition, particularly regarding nuclear weapons, is mostly about deference on authority of this Commander in Chief. As soon as you get beyond a specific “circle” of people who are near to the president, just like the Secretary of Defense, i might be very surprised in the event that individuals within the nuclear system particularly would buck the order. The machine as well as its tradition had been built through the cold war, centered on rapid interpretation between order and execution. Until I see proof that shows it’s radically transformed it self subsequently, I am going to assume it acts in that way still. And once more, everything i’ve seen implies that this really is nevertheless the situation. As previous CIA and NSA mind Michael Hayden place it ahead of the election: “It’s scenario reliant, however the system is made for speed and decisiveness. It’s not built to debate your choice.

okay, but in practice, could not the Secretary of Defense just will not act? Here it surely will become necessary to learn the way the system is set up, and I simply do not think enough information is out there to be definitive. From what I understand, the primary role for the Secretary of Defense is to authenticate your order — to express, “yes, the president made this order.” Are there techniques for getting around that requirement, or about a stubborn Secretary of Defense? A practical one would be to simply fire him at that moment, whereby the requirement for verification techniques down a notch into the Department of Defense succession ranking. It may get onward and forward down the road, perhaps. But more virtually, I have heard it suggested (from people who learn such things) there are protocols where the president could bypass the Secretary of Defense completely and communicate directly with the National Military Command Center to communicate this kind of order. I will be nevertheless considering that which we can say about such things with conviction, however it wouldn’t normally surprise me if there were contingencies in place that allowed a president a far more direct way of delivering such purchases, included in the objective of making the system especially resilient in times of crisis (whenever appropriate representatives from the Department of Defense may not be available).

There’s a famous anecdote about Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger asking for that all nuclear commands from Nixon inside final days of the management be routed through him. It’s not clear that it is real, and could be exaggerated greatly, however it is often cited as a way that the Secretary of Defense could override presidential authority. Regardless if it had been true, it is ad hoc, probably unlawful, plus pretty slim “check always” to sleep one’s hopes upon. And I also indicate that about any assertion that “practical” constraints occur by means of people refusing to adhere to purchases — they are very positive. Specially while there is plenty of options apart from a raving president shouting “nuke them all!,” which will be pretty simple to disobey. There are numerous more scenarios which do not include obvious insanity, but could remain terrible ideas.

The Lieu-Markey bill for restricting presidential power regarding nuclear gun usage.

The Lieu-Markey bill for limiting presidential power regarding nuclear tool use.

In my Post piece, We talked about feasible resolutions. None might be entirely satisfying; the nuclear age is defined by that insufficient total certainty about outcomes. But there has been proposals about needing good assent from more individuals than just the president for just about any sort of first-use of nuclear weapons. We talk about the Federation of United states Scientists’ proposal in my own Post piece, together with proven fact that make use of that as template for contemplating other forms of proposals. I am not wed to the concept of getting Congressional approval, including. Honestly we’d be happier if there have been a legal requirement that will codify the Secretary of Defense’s veto energy, like. One can productively debate different choices (and I also’m still thinking about these questions), and their legality (this is a tricky question), but we still think it would be a very important thing to give individuals within highest levels one thing non-ad hoc to fall back upon when they wished to actively refuse to obey this order. The common objection I heard to such an concept is, “maybe we don’t want it, there is concealed checks set up,” that is not much of a objection (counting on optimism inside system).

Congressmen Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill last September that would demand a Congressional statement of war before first-use of nuclear tools would be permitted. I don’t believe’s necessarily the proper approach (Congress have not granted a statement of war since World War II, which means this is effectively only a prohibition on first-strike ability, that will lead the armed forces, defense establishment, & most safety scholars I know to definitively oppose the idea), but i really hope that this might serve as a spot to revisit and discuss these problems formally in a legislative setting. I will be perhaps not convinced i’ve the right policy solution, but for me an idealized law might have conditions that permitted for first-use in emergency circumstances, with one or more other human being (ideally more, though no impractical number) needing to earnestly buy into the purchase (and achieving veto power over it). I believe this is usually a very modest recommendation. It might maybe not completely exclude first-strike possibilities — absolutely nothing would, conserve not enough nuclear ability entirely, and that is a separate might of worms — however it will allow the United states people, military, and governmental establishment to learn that not one person would be shouldering that obligation alone.

Tags: 2010s, Command and control, Donald Trump

Citation: Alex Wellerstein, “The President additionally the Bomb: Redux,” limited Data: The Nuclear Secrecy weblog, December 23, 2016, accessed April 28, 2017, http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2016/12/23/the-president-and-the-bomb-redux/.

The President and the bomb

I’m in the process of writing up something more substantial about nuclear weapons and the 2016 Presidential election, but I keep getting asked one thing repeatedly both in person, over e-mail, and online: “Are there any checks in place to keep the US President from starting a nuclear war?”  

What’s amazing about this question, really, is how seriously it misunderstands the logic of the US command and control system. It gets it exactly backwards.

Recent (November 17, 2016) Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: "Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs." Hat tip to Alexandra Levy (Atomic Heritage Foundation) for bringing this one to my attention.

A recent Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: “Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs.” (November 17, 2016) Hat tip to Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation for bringing this one to my attention.

The entire point of the US command and control system is to guarantee that the President and only the President is capable of authorizing nuclear war whenever he needs to. It is about enabling the President’s power, not checking or restricting him. As former Vice President Dick Cheney put it in 2008:

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.
1

This isn’t new; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This has been discussed since the 1940s. And yet, people today seem rather shocked to hear it, even very educated people.

To be sure, the official doctrine that I have seen on the Nuclear Command Authority implies that the President should be given as much advice as possible from the military, the Department of Defense, and so on. But nothing I have seen suggests that this is any more than advisory — and the entire system is set up so that once the President’s order is verified and authenticated, there are meant to be only minutes until launch.2

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

It isn’t entirely intuitive — why the President, and not someone else, or some combination of people? Why not have some kind of “two-man rule,” whereby two top political figures were required to sign off on the use before it happened? The two-man rule is required for commanders to authorize nuclear launches, so why not the Commander in Chief?

To understand why this is, you have to go back and look at the history of how this doctrine came about. Today we tend to discuss this in terms of the speed in which a retaliation would be necessary in the event of a crisis, but the debate wasn’t originally about expediency at all, but about an understanding of Constitutional power and the inherently political nature of the bomb. I see the debate about the (un-)targeting of Kyoto, in mid-1945, as the first place where some of these questions started to get worked out. Presidents generally do not pick targets in war. That’s a general’s job. (Like all things in history, there have, of course, been exceptions.) But when it came to the atomic bomb, the civilian branch of the executive government (personified here by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson), demanded veto power over the targets. The military (here, General Leslie Groves) pushed back, asserting that this was a military matter. Stimson insisted, and eventually got the President’s personal ear on the matter, and that was that. Truman, for his part, while he did not authorize the actual bombing in any explicit way (he was shown the bombing order, but he did not issue it nor was his approval required, though he could have vetoed it), did, on August 10th, re-assert nuclear authority by prohibiting future bombing activity without his explicit permission.

General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) share a moment. Photo by Ed Westcott.

One can tell that the relationship between General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) was not exactly the smoothest. Photo by Ed Westcott.

From that point forward, the President made very explicit that his office was in charge of the atomic bomb and its uses, not the military. It was not a “military weapon,” which is to say, it was an inherently political weapon, one that needed to be handled by that most inherently political office, the Presidency. This became the framework for talking about domestic control over nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the civilian vs. military split. It was believed that only an elected civilian could make the call for this of all weapons. Truman himself put it to David Lilienthal in 1948:

I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that, that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.3

In the early days, this civilian-military split was actually enforced at a physical level, with the non-nuclear parts of the weapons kept by the military, and the nuclear parts (the pits) kept by the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, changes in doctrine, technology (sealed-pit weapons), and fears (e.g., a Soviet “sneak attack”) had led to 90% of the nuclear weapons transferred into the hands of the military, making the civilian-military distinction a somewhat theoretical one. Eisenhower also “pre-delegated” the authority to start nuclear war to several military commanders on the front lines, on the idea that they would not have time to call back to Washington should Soviet tanks start pouring into Western Europe. (So while the President is the only person who can authorize a nuclear attack, he can also extend that authority to others if he deems it necessary.)

The Kennedy administration, looking to assert more positive control over the beginning of a nuclear conflict (especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which raised the real possibility of a low-level misunderstanding “escalating” in times of uncertainty), requiring the weapons themselves to have sophisticated electronic controls (Permissive Action Links) that would prevent anyone without a coded authorization to use them. There is more to these stories,4 but I just want to illustrate a bit of what the “control” debate was really about: making sure the President, and only the President, was ultimately the one making decisions about the bomb.

A retired "nuclear football" suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

A retired “nuclear football” suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been asked: would the officer carrying the “football” actually go forward with a nuclear attack, especially if it seems heedless or uncalled for? (The “nuclear football” is the special computer that, once the nuclear “codes” are inputted into it, somehow electronically starts the sequence of events that leads to the weapons being used.) Which I find lovably optimistic. The entire job of the person carrying the football is to enable the President to launch a nuclear attack. They would not presume to know the “big picture” of why the President was doing it — they are not a high-level military or policymaker. They are going to do their job; it is what they were chosen to do.

Would the military second-guess the President, and override the order? I mean, anything is possible — this has just never happened before, so who knows. But I am dubious. In 1973, Major Harold Hering was fired for asking, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” Not because it is a fireable offensive to imply that the President might not, at all times, be entirely capable of making such an order, but because to start to question that order would mean to put the entire credibility of the nuclear deterrent at risk. The entire logic of the system is that the President’s will on this point must be authoritative. If people start second-guessing orders, the entire strategic artifice breaks down.5

So is there any check on the President’s power to use nuclear weapons? Well, technically the US election process is meant to be that check — don’t elect people you don’t trust with the unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons. And this, indeed, has been a theme in numerous US elections, including the most recent one. It is one issue among many, of course.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

There is, of course, no big red button. There are lots of other, smaller buttons, though. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

Do I personally worry about an unhinged, unthoughtful President using nuclear weapons heedlessly? Sure, to some degree. But not as much as I worry about other damage that such a President will do to the country and the world (the environment, economy, social fabric, international order, and human rights are higher on my list of concerns at the moment). Which is to say, it’s on the list of things one might worry about (for any President, but certainly the next one), but it’s not my top worry. Ultimately I do have some faith, perhaps unearned, that even someone who is woefully under-educated about world affairs, strategic logic, and so on, will come to understand rather rapidly that it is in the United States’ best interests not to break the nuclear taboo.

The United States benefits from the taboo disproportionately: should the threshold for nuclear use be lowered, we would be the ones who would suffer the most for it, because we tend to put our cities and military forces and everything else in centralized, easy-to-take-out-with-a-nuke sorts of arrangements, and because we enjoy a powerful conventional military power as well. We have the luxury of a nuclear taboo, in other words: we don’t have to use nukes to get what we want, and indeed in many situations nukes are just not as useful as they might at first appear.

So only a true idiot would think that using nukes foolishly would actually be a useful thing, aside from the collateral damage, moral issues, and so on. Take from that what you will.

I am not interested in having political arguments (one way or the other) in the comments of this blog post — I am burned out on online political debates for the moment. If you want to have a political debate, have it elsewhere. I will only approve constructive, interesting, non-obvious comments. Trolls will be banned and blocked. We will be coming back to this topic again, don’t worry. (Or do.)

Notes
  1. “Transcript: Vice President Cheney on ‘FOX News Sunday’,” FoxNews.com (22 December 2008).
  2. Actual doctrine is understandably hard to get one’s hands on. The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, created by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, is an extremely useful resource in this respect. Chapter 6 is about the Nuclear Command and Control System, and describes the many procedures, organizations, and technologies used to provide “the President with the means to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis and to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.”
  3. The context of this snippet, recorded in Lilienthal’s journals, is a meeting between the President, Lilienthal (Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission), and several military men and his cabinet. Lilienthal noted parenthetically that in the gap between the two “thats” in the second sentence, Truman looked “down at his desk, rather reflectively,” and that he (Lilienthal) “shall never forget this particular expression” when Truman said was not a “military weapon.” The military men, in Lilienthal’s account, then immediately began to talk about how important it was to get used to handling the bombs. General Kenneth Royall asked, “We have been spending 98% of all money for atomic energy for weapons. Now if we aren’t going to use them, that doesn’t make any sense.” Lilienthal’s commentary: “If what worried the President, in part, was whether he could trust these terrible forces in the hands of the military establishment, the performance these men gave certainly could not have been reassuring on that score.” Account of a conversation with Harry Truman and others on July 21, 1948, in David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. 2: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 391.
  4. I gave a talk at the History of Science Society’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta a few weeks ago, on the topic of Command and Control systems and the ways they encode different visions of Constitutional authority and responsibility, and I am working to turn that into some kind of publishable paper.
  5. There is an anecdote that is often repeated that states that Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger supposedly altered, on some level, the nuclear command authority during Watergate — telling his staff that he had veto power over any nuclear commands by Nixon. It is not something that has been historically substantiated, and, even if true, would technically have been un-Constitutional. It doesn’t mean it isn’t possible — but I find the whole thing, again, fairly dubious, and it certainly was not in line with the official regulations. There are instances (Stanislav Petrov, for example) of officers in nuclear situations not following regulations in an effort to avoid escalation. But they are by definition ad hoc, not to be relied upon.

Secrecy, verification, and purposeful ignorance

The history of nuclear secrecy is an interesting topic for a lot of reasons, but one of the more wonky ones is that it is an inversion of the typical studies that traditionally are done in the history of science. The history of science is usually a study of how knowledge is made and then circulates; a history of secrecy is about how knowledge is made and then is not circulated. Or, at least, its non-circulation is attempted, to various degrees of success. These kinds of studies are still not the “norm” amongst historians of science, but in recent years have become more common, both because historians have come to understand that secrecy is often used by scientists for various “legitimate” reasons (i.e., preserving priority), and because historians have come to understand that the study of deliberately-created ignorance has been a major theme as well (e.g., Robert Proctor has coined the term agnotology to describe the deliberate actions of the tobacco industry to foster ignorance and uncertainty regarding the link between lung cancer and cigarettes).

The USS Nautilus with a nice blob of redaction. No reactor core for you!

The USS Nautilus with a nice blob of redaction. No reactor for you! From a 1951 hearing of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy — apparently the reactor design is still secret even today?

What I find particularly interesting about secrecy, as a scholar, is that it is like a sap or a glue that starts to stick to everything once you introduce a little bit of it. Try to add a little secrecy to your system and pretty soon more secrecy is necessary — it spreads. I’ve remarked on this some time back, in the context of Los Alamos designating all spheres as a priori classified: once you start down the rabbit-hole, it becomes easier and easier for the secrecy system to become more entrenched, even if your intentions are completely pure (and, of course, more so if they are not).

In this vein, I’ve for awhile been struck by the work of some friends of mine in the area of arms control work known as “zero-knowledge proofs” (and the name alone is an attention-grabber). A zero-knowledge proof is a concept derived from cryptography (e.g., one computer proves to another that it knows a secret, but doesn’t give the secret away in the process), but as applied to nuclear weapons, it is roughly as follows: Imagine a hypothetical future where the United States and Russia have agreed to have very low numbers of nuclear warheads, say in the hundreds rather than the current thousands. They want mutually verify each other’s stockpiles are as they say they are. So they send over an inspector to count each other’s warheads.

Already this involves some hypotheticals, but the real wrench is this: the US doesn’t want to give its nuclear design secrets away to the Russian inspectors. And the Russians don’t want to give theirs to the US inspectors. So how can they verify that what they are looking at are actually warheads, and not, say, steel cans made to look like warheads, if you can’t take them apart?

Let's imagine you had a long line of purported warheads, like the W80, shown here. How can you prove there's an actual nuke in each can, without knowing or learning what's in the can? The remarkable W80s-in-a-bunker image is from a blog post by Hans Kristensen at Federation of American Scientists.

Let’s imagine you had a long line of purported warheads, like the W80, shown here. How can you prove there’s an actual nuke in each can, without knowing or learning what’s in the can? The remarkable W80s-in-a-bunker image is from a blog post by Hans Kristensen at Federation of American Scientists.

Now you might ask why people would fake having warheads (because that would make their total number of warheads seem higher than it was, not lower), and the answer is usually about verifying warheads put into a queue for dismantlement. So your inspector would show up to a site and see a bunch of barrels and would be told, “all of these are nuclear warheads we are getting rid of.” So if those are not actually warheads then you are being fooled about how many nukes they still have.

You might know how much a nuclear weapon ought to weigh, so you could weigh the cans. You might do some radiation readings to figure out if they are giving off more or less what you expect a warhead might be giving you. But remember that yours inspector doesn’t actually know the configuration inside the can: they aren’t allowed to know how much plutonium or uranium is in the device, or what shapes it is in, or what configuration it is in. So this will put limitations both on what you’re allowed to know beforehand, and what you’re allowed to measure.

Now, amusingly, I had written all of the above a few weeks ago, with a plan to publish this issue as its own blog post, when one of the groups came out with a new paper and I was asked whether I would write about it for The New Yorker‘s science/tech blog, Elements. So you can go read the final result, to learn about some of the people (Alexander Glaser, Sébastien Philippe, and R. Scott Kemp) who are doing work on this: “The Virtues of Nuclear Ignorance.” It was a fun article to write, in part because I have known two of the people for several years (Glaser and Kemp) and they are curious, intelligent people doing really unusual work at the intersection of technology and policy.

Virtues of Nuclear Ignorance

I won’t re-describe their various methods of doing it here; read the article. If you want to read their original papers (I have simplified their protocols a bit in my description), you can read them here: the original Princeton group paper (2014), the MIT paper from earlier this year (2016), and the most recent paper from the Princeton group with Philippe’s experiment (2016).

In the article, I use a pine tree analogy to explain the zero-knowledge proof. Kemp provided that. There are other “primers” on zero-knowledge proofs on the web, but most of them are, like many cryptographic proofs, not exactly intuitive, everyday scenarios. One of the ones I considered using in the article was a famous one regarding a game of Where’s Waldo:

Imagine that you and I are looking at a page in one book of Where’s Waldo. After several minutes, you become frustrated and declare that Waldo can’t possibly be on the page. “Oh, but he is,” I respond. “I can prove it to you, but I don’t want to take away the fun of you finding him for yourself.” So I get a large piece of paper and cut out a tiny hole in exactly the shape of Waldo. While you are looking away, I position it so that it obscures the page but reveals the striped wanderer through the hole. That is the essence of a zero-knowledge proof — I prove I’m not bluffing without revealing anything new to you.

I found Waldo on the map of Troy. How can I prove it without giving his location away? A digital version of the described "proof": I found his little head and cut it out with Photoshop. But how do you know that's his head from this image? (Waldo from Where's Waldo)

I found Waldo in the Battle of Troy. How can I prove it without giving his location away? A digital version of the described “proof”: I found his little head and cut it out with Photoshop. In principle, you now know I really found him, without knowing where he is… but might that face be from a different Waldo page? (Image from Where’s Waldo)

But a true zero-knowledge proof, though, would also avoid the possibility of faking a positive result, which the Waldo example fails: I might not know where Waldo is on the page we are mutually looking at, but while you are not looking, I could set up the Waldo-mask on another page where I do know he is hiding. Worse yet, I could carry with me a tiny Waldo printed on a tiny piece of paper, just for this purpose. This might sound silly, but if there were stakes attached to my identification of Waldo, cheating would become expected. In the cryptologic jargon, any actual proof need to be both “complete” (proving positive knowledge) and “sound” (indicating false knowledge). Waldo doesn’t satisfy both.

Nuclear weapons issues have been particularly fraught by verification problems. The first attempt to reign in nuclear proliferation, the United States’ Baruch Plan of 1946, failed in the United Nations in part because it was clear that any meaningful plan to prevent the Soviet Union from developing nuclear weapons would involve a freedom of movement and inspection that was fundamentally incompatible with Stalinist society. The Soviet counter-proposal, the Gromyko Plan, was essentially a verification-free system, not much more than a pledge not to build nukes, and was subsequently rejected by the United States.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has binding force, in part, because of the inspection systems set up by the International Atomic Energy Agency, who physically monitor civilian nuclear facilities in signatory nations to make sure that sensitive materials are not being illegally diverted to military use. Even this regime has been controversial: much of the issues regarding Iran revolve around the limits of inspection, as the Iranians argue that many of the facilities the IAEA would like to inspect are militarily secret, though non-nuclear, and thus off-limits.

From the Nature Communications paper — showing (at top) the principle of what a 2D example would look like (with Glaser's faux Space Invader) — the complement is the "preload" setting mentioned in my New Yorker article, so that when combined with the new reading, ought to result in a virtually null reading. At bottom, the setup of the proof-of-concept version, with seven detectors.

From the Nature Communications paper — showing (at top) the principle of what a 2D example would look like (with Glaser’s faux Space Invader) — the complement is the “preload” setting mentioned in my New Yorker article, so that when combined with the new reading, ought to result in a virtually null reading. At bottom, the setup of the proof-of-concept version, with seven detectors.

One historical example about the importance of verification comes from the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972. It contained no verification measures at all: the USA and USSR just pledged not to develop biological weapons (and the Soviets denied having a program at all, a flat-out lie). The United States had already unilaterally destroyed its offensive weapons prior to signing the treaty, though the Soviets long expressed doubt that all possible facilities had been removed. The US lack of interest in verification was partially because it suspected that the Soviets would object to any measures to monitor their work within their territory, but also because US intelligence agencies didn’t really fear a Soviet biological attack.

Privately, President Nixon referred to the BWC as a “jackass treaty… that doesn’t mean anything.” And as he put it to an aide: “If somebody uses germs on us, we’ll nuke ‘em.”1

But immediately after signing the treaty, the Soviet Union launched a massive expansion of their secret biological weapon work. Over the years, they applied the newest genetic-engineering techniques to the effort of making whole new varieties of pathogens. Years later, after all of this had come to light and the Cold War had ended, researchers asked the former Soviet biologists why the USSR had violated the treaty. Some had indicated that they had gotten indications from intelligence officers that the US was probably doing the same thing, since if they weren’t, what was the point of a treaty without verification?

A bad verification regime, however, can also produce false positives, which can be just as dangerous. Consider Iraq, where the United States set up a context in which it was very hard for the Iraqi government to prove that it was not developing weapons of mass destruction. It was easy to imagine ways in which they might be cheating, and this, among other factors, drove the push for the disastrous Iraq War.

In between these extremes is the more political considerations: the possibility of cheating at treaties invites criticism and strife. It gives ammunition to those who would oppose treaties and diplomacy in general. Questions about verification have plagued American political discourse about the US-Iranian nuclear deal, including the false notion that Iran would be allowed to inspect itself. If one could eliminate any technical bases for objections, it has been argued, then at least those who opposed such things on principle would not be able to find refuge in them.

The setup from Kemp, et al. The TAI is the Treaty Accountable Item, i.e. the warhead you are testing.

The setup from Kemp, et al. The TAI is the Treaty Accountable Item, i.e. the warhead you are testing.

This is where the zero-knowledge protocols could come in. What’s interesting to me, as someone who studies secrecy, is if the problem of weapon design secrecy were removed, then this whole system would be unnecessary. It is, on some level, a contortion: an elaborate work-around to avoid sharing, or learning, any classified information. Do American scientists really think the Russians have any warhead secrets that we don’t know, or vice versa? It’s possible. A stronger argument for continued secrecy is that there are ways that an enemy’s weapons could be rendered ineffective if their exact compositions were known (neutrons, in the right quantity, can “kill” a warhead, causing its plutonium to heat and expand, and causing its chemical high-explosives to degrade; if you knew exactly what level of neutrons would kill a nuke, it would play into strategies of trying to defend against a nuclear attack).

And, of course, that hypothetical future would include actors other than the United States and Russia: the other nuclear powers of the world are less likely to want to share nuclear warhead schematics with each other, and an ideal system could be used by non-nuclear states involved in inspections as well. But even if everyone did share their secrets, such verification systems might still be useful, because they would eliminate the need for trust altogether, and trust is never perfect.

A little postscript on the article: I want to make sure to thank Alex Glaser, Sébastien Philippe, and R. Scott Kemp for devoting a lot of their weekends to making sure I actually understood the underlying science of their work to write about it. Milton Leitenberg gave me a lot of valuable feedback on the Biological Weapons Convention, and even though none of that made it into the final article, it was extremely useful. Areg Danagoulian, a colleague of Kemp’s at MIT who has been working on their system (and who first proposed using nuclear resonance fluorescence as a means of approaching this question), didn’t make it into the article, but anyone seriously interested in these protocols should check out his work as well. And of course the editor I work with at New Yorker, Anthony Lydgate, should really get more credit than he does for these articles, and on this one in particular managed to take the unwieldy 5,000 word draft I sent him and chop it down to 2,000 words very elegantly. And, lastly, something amusing — I noticed that Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory released a film of Sébastien talking about the experiment. Next to him is something heavily pixellated out… what could it be? It looks an awful lot like a copy of Unmaking the Bomb, a book created by Glaser and other Princeton faculty (and I made the cover), next to him…

Notes
  1. On the “jackass treaty,” see Milton Leitenberg and Raymon Zilinskas, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (Harvard University Press, 2012), quoted on 537.  On “we’ll nuke ’em,” the aide was William Safire. For his account, see William Safire, “Iraq’s Tons of Germs,” New York Times (13 April 1995).

A brief history of the nuclear triad

Summers for me are paradoxically the time I can get work done, and the time in which I feel I have the most work. I’m not teaching, which in theory means I have much more unstructured time. The consequence, though, is that I have about a million projects I am trying to get done in what is still a limited amount of time, and I’m also trying to see family, friends, and get a little rest. I sort of took June off from blogging (which I felt was my due after the amount of exposure I got in April and May), but I have several posts “in the hopper,” and several other things coming out soon. Yesterday I gave a talk at the US Department of State as part of their Timbie Forum (what used to be called their Generation Prague conference). I was tasked with providing the historical background on the US nuclear “triad,” as part of a panel discussion of the future of the triad. This is subject-matter I’ve taught before, so I felt pretty comfortable with it, but I thought I would return to a few of my favorite sources and refresh my understanding. This post is something of a write-up of my notes — more than I could say in a 20-minute talk.

There is a lot of buzzing about lately about the future of the United States’ “nuclear triad.” The triad is the strategic reliance on three specific delivery “platforms” for deterrence: manned-bombers (the B-2 and the B-52), long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs; specifically the Minuteman III), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs; specifically the Trident II missile carried by Ohio class submarines). Do we need all three “legs” of the triad? I don’t know — that’s a question for another day, and depends on how you balance the specific benefits and risks of each “leg” with the costs of maintaining or upgrading them. But as we think about the future of the US arsenal, looking at how the triad situation came about, and how people started talking about it as a “triad,” offers some interesting food for thought.

The modern nuclear triad. Source: Nuclear Posture Review, 2010.

The modern nuclear triad. Source: Nuclear Posture Review, 2010.

The stated logic of the triad has long as such: 1) bombers are flexible in terms of their armaments and deployments (and have non-nuclear roles); 2) ICBM forces are kept far from the enemy, are highly-accurate, and thus make a first-strike attack require a huge amount of “investment” to contemplate; 3) SLBM forces are, for the near term, capable of being kept completely hidden from attack, and thus are a guaranteed “second strike” capability. The combination of these three factors, the logic goes, keeps anyone from thinking they could get away with a nuclear attack.

That’s the rationale. It’s not the history of it, though. Like so many things, the history is rather wooly, full of stops-and-starts, and a spaghetti graph of different organizations, initiatives, committees, industrial contractors, and ideas. I have tried to summarize a lot of material below — with an idea to pointing out how each “leg” of the triad got (or did not get, depending on when) the support it needed to become a reality. I only take these histories up through about 1960, after which each of the three “legs” were deployed (and to try and go much further would result in an even-longer post).

LEG 1: MANNED BOMBERS

The United States’ first approach to the “delivery” question was manned, long-range bombers. Starting with the B-29, which delivered the first atomic bombs, and some 80 million pounds of incendiaries, over Japanese cities during World War II, the US was deeply committed to the use of aircraft as the means of getting the weapons from “here” to “there.” Arguably, this commitment was a bit overextended. Bureaucratic and human factors led to what might be called a US obsession with the bomber. The officers who rose through the ranks of the US Army Air Forces, and the newly-created (in 1947) US Air Force, were primarily bomber men. They came out of a culture that saw pilots as the ultimate embodiment of military prowess. There were some exceptions, but they were rare.

The B-29's power was more than military — it became a symbol of a new form of warfare for the generals of the newly-constituted US Air Force. Source.

The B-29’s power was more than military — it became a symbol of a new form of warfare for the generals of the newly-constituted US Air Force. Source.

In their defense, the US had two major advantages over the Soviet Union with respect to bombers. The first is that the US had a lot more experience building them: the B-29 “Superfortress” was an impressive piece of machinery, capable of flying further, faster, and with a higher load of armaments than anything else in the world at the time, and it was just the beginning.

The second was geography. The B-29 had a lot of range, but it wasn’t intercontinental. With a range of some 3,250 miles, it could go pretty far: from the Marianas to anywhere in Japan and back, for example. But it couldn’t fly a bomb-load to Moscow from the United States (not even from Alaska, which was only in range of the eastern half of Russia). This might not look like an advantage, but consider that this same isolation made it very hard for the Soviet Union to use bombers to threaten the United States in the near-term, and that the US had something that the USSR did not: lots of friends near its enemy’s borders.

As early as late August 1945, the United States military planners were contemplating how they could use friendly airfields — some already under US control, some not — to put a ring around the Soviet Union, and to knock it out of commission if need be. In practice, it took several years for this to happen. Deployments of non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons abroad waited until 1948, during the Berlin Blockade, and the early stages of the Korean War.

US nuclear bomber deployments, 1945-1958. One of my favorite slides that I use when teaching — it shows what "containment" comes to mean, and amply demonstrates the geopolitics of Cold War bomber bases.

US nuclear bomber deployments, 1945-1958. One of my favorite slides that I use when teaching — it shows what “containment” comes to mean, and amply demonstrates the geopolitics of Cold War bomber bases. Shadings indicate allies/blocs circa 1958.

In 1951, President Truman authorized small numbers of nuclear weapons (with fissile cores) to be deployed to Guam. But starting in 1954, American nuclear weapons began to be dispersed all-around the Soviet perimeter: French Morocco, Okinawa, and the United Kingdom in 1954; West Germany in 1955; Iwo Jima, Italy, and the Philippines in 1957; and France, Greenland, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and Tunisia in 1958. This was “containment” made real, all the more so as the USSR had no similar options in the Western Hemisphere until the Cuban Revolution. (And as my students always remark, this map puts the Cuban Missile Crisis into perspective.)1

And if the B-29 had been impressive, later bombers were even more so. The B-36 held even more promise. Its development had started during World War II, and its ability to extend the United States’ nuclear reach was anticipated as early as 1945. It didn’t end up being deployed until 1948, but added over 700 miles to the range of US strategic forces, and could carry some 50,000 lbs more fuel and armament. The B-52 bomber, still in service, was ready for service by 1955, and extended the range of bombers by another several hundred miles, increased the maximum flight speed by more than 200 miles per hour.2

Plane First flight Introduced in service Combat range (mi) Maximum speed (mph) Service ceiling (ft) Bomb weight (lbs)
B-17 1935 1938 2,000 287 35,600 4,500
B-29 1942 1944  3,250 357  31,850  20,000
B-36 1946 1948  3,985 435  43,000  72,000
B-52 1952 1955  4,480 650  50,000  70,000
B-2 1989 1997  6,000 630  50,000  40,000

So you can see, in a sense, why the US Air Force was so focused on bombers. They worked, they held uniquely American advantages, and you could see how incremental improvement would make them fly faster, farther, and with more weight than before. But there were more than just technical considerations in mind: fascination with the bomber was also cultural. It was also about the implied role of skill and value of control in a human-driven weapon, and it was also about the idea of “brave men” who fly into the face of danger. The bomber pilot was still a “warrior” in the traditional sense, even if his steed was a complicated metal tube flying several miles above the Earth.

LEG 2: LAND-BASED INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES (ICBMs)

But it wasn’t just that the USAF was pro-bomber. They were distinctly anti-missile for a long time. Why? The late Thomas Hughes, in his history of Project Atlas, attributes a distinct “conservative momentum, or inertia” to the USAF’s approach to missiles. Long-range missiles would be disruptive to the hierarchy: engineers and scientists would be on top, with no role for pilots in sight. Officers would, in a sense, become de-skilled. And perhaps there was just something not very sporting about lobbing nukes at another country from the other side of the Earth.3

But, to be fair, it wasn’t just the Air Force generals. The scientists of the mid-1940s were not enthusiastic, either. Vannevar Bush told Congress in 1945 that:

There has been a great deal said about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible and will be impossible for many years. The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3,000 mile high-angle rocket shot from one continent to another carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to be a precise weapon which would land on a certain target such as this city. I say technically I don’t think anybody in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident it will not be done for a very long time to come.

Small amounts of money had been doled out to long-range rocket research as early as 1946. The Germans, of course, had done a lot of pioneering work on medium-range missiles, and their experts were duly acquired and re-purposed as part of Operation Paperclip. The Air Force had some interest in missiles, though initially the ones they were more enthusiastic about were what we would call cruise missiles today: planes without pilots. Long-range ballistic missiles were very low on the priority list. As late as 1949 the National Security Council gave ballistic missiles no research priority going forward — bombers got all of it.

Soviet testing of an R-1 (V-2 derivative) rocket at Kapustin Yar. Soviet rocket tests were detected by American radars — and spurred US interest in rockets. Source.

Soviet testing of an R-1 (V-2 derivative) rocket at Kapustin Yar. Soviet rocket tests were detected by American radars — and spurred US interest in rockets. Source.

Real interest in ballistic missiles did not begin until 1950, when intelligence reports gave indication of Soviet interest in the area. Even then, the US Air Force was slow to move — they wanted big results with small investment. And the thing is, rocket science is (still) “rocket science”: it’s very hard, all the more so when it’s never been really done before.

As for the Soviets: while the Soviet Union did not entirely forego research into bombers, the same geographic factors as before encouraged them to look into long-range rockets much earlier than the United States. For the USSR to threaten the USA with bombers would require developing very long-range bombers (because they lacked the ability to put bases on the US perimeter), and contending with the possibility of US early-warning systems and interceptor aircraft. If they could “skip” that phase of things, and jump right to ICBMs, all the better for them. Consequently, Stalin had made missile development a top priority as early as 1946.

It wasn’t until the development of the hydrogen bomb that things started to really change in the United States. With yields in the megaton range, suddenly it didn’t seem to matter as much if you couldn’t get the accuracy that high. You can miss by a lot with a megaton and still destroy a given target. Two American scientists played a big role here in shifting the Air Force’s attitude: Edward Teller and John von Neumann. Both were hawks, both were H-bomb aficionados, and both commanded immense respect from the top Air Force brass. (Unlike, say, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was pushing instead for tactical weapons that could be wielded by the — gasp — Army.)

Ivy Mike, November 1952. Accuracy becomes less of a problem.

Ivy Mike, November 1952. Accuracy becomes less of a problem.

Teller and von Neumann told the Air Force science board that the time had come to start thinking about long-range missiles — that in the near term, you could fit a 1-2 megatons of explosive power into a 1-ton warhead. This was still pretty ambitious. The US had only just tested its first warhead prototype, Ivy Mike, which was an 80-ton experiment. They had some other designs on the books, but even the smaller weapons tested as part of Operation Castle in 1954 were multi-ton. But it was now very imaginable that further warhead progress would make up that difference. (And, indeed, by 1958 the W49 warhead managed to squeeze 1.44 Mt of blast power into under 1-ton of weight — a yield-to-weight ratio of 1.9 kt/kg.)

The USAF set up an advisory board, headed by von Neumann, with Teller, Hans Bethe, Norris Bradbury, and Herbert York on it. The von Neumann committee concluded that long-range missile development needed to be given higher priority in 1953. Finally, the Department of Defense initiated a full-scale ICBM program — Project Atlas — in 1954.

Even this apparent breakthrough of bureaucratic inertia took some time to really get under way. You can’t just call up a new weapons system from nothing by sheer will alone. As Hughes explains, there were severe doubts about how one might organize such a work. The first instinct of the military was to just order it up the way they would order up a new plane model. But the amount of revolutionary work was too great, and the scientists and advisors running the effort really feared that if you went to a big airplane company like Convair and said, “make me a rocket,” the odds that they’d actually be able to make it work were low. They also didn’t want to assign it to some new laboratory run by the government, which they felt would be unlikely to be able to handle the large-scale production issues. Instead, they sought a different approach: contract out individual “systems” of the missile (guidance, fuel, etc.), and have an overall contractor manage all of the systems. This took some serious effort to get the DOD and Air Force to accept, but in the end they went with it.

Launch sequence of an Atlas-D ICBM, 1960. Source.

Launch sequence of an Atlas-D ICBM, 1960. Source.

Even then things were pretty slow until mid-1954, when Congressional prodding (after they were told that there were serious indications the Soviets were ahead in this area) finally resulted in Atlas given total overriding defense priority. Even then the people in charge of it had to find ways to shortcut around the massive bureaucracy that had grown up around the USAF and DOD contracting policies. In Hughes’ telling of Atlas, it is kind of amazing that it gone done at rapidly as it did — it seems that there were near-endless internal obstacles to get past.  The main problem, one Air Force historian opined, was not technical: “The hurdle which had to be annihilated in correcting this misunderstanding was not a sound barrier, or a thermal barrier, but rather a mental barrier, which is really the only type that man is ever confronted with anyway.” According to one estimate, the various long-term cultural foot-dragging about ballistic missiles in the United States delayed the country from acquiring the technology for six years. Which puts Sputnik into perspective.

The US would start several different ballistic missile programs in the 1950s:

Rocket family Design started Role Military patron Prime industrial contractor Warhead yield
Redstone 1950 IRBM US Army Chrysler 0.5-3.5 Mt
Atlas 1953 ICBM USAF Convair 1.44 Mt
Thor 1954 IRBM USAF Douglas 1.4 Mt
Titan 1955 ICBM USAF Glenn Martin 3.75 Mt
Polaris 1956 SLBM USN Lockheed 0.6 Mt
Minuteman 1957 ICBM USAF Boeing 1.2 Mt

As you can see, there’s some redundancy there. It was deliberate: Titan, for example, was a backup to Atlas in case it didn’t work out. There’s also some interesting stuff going on with regards to other services (Army, Navy) not wanting to be “left out.” More on that in a moment. Minuteman, notably, was based on solid fuel, not liquid, giving it different strategic characteristics, and a late addition. The Thor and Redstone projects were for intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), not ICBMs — they were missiles you’d have to station closer to the enemy than the continental United States (e.g., the famous Jupiter missiles kept in Turkey).

The redundancy was a hedge: the goal was to pick the top two of the programs and cancel the rest. Instead, Sputnik happened. In the resulting political environment, Eisenhower felt he had to put into production and deployment all six of them — even though some were demonstrably not as technically sound as others (Thor and Polaris, in their first incarnations, were fraught with major technical problems). This feeling that he was pushed by the times (and by Congress, and the services, and so on) towards an increasingly foolish level of weapons production is part of what is reflected in Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning about the powerful force of the “military-industrial complex.”4

LEG 3: SUBMARINE-LAUNCHED BALLISTIC MISSILES (SLBMs)

Polaris is a special and interesting case, because it’s the only one in that list that is legitimately a different form of delivery. Shooting a ballistic missile is hard enough; shooting one from a submarine platform was understandably more so. Today the rationale of the SLBM seems rather obvious: submarines have great mobility, can remain hidden underwater even at time of launch, and in principle seem practically “invulnerable” — the ultimate “second strike” guarantee. At the time they were proposed, though, they were anything but an obvious approach: the technical capabilities just weren’t there. As already discussed at length, even ICBMs were seen with a jaundiced eye by the Air Force in the 1950s. Putting what was essentially an ICBM on a boat wasn’t going to be something the Air force was going to get behind. Graham Spinardi’s From Polaris to Trident is an excellent, balanced discussion the technical and social forces that led to the SLBM becoming a key leg of the “triad.”5

The USS Tunny launches a cruise missile (Regulus) circa 1956. Source.

The USS Tunny launches a cruise missile (Regulus) circa 1956. Source.

The Navy had in fact been interested in missile technology since the end of World War II, getting involved in the exploitation of German V-2 technology by launching one from an aircraft carrier in 1947. But they were also shy of spending huge funds on untested, unproven technology. Like the Air Force, they were initially more interested in cruise than ballistic missiles. Pilotless aircraft didn’t seem too different from piloted aircraft, and the idea of carrying highly-volatile liquid fueled missiles made Navy captains squirm. The Regulus missile (research started in 1948, and fielded in 1955) was the sort of thing they were willing to look at: a nuclear-armed cruise missile that could be launched from a boat, with a range of 575 miles. They were also very interested in specifically-naval weapons, like nuclear-tipped torpedoes and depth charges.

What changed? As with the USAF, 1954 proved a pivotal year, after the development of the H-bomb, the von Neumann committee’s recommendations, and fears of Soviet work combined with a few other technical changes (e.g., improvements in solid-fueled missiles, which reduced the fear of onboard explosions and fires). The same committees that ended up accelerating American ICBM work similarly ended up promoting Naval SLBM work as well, as the few SLBM advocates in the Navy were able to use them to make a run-around of the traditional authority. At one point, a top admiral cancelled the entire program, but only after another part of the Navy had sent around solicitations to aerospace companies and laboratories for comment, and the comments proved enthusiastic-enough that they cancelled the cancellation.

As with the ICBM, there was continued opposition from top brass about developing this new weapon. The technological risks were high: it would take a lot of money and effort to see if it worked, and if it didn’t, you couldn’t get that investment back. What drove them to finally push for it was a perception of being left out. The Eisenhower administration decided in 1955 that only four major ballistic missile programs would be funded: Atlas, Titan, Thor, and Redstone. The Navy would require partnering up with either the USAF or US Army if it wanted any part of that pie. The USAF had no need of it (and rejected an idea for a ship-based Thor missile), but the Army was willing to play ball. The initial plan was to develop a ship-based Jupiter missile (part of the Redstone missile family), with the original schedule was to have one that could be fielded by 1965.

But the Navy quickly was dissatisfied with Jupiter’s adaptability to sea. It would have to be shrunk dramatically to fit onto a submarine, and the liquid-fuel raised huge safety concerns. They quickly started modifying the requirements, producing a smaller, solid-fueled intermediate-range missile. They were able to convince the Army that this was a “back-up” to the original Jupiter program, so it would technically not look like a new ballistic missile program. Even so, it was an awkward fit: even the modified Jupiter’s were too large and bulky for the Navy’s plans.

What led to an entirely new direction was a fortuitous meeting between a top naval scientist and Edward Teller (who else?), at a conference on anti-submarine warfare in the summer of 1956. At the conference, Teller suggested that trends in warhead technology meant that by the early 1960s the United States would be able to field megaton-range weapons inside a physics package that could fit into small, ship-based missiles. Other weapons scientists regarded this as possibly dangerous over-hyping and over-selling of the technology, but the Navy was convinced that they could probably get within the right neighborhood of yield-to-weight ratios. By the fall of 1956, the Navy had approved a plan to create their own ballistic missile with an entirely different envelope and guidance system than Jupiter, and so Polaris was born.

Artist's conception of a Polaris missile launch. Source.

Artist’s conception of a Polaris missile launch. Source.

The first generation of Polaris (A-1) didn’t quite meet the goals articulated in 1956, but it got close. Instead of a megaton, it was 600 kilotons. Instead of 1,500 mile range, it was 1,200. These differences matter, strategically: there was really only one place it could be (off the coast of Norway) if it wanted to hit any of the big Soviet cities. And entirely separately, the first generation of Polaris warheads were, to put it mildly, a flop. They used an awful lot of fissile material, and there were fears of criticality accidents in the event of an accidental detonation. No problem, said the weapons designers: they’d put a neutron-absorbing strip of cadmium tape in the core of the warhead, so that if the high explosives were ever to detonate, no chain reaction would be possible. Right before any intended use, a motor would withdraw the tape. Sounds good, right? Except in 1963, it was discovered that the tape corroded while inside the cores. It was estimated that 75% of the warheads would not have detonated: the mechanism would have snapped the tape, which would then have been stuck inside the warhead. There was, as Eric Schlosser, in Command and Control, quotes a Navy officer concluding that they had “almost zero confidence that the warhead would work as intended.” They all had to be replaced.6

The first generation of Polaris missiles, fielded in 1960, were inaccurate and short-ranged (separate from the fact that the warheads wouldn’t have worked). This relegated them to a funny strategic position. They could only be used as a counter-value secondary-strike: they didn’t have the accuracy necessary to destroy hardened targets, and many of those were more centrally-located in the USSR.

WHEN AND WHY DO WE TALK ABOUT A TRIAD?

The “triad” was fielded starting in the 1960s. But there was little discussion of it as a “triad” per se: it was a collection of different weapon systems. Indeed, deciding that the US strategic forces were really concentrated into just three forces is a bit of an arbitrary notion, especially during the Cold War but even today. Where do foreign-based IRBMs fit into the “triad” concept? What about strategic weapons that can be carried on planes smaller than heavy bombers? What about the deterrence roles of tactical weapons, the nuclear artillery shells, torpedoes, and the itty-bitty bombs? And, importantly, what about the cruise missiles, which have developed into weapons that can be deployed from multiple platforms?

Nuclear Triad Google Ngram

Relative word frequency for “nuclear triad” as measured across the Google Books corpus. Source.

 

It’s become a bit cliché in history circles to pull up Google Ngrams whenever we want to talk about a concept, the professorial equivalent of the undergraduate’s introductory paragraph quoting from the dictionary. But it’s a useful tool for thinking about when various concepts “took hold” and their relative “currency” over time. What is interesting in the above graph is that the “triad” language seems to surface primarily in the 1970s, gets huge boosts in the late Cold War, and then slowly dips after the end of the Cold War, into the 21st century.

Which is to say: the language of the “triad” comes well after the various weapon systems have been deployed. It is not the “logic” of why they made the weapons systems in the first place, but a retrospective understanding of their strategic roles. Which is no scandal: it can take time to see the value of various technologies, to understand how they affect things like strategic stability.

But what’s the context of this talk about the triad? If you go into the Google Books entries that power the graph, they are language along the lines of: “we rely on the triad,” “we need the triad,” “we are kept safe by the triad,” and so on. This sort of assertive language is a defense: you don’t need to sing the praises of your weapons unless someone is doubting their utility. The invocation of the “triad” as a unitary strategic concept seems to have come about when people started to wonder whether we actually needed three major delivery systems for strategic weapons.

A strange elaboration of the triad notion from the Defense Logistics Agency, in which the "new triad" includes the "old triad" squished into one "leg," with the other "legs" being even less tangible notions joined by a web of command and control. At this point, I'd argue it might be worth ditching the triad metaphor. Source.

A strange elaboration of the triad notion from the Defense Logistics Agency, in which the “new triad” includes the “old triad” squished into one “leg,” with the other “legs” being even less tangible notions joined by a web of command and control. At this point, I’d argue it might be worth ditching the triad metaphor. Source.

When you give something abstract a name, you aid in the process of reification, making it seem tangible, real, un-abstract. The notion of the “triad” is a concept, a unifying logic of three different technologies, one that asserts quite explicitly that you need all three of them. This isn’t to say that this is done in bad faith, but it’s a rhetorical move nonetheless. What I find interesting about the “triad” concept — and what it leaves out — is that it is ostensibly focused on technologies and strategies, but it seems non-coincidentally to be primarily concerning itself with infrastructure. The triad technologies each require heavy investments in bases, in personnel, in jobs. They aren’t weapons so much as they they are organizations that maintain weapons. Which is probably why you have to defend them: they are expensive.

I don’t personally take a strong stance on whether we need to have ICBMs and bombers and SLBMs — there are very intricate arguments about how these function with regards to the strategic logic of deterrence, whether they provide the value relative to their costs and risks, and so on, that I’m not that interested in getting into the weeds over. But the history interests me for a lot of reasons: it is about how we mobilize concepts (imposing a “self-evident” rationality well after the fact), and it is also about how something that in retrospect seems so obvious to many (the development of missiles, etc.) can seem so un-obvious at the time.

Notes
  1. The list of these deployments comes from the appendices in History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons, July 1945 through September 1977 (8MB PDF here), prepared by the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy), in February 1978, and Robert S. Norris, William Arkin, and William Burr, “Where They Were,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November/December 1999), 27-35, with a follow-up post on the National Security Archive’s website.
  2. All of the quantitative data on these bombers was taken from their Wikipedia pages. In places where there were ranges, I tried to pick the most representative/likely numbers. I am not an airplane buff, but I am aware this is the sort of thing that gets debated endlessly on the Internet!
  3. Thomas Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World (New York : Pantheon Books, 1998), chapter 3, “Managing a Military Industrial Complex: Atlas,” 69-139.
  4. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control has an excellent discussion of the politics of developing the early missile forces.
  5. Graham Spinardi, From Polaris to Trident: The Development of US Fleet Ballistic Missile Technology (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  6. Spinardi, as an aside, gives a nice account of how they eventually achieved the desired yield-to-weight ratio in the W-47: the big “innovation” was to just use high-enriched uranium as the casing of the secondary, instead of unenriched uranium. As he notes, this was the kind of thing that was obvious in retrospect, but wasn’t obvious at the time — it required a different mindset (one much more willing to “expend” fissile material!) than the weapons designers of the early 1950s were used to.

Obama visits Hiroshima

The big nuclear news this week was President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. Obama is the first sitting-President to visit the city (Carter and Nixon visited it after their terms were up). The speech he gave is more or less what I thought he was going to say: a short discussion (with heavy reliance on passive voice) on the bombings (they just sort of happened, right?), a vague call to make a world without nuclear weapons and war, a invocation of a lot of standard nuclear age stereotypes (humanity destroying itself, needing to be smart in ways that are not just about making weapons, etc.).

I’m not criticizing the speech — it’s fine, for what it is. There is nothing that the President could really say that would be enormously satisfying, no matter what your position on nuclear weapons is, or what your position is on him as a President. He wasn’t going to apologize for the bombings, he wasn’t going to justify the bombings, he isn’t going to make nuclear weapons (or war) disappear overnight. Such are the realities of our present political discourse and state of the world. I think it’s a good thing that he went. The speech is an exercise in compassion and empathy. That’s never a bad thing. The one thing I would press him on, if I got to do so: he uses the word “we” a lot (e.g., “How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause“). Who is this “we”? Is it a narrow “we,” a national “we,” a human “we”? I think the latter — but the danger of using that inclusive a “we” is that it assigns no real responsibility. If he wants the things that he says he does, he needs to narrow down the “we” a bit, to start talking about who, specifically, is going to accomplish those things.

What Presidents Talk About When the Talk About Hiroshima - Screenshot

I was asked if I would write something with a historical slant on it about his visit. It is now up at the New Yorker’s website: “What Presidents Talk about When the Talk About Hiroshima.” I went over every public discussion of Hiroshima or Nagasaki that I could find from US Presidents. By and large, they don’t talk about them much, or if they do, it’s in a very brief and often vague context. Ronald Reagan actually gave an address on its anniversary in 1985 but managed to say really nothing about it; a year later he invoked Hiroshima in defense of the Strategic Defense Initiative. In his farewell address, Jimmy Carter invoked Hiroshima in a rather generic way to talk about the specter of nuclear war. And so on.1

The only two Presidents who spilled much ink on the topic of the history, perhaps not surprisingly, were the two who had the most proximity to the event (aside from Roosevelt, of course, who died before the atomic bomb was non-secret, and left very little record as to his thoughts about its possible use before his death), Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. It’s an interesting pairing in that Truman was, as one would expect, very much interested in making sure the historical record saw his work as justified. He, along with Henry Stimson and Leslie Groves took part in an active campaign to push a specific version of the story, namely the “decision to use the bomb” narrative (in which Truman deliberated and weighed the decision and decided to order the bombing). This version of things is pretty universally rejected by historians today — it just isn’t what happened. There was no single decision to use the bomb, there was no real debate over whether it should be used, and Truman wasn’t that central to any of it. It’s a retrospective narrative made to streamline the issues (e.g. “bomb or invade,” which makes bombing look like the only acceptable answer and obscures any possibility of alternatives), and reinforce a postwar notion about the responsibility of the President (e.g. the bombing as a political decision, not a military one). One can still support the use of the bombs without subscribing to this particular version of the story.

The "Atomic Bomb Dome," before and after the bombing of Hiroshima. I find this particular picture very striking, because without the "before," the extent of the "after" is hard to make sense of. More of these on-the-ground before-and-after photos here, along with the source.

The “Atomic Bomb Dome,” before and after the bombing of Hiroshima. I find this particular picture very striking, because without the “before,” the extent of the “after” is hard to make sense of. More of these on-the-ground before-and-after photos can be found here, along with the source information.

Eisenhower’s views for many will be the more surprising of the two. At various points both before and after (but not during) his Presidency he published some very strongly-worded statements implying that the bombings were morally wrong, unnecessary, and that he had objected to them. These are often marshaled by historians today who want to argue that the bombings weren’t necessary. The thing is, this narrative is really flawed as well. Barton Bernstein did a compelling job (decades ago) in demonstrating that there is no real evidence for Eisenhower’s later accounts of his dissent, and that it is pretty unlikely that things happened the way Eisenhower said they did.2

Today I think we can read Eisenhower’s feelings on the bomb through the lens of how the postwar military viewed the public perception of the atomic bomb having “ended the war” — they were being robbed of the credit for all of the difficult (and destructive) work the conventional forces did. Eisenhower himself is a wonderfully complex figure, with lots of paradoxical positions on nuclear weapons. The nuclear arsenal grew to astounding heights under his watch, the weapons moved into military custody, and the raw megatonnage became frankly incredible (in 1960, the US arsenal had nearly 20,500 megatons worth of weapons in it — some 1.3 million Hiroshima equivalents). Yet he also acutely understood that nuclear war would be disastrous and terrible, and he sought ways out of the nuclear bind (Atoms for Peace being his most notable program in this respect, whatever one thinks of its success). Eisenhower at times felt hemmed-in by his times and context, as his famous farewell address makes quite clear.

The fact that both Truman and Eisenhower had stakes in making their arguments doesn’t mean that their views of history should just be discounted, but neither does their proximity to the event mean their views should get elevated epistemic status (they aren’t necessarily true — and we don’t have to get into whether they were misremembered, were being misleading, etc.). Everyone involved in the end of war had some stakes in thinking one way or another about the role and necessity of the atomic bombs.

I like using Eisenhower’s views (and the other views I mention in the New Yorker piece, like the US Strategic Bombing Survey) not because I think they are correct (my views on the bombings are more complicated than can be described with with “for” or “against” arguments), but because they illustrate that the idea that the bombings weren’t the be-all and end-all of the war is not just a late-Cold War lefty “revisionist” notion. They also point (as I indicate at the end of the New Yorker piece) to the fact that our present-day American political mapping of opinions about the atomic bombings (conservatives in favor, liberals opposed) is not how they were viewed at the time. This helps, I think, to get us out of the trap of thinking that our opinions about these historical events necessarily have to be derived from our present-day politics. The politics of the late 1940s are not the politics of today. If we are serious about the study of history (and I am), we should not expect everything about the past to line up with what we think about the world in the 21st century.

Notes
  1. Side-note: In 1983, Reagan visited Japan and said he wished he had time to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among other cities. This was remarked-upon by the reporters attending, but there was no follow-up.
  2. Barton Bernstein, “Ike and Hiroshima: Did he oppose it?,” Journal of Strategic Studies 10, no. 3 (1987), 377-389.

Silhouettes of the bomb

You might think of the explosive part of a nuclear weapon as the “weapon” or “bomb,” but in the technical literature it has its own kind of amusingly euphemistic name: the “physics package.” This is the part of the bomb where the “physics” happens — which is to say, where the atoms undergo fission and/or fusion and release energy measured in the tons of TNT equivalent.

Drawing a line between that part of the weapon and the rest of it is, of course, a little arbitrary. External fuzes and bomb fins are not usually considered part of the physics package (the fuzes are part of the “arming, fuzing, and firing” system, in today’s parlance), but they’re of course crucial to the operation of the weapon. We don’t usually consider the warhead and the rocket propellant to be exactly the same thing, but they both have to work if the weapon is going to work. I suspect there are many situations where the line between the “physics package” and the rest of the weapon is a little blurry. But, in general, the distinction seems to be useful for the weapons designers, because it lets them compartmentalize out concerns or responsibilities with regards to use and upkeep.

Physics package silhouettes of some of the early nuclear weapon variants. The Little Boy (Mk-1) and Fat Man (Mk-3) are based on the work of John Coster-Mullen. All silhouette portraits are by me — some are a little impressionistic. None are to any kind of consistent scale.

The shape of nuclear weapons was from the beginning one of the most secret aspects about them. The casing shapes of the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were not declassified until 1960. This was only partially because of concerns about actual weapons secrets — by the 1950s, the fact that Little Boy was a gun-type weapon and Fat Man was an implosion weapon, and their rough sizes and weights, were well-known. They appear to have been kept secret for so long in part because the US didn’t want to draw too much attention to the bombing of the cities, in part because we didn’t want to annoy or alienate the Japanese.

But these shapes can be quite suggestive. The shapes and sizes put limits on what might be going on inside the weapon, and how it might be arranged. If one could have seen, in the 1940s, the casings of Fat Man and Little Boy, one could pretty easily conjecture about their function. Little Boy definitely has the appearance of a gun-type weapon (long and relatively thin), whereas Fat Man clearly has something else going on with it. If all you knew was that one bomb was much larger and physically rounder than the other, you could probably, if you were a clever weapons scientist, deduce that implosion was probably going on. Especially if you were able to see under the ballistic casing itself, with all of those conspicuously-placed wires.

In recent years we have become rather accustomed to seeing pictures of retired weapons systems and their physics packages. Most of them are quite boring, a variation on a few themes. You have the long-barrels that look like gun-type designs. You have the spheres or spheres-with-flat ends that look like improved implosion weapons. And you then have the bullet-shaped sphere-attached-to-a-cylinder that seems indicative of the Teller-Ulam design for thermonuclear weapons.

Silhouettes of compact thermonuclear warheads. Are the round ends fission components, or spherical fusion components? Things the nuke-nerds ponder.

There are a few strange things in this category, that suggest other designs. (And, of course, we don’t have to rely on just shapes here — we have other documentation that tells us about how these might work.) There is a whole class of tactical fission weapons that seem shaped like narrow cylinders, but aren’t gun-type weapons. These are assumed to be some form of “linear implosion,” which somewhat bridges the gap between implosion and gun-type designs.

All of this came to mind recently for two reasons. One was the North Korean photos that went around a few weeks ago of Kim Jong-un and what appears to be some kind of component to a ballistic case for a miniaturized nuclear warhead. I don’t think the photos tell us very much, even if we assume they are not completely faked (and with North Korea, you never know). If the weapon casing is legit, it looks like a fairly compact implosion weapon without a secondary stage (this doesn’t mean it can’t have some thermonuclear component, but it puts limits on how energetic it can probably be). Which is kind of interesting in and of itself, especially since it’s not every day that you get to see even putative physics packages of new nuclear nations.

Stockpile milestones chart from Pantex's website. Lots of interesting little shapes.

Stockpile milestones chart from Pantex’s website. Lots of interesting little shapes.

The other reason it came to mind is a chart I ran across on Pantex’s website. Pantex was more or less a nuclear-weapons assembly factory during the Cold War, and is now a disassembly factory. The chart is a variation on one that has been used within the weapons labs for a few years now, my friend and fellow-nuclear-wonk Stephen Schwartz pointed out on Twitter, and shows the basic outlines of various nuclear weapons systems through the years. (Here is a more up-to-date one from the a 2015 NNSA presentation, but the image has more compression and is thus a bit harder to see.)

For gravity bombs, they tend to show the shape of the ballistic cases. For missile warheads, and more exotic weapons (like the “Special Atomic Demolition Munitions,” basically nuclear land mines — is the “Special” designation really necessary?), they often show the physics package. And some of these physics packages are pretty weird-looking.

Some of the weirder and more suggestive shapes in the chart. The W30 is a nuclear land mine; the W52 is a compact thermonuclear warhead; the W54 is the warhead for the Davy Crockett system, and the W66 is low-yield thermonuclear weapon used on the Sprint missile system.

A few that jump out as especially odd:

  • PowerPoint Presentation

    Is the fill error meaningful, or just a mistake? Can one read too much into a few blurred pixels?

    In the Pantex version (but not the others), the W59 is particular in that it has an incorrectly-filled circle at the bottom of it. I wonder if this is an artifact of the vectorization process that went into making these graphics, and a little more indication of the positioning of things than was intended.

  • The W52 has a strange appearance. It’s not clear to me what’s going on there.
  • The silhouette of the W30 is a curious one (“worst Tetris piece ever” quipped someone on Twitter), though it is of an “Atomic Demolition Munition” and likely just shows some of the peripheral equipment to the warhead.
  • The extreme distance between the spherical end (primary?) and the cylindrical end (secondary?) of the W-50 is pretty interesting.
  • The W66 warhead is really strange — a sphere with two cylinders coming out of it. Could it be a “double-gun,” a gun-type weapon that decreases the distance necessary to travel by launching two projectiles at once? Probably not, given that it was supposed to have been thermonuclear, but it was an unusual warhead (very low-yield thermonuclear) so who knows what the geometry is.

There are also a number of warheads whose physics packages have never been shown, so far as I know. The W76, W87, and W88, for example, are primarily shown as re-entry vehicles (the “dunce caps of the nuclear age” as I seem to recall reading somewhere). The W76 has two interesting representations floating around, one that gives no real feedback on the size/shape of the physics package but gives an indication of its top and bottom extremities relative to other hardware in the warhead, another that portrays a very thin physics package that I doubt is actually representational (because if they had a lot of extra space, I think they’d have used it).1

Some of the more simple shapes — triangles, rectangles, and squares, oh my!

Some of the more simple shapes — triangles, rectangles, and squares, oh my!

What I find interesting about these secret shapes is that on the one hand, it’s somewhat easy to understand, I suppose, the reluctance to declassify them. What’s the overriding public interest for knowing what shape a warhead is? It’s a hard argument to make. It isn’t going to change how to vote or how we fund weapons or anything else. And one can see the reasons for keeping them classified — the shapes can be revealing, and these warheads likely use many little tricks that allow them to put that much bang into so compact a package.

On the other hand, there is something to the idea, I think, that it’s hard to take something seriously if you can’t see it. Does keeping even the shape of the bomb out of public domain impact participatory democracy in ever so small a way? Does it make people less likely to treat these weapons as real objects in the world, instead of as metaphors for the end of the world? Well, I don’t know. It does make these warheads seem a bit more out of reach than the others. Is that a compelling reason to declassify their shapes? Probably not.

As someone on the “wrong side” of the security fence, I do feel compelled to search for these unknown shapes — a defiant compulsion to see what I am not supposed to see, perhaps, in an act of petty rebellion. I suspect they look pretty boring — how different in appearance from, say, the W80 can they be? — but the act of denial makes them inherently interesting.

Notes
  1. One amusing thing is that several sites seem to have posted pictures of the arming, fuzing, and firing systems of these warheads under the confusion that these were the warheads. They are clearly not — they are not only too small in their proportions, but they match up exactly to declassified photos of the AF&F systems (they are fuzes/radars, not physics packages).

My discussion on privacy by having a Super Spook

One of many unanticipated things that popped through to my agenda this a week ago: I was expected to offer a personal talk to General Michael Hayden, the former director of the National safety Agency (1999-2005), as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (2006-2009). Hayden is at the Stevens Institute of tech (where we work) giving a talk within the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, and also as along with might be found, area of the schedule would be to have him get yourself a glimpse associated with the kinds of things we have been around at Stevens he will dsicover interesting.

The team that met with General Michael Hayden last Wednesday. Hayden is second from left during the far side of table. The President of Stevens, Nariman Farvardin, is nearest towards digital camera. I will be at the table, on straight back. All pictures by Jeffrey Vock photography, for Stevens.

The team that met with General Michael Hayden final Wednesday. Hayden is 2nd from kept on far part associated with dining table. The President of Stevens, Nariman Farvardin, is nearest to your digital camera. I will be during the dining table, at straight back. All photos by Jeffrey Vock photography, for Stevens.

That which was strange, for me, had been that I was being included among those ideas. I know some of my visitors and friends will state, “oh, naturally they desired you there,” but I’m still a pretty small fry over here, an associate teacher within the humanities unit of an engineering school. Others people who offered speaks either went big laboratories or departments with apparent connections to the forms of things Hayden had been doing (age.g., simply because of its proximity towards Hudson River, Stevens does some extremely cutting-edge work with monitoring motorboat and aerial vehicle traffic, as well as its Computer Science division does a huge amount of work in cybersecurity). A junior historian of science will be invited to sit “at the dining table” aided by the General, the President of this Institute, plus couple of other essential individuals is not very obvious, so I had been amazed and grateful for the opportunity.

What exactly does the historian of secrecy tell among the “Super Spooks,” as my colleague, the science writer (and critic folks hegemony and war) John Horgan, dubbed Hayden? I pitched two various topics to the Stevens admin — one had been a mention what the annals of secrecy might inform us concerning the manner in which secrecy must certanly be discussed and privacy reform must certanly be attempted (one thing i have been contemplating and focusing on for a while, a policy-relevant distillation of my historic research), others was a discussion of NUKEMAP user habits (which countries bomb whom, employing a dataset of millions of digital “detonations” from 2013-2016). They plumped for the initial one, which astonished me personally slightly, since it had been a great deal less numbers-driven and outward-facing versus NUKEMAP talk.

Yours really. While you will notice, there was plenty of great gesturing happening all over while I happened to be talking. I know a primatologist will make one thing using this.

Yours truly. As you will notice, there was countless great gesturing going on all over while I was chatting. I am certain a primatologist might make something using this.

The talk I pitched towards the General covered several distinct points. First, I felt we needed seriously to quickly determine just what Science and tech Studies (STS) ended up being, as that’s the program I was representing, and it’s also not extremely well-known control outside academia. (The sub-head was, “AKA, Why should anyone care exactly what a historian of science considers secrecy?”) Now people who practice STS understand that there has been a number of disciplinary battles of exactly what STS is supposed become, but we offered the fundamental overview: STS is an interdisciplinary approach by humanists and social scientists that studies science and technology and their interactions with society. STS is sort of an umbrella-discipline that blends the real history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology, but in addition is affected, in some instances, by things like the analysis of therapy, governmental technology, and legislation, among other things. It really is generally empirical (but not constantly), frequently qualitative, but sometimes quantitative in its approach (e.g. bibliometrics, computational humanities). In short, We pitched, while many people have opinions on how science and technology “work” and exactly what their relationship has been culture (broadly construed), STS really tries to apply academic rigor (of numerous levels and definitions) to understanding these things.

Hayden ended up being more receptive towards value with this than i would have guessed, but this seemed simply to be because he majored in history (for both a B.A. and M.A., Wikipedia informs me), and contains plainly done countless reading around in governmental science. Individually I became pretty pleased about this, just because we historians, particularly at an engineering college, usually get asked what one can perform with a humanities level. Well, it is possible to run the CIA and also the NSA, how about that!

JV4_7757

When I provided a variation on talks I have provided before on history of privacy in the usa, and exactly what some typically common misunderstandings are. First, we pointed out that there are several effects in just acknowledging that secrecy in the usa features a history at all — that it is perhaps not “transhistorical,” having existed since time immemorial. It is possible to pin-point to beginnings of contemporary privacy fairly precisely: World War I has the emergence of numerous styles that become common later on, just like the focus on “technical” secrets additionally the first legislation (the Espionage Act) that relates to civilians and military. World War II saw a giant, unrelenting boom of this privacy system, with (literally) overflow quantities of criminal record checks (the FBI must requisition the DC Armory and turn it into a file vault), the increase of technical privacy (age.g. privacy of tools designs), the creation of new category groups (like “key,” developed in 1944), and, obviously, the Manhattan Project, whose implementation of privacy was in some methods quite groundbreaking. By the end of World War II, there clearly was a wondering juncture in which some approaches to category were handled in a pre-Cold War means, where privacy was merely a short-term situation because of ongoing hostilities, plus some started to move towards a more Cold War fashion, in which secrecy became a part of American life.

The top points are — and also this is really a prerequisite for purchasing whatever else i must say in regards to the topic — that American secrecy is reasonably new (early-to-mid 20th century forward), so it had a couple of definite points of beginning, your assumption your globe had been filled with increasingly dangerous information that needed government regulation had not been an ageless one, which it had changed in the long run in many different distinct and essential ways. Simply speaking, in the event that you accept which our secrecy could be the product of people acting in particular, contingent circumstances, it prevents you against seeing secrecy as a thing that simply “has to be” the way it’s today. It has been otherwise, it could have already been something different, it could be another thing in the future: the appeal to contingency, in this instance, is an interest agency, which, the capability for human beings to change the circumstances under which they find themselves. That is, needless to say, one of the classic policy-relevant “moves” by historians: to show your means the planet has come to be is not the only way it had become, and also to try to encourage a belief we will make options for just how it ought to be in the years ahead.

JV4_7755

General Hayden seemed to accept all of this pretty much. I ought to keep in mind that through the talk, he interjected with thoughts and reviews regularly. We appreciated this: he was undoubtedly focusing, in my experience and to the others. I know he’s done such things as this on a regular basis, visiting a laboratory or university, being put through all manner of presentations, and by this time he had been post-lunch, a couple of hours before giving their own talk. But he stayed along with it, for both me personally as well as the other presenters.

The rest of my talk (which was meant to be just 15 minutes, though i do believe it absolutely was more towards 25 with all of the side-discussions), had been framed as “Five fables about privacy that inhibit significant policy discussion and reform.” I’m not generally susceptible to the “five urban myths” sort of design of dealing with this (its more Buzzfeed than educational), but also for the objective of quickly finding a couple of arguments across I thought it designed for an okay framing unit. The “myths” I organized were as follows

Myth: Secrecy and democracy always conflict. This is actually the one which makes some my visitors blanche at first look over, but my point is that there are areas of society in which some types of secrecy need to exist to be able to encourage democracy in the first place, and there are places where transparency can it self be inhibiting. The overall (unsurprisingly?) was very amenable to this. Then I result in the move that the trick is to verify we do not get secrecy in areas where it does conflict with democracy. The control of information can easily conflict with the dependence on general public understanding (and right-to-know) that produces an Enlightenment-style democracy function properly. But we needn’t view it as an all-or-nothing thing — we “simply” have to make certain the secrecy is in which it ought to be (sufficient reason for proper oversight), and the transparency is where it ought to be. Hayden seemed to accept this.

My most useful appearance.

I suspect I seem like this over If only I did.

Myth: Secrecy and security are synonymous. Secrecy isn’t the same as security, but they are often lumped together (both consciously rather than). Privacy could be the technique, security could be the goal. Periodically secrecy promotes safety — and there are occasions in which secrecy inhibits it. This, we noted, had been one of the conclusions associated with the 9/11 Commission Report and, that lack of information sharing had seriously crippled United states police force and intelligence in terms of anticipating the assaults of 2001. We also remarked that the habitual utilization of privacy resulted in its devaluation — that when you begin stamping “TOP SECRET” on every thing, it starts to suggest a lot less. The overall strongly consented with this. He additionally alluded towards the fact that no body should really be keeping any kind of government emails on private servers thees times, as the system was so complicated that literally no one ever knew should they were going to be generating categorized information or perhaps not — and that here is a problem.

I also noted that the impressionreal or otherwise not, that secrecy was being rampantly misapplied had historically had tremendously negative affects on public self-confidence in governance, which could cause a variety of problems for those of you tasked with said governance. Hayden took to this point especially, thought it absolutely was important, and mentioned an example. He said that the US compromise of this 1970s would be to get Congressional “buy-in” to virtually any Executive or federal categorized programs through oversight committees. He argued your US, in this sense, ended up being alot more modern in relation to oversight than numerous European security agencies, who really run exclusively in purview of the Executive. He said which he thought the NSA had done a great job of getting everything cleared by Congress, of earning a public situation for doing exactly what it did. But, he acknowledged that plainly this work had failed — the public did maybe not have a lot of confidence that the NSA had been precisely seen over, or that its actions had been justified. He viewed this being a significant problem for future years, exactly how US intelligence agencies will run in the expectations regarding the United states people. We appear to recall him saying (i will be reporting this from memory) that ended up being simply an element of the reality that United States cleverness and police must learn how to live with — so it might hamper them in certain means, however it had been a requirement of success in the US context.

I forget exactly what provoked this response, but I couldn't perhaps not add it right here.

I forget just what provoked this reaction, but i possibly couldn’t not consist of it right here.

Myth: Secrecy is really a wall surface. This will be a little, tiny intervention we produced in regards to the metaphors of privacy. We explore it as walls, as cloaks, and curtains. The secrecy-is-a-barrier metaphor could very well be the most typical (and gets paired a great deal with information-is-a-liquid, e.g. leaks and flows), and, if I can channel the thesis of this class I took with George Lakoff in the past, metaphors matter. There isn’t a whole lot you are able to do having a wall other than tolerate it, tear it down, discover a way around, etc. We argued here that secrecy certainly feels such as for instance a wall when you are regarding other “part” of it — but it is not merely one. If it absolutely was one, it would be worthless for people (the only real building manufactured from just walls is really a tomb). Privacy is a lot more like a number of doors. (doorways, in turn, are really simply temporary walls. Whoa.) Doors become walls if you cannot open them. Nevertheless they can be exposed — often by many people (people that have tips, if they are locked), sometimes by all people (if they’re unlocked and general public). Secrecy systems change and change over time. Who’s usage of the doors changes and, sometimes as time passes. This returns on contingency issue once again, and refocuses our attention less on fact secrecy itself but just how it really is utilized, when access is granted versus withheld, and so on. As being a historian, my task is largely to go through the doors of past which used to be locked, but are now actually available for the researcher.

Myth: Secrecy is monolithic. That is, “Secrecy” is one thing. You’ve got it or you cannot. As you care able to see from above, I do not accept this process. It creates government secrecy about us-versus-them (whenever in theory “they” are representatives of “us”), it generates it seem like secrecy reform could be the act of “getting reduce” secrecy. It make secrecy an all-or-nothing idea. This is certainly my big, overarching point on secrecy: it is not a very important factor. Secrecy is it self a metaphor; it derives from the Latin secerno: to separate, component, sunder; to tell apart; setting apart. It is about dividing the entire world into kinds of individuals, information, places, things. It’s this that “category” is approximately and what it means: you’re “classifying” some areas of the planet as being just available to some people of the world. The metaphor doesn’t become a reality, however, without methods (and right here we borrow from anthropology). Practices are the individual tasks which make the concept or goal of privacy genuine on the planet. Concentrate on the practices, and you also reach one’s heart of what makes a secrecy regime tick, you see just what “secrecy” means at any given stage.

And, per my earlier emphasis on history, this might be vital: looking at the reputation for privacy, we can begin to see the techniques move and change over time, some entering presence at particular points for specific reasons (see, e.g., my reputation for key atomic patenting methods during World War II), some going away over times, some getting changed or amplified (e.g., Groves’ amplification of compartmentalization throughout the Manhattan venture — the idea preceded Groves, but he was the main one who really imposed it on an unprecedented scale). We additionally realize that some techniques will be the people that really screw up democratic deliberation, and some of those are the people we think about since certainly heinous (just like the FBI’s COINTELPRO program). However some are relatively benign. Focusing on the practices provides something to focus on for reform, something other than stating that we truly need “less” secrecy. We could enumerate and historicize the practices (I have identified about four core practices that appear to be in the centre of any privacy regime, whether making an atomic bomb or even a fraternity’s initiation rites, but also for the Manhattan task there were a large number of discrete techniques that have been used to try and protect the privacy of work). We could also determine which techniques are counterproductive, those fail to work, those produce unintended effects. A practice-based method of secrecy, we argue, is key to transforming our desires for reform into actionable results.

Hayden's lecture in De Baum auditorium, at Stevens.

Hayden’s lecture in De Baum auditorium, at Stevens.

Myth: The answer to privacy reform is stability. An individual pet peeve of my own are interests “balance” — we are in need of a “balance of secrecy and transparency/openness/democracy,” exactly what have you. It seems nice. Actually, it seems so nice that literally no one will disagree along with it. The fact the ACLU as well as the NSA can both agree that we need to have stability is, i do believe, evidence so it means nothing at all, that it’s a statement without effects. (Hayden seemed to find this pretty amusing.) The total amount argument commits numerous the sins I’ve currently enumerated. It assumes secrecy (and openness) are monolithic entities. It assumes you will get some kind of “mix” of those pure states (but nobody can articulate exactly what that will look like). It encourages all-or-nothing contemplating secrecy if you are a reformer. Once more, the antidote with this approach is a concentrate on methods and domains: we are in need of techniques of privacy and openness in various domains in United states life, and emphasizing the effects of those practices (or their not enough presence) gives us actionable steps forward.

I ought to say explicitly: I am no activist by any means, and my personal politics are, I like to think, rather nuanced and delicate. I am certain one can read a lot of “party lines” to the above positions if one wants to, but I generally speaking don’t mesh well with any strong roles. I will be a historian plus an scholastic — i actually do many work attempting to understand positions of all edges of a debate, therefore rubs down on me personally that folks of most positions can make reasonable arguments, and that you will find likely no easy solutions. That said, I don’t think the existing system of privacy works perfectly, either through the position of American freedom or the position of American safety. As I think we make clear above, I do not accept the concept these are contradictory goals.

Hayden did actually take my points well and mainly trust them. Inside discussion afterwards, some certain examples had been brought up. I was surprised to listen to (and he said it later on in their talk, and so I do not think this may be a private viewpoint) that he sided with Apple into the recent instance regarding the FBI and “cracking” the iPhone’s security. He felt that while the legal and Constitutional problems most likely sat inside FBI’s camp, he thought the practice from it had been a bad idea: the security compromise for all iPhones will be too great become beneficial. He did not choose the argument that you might simply take action as soon as, or that it would stay key once it absolutely was done. We thought this is a astonishing position for him to take.

Generally speaking, Hayden did actually agree totally that 1. the classification system since it exists wasn’t working effortlessly or effortlessly, 2. that over-classification had been a real problem and led to lots of the huge dilemmas we have along with it (he called the Snowden leakages “a result and not a cause”), 3. that people within the government are going to have to understand that the “price of doing business” in america had been accepting that you would must make compromises in that which you could understand and everything could do, due to the needs of our democracy.

Hayden's final slide: "Buckle up: it will be a tough century." Though the final one ended up being no stroll in park, either...

Hayden’s last slip: “Buckle up: it will be a tough century.” Though i am aware he’d concur that the very last one had been no walk inside park, either…

Hayden then went and provided a tremendously well-attended talk followed closely by a Q&A session. We live-Tweeted the whole lot; I have put together my tweets into a Storify, if you would like obtain the gist of just what he stated. He could be additionally offering a fresh book, that I suspect has its own of the exact same points inside it.

My concluding thoughts: I don’t trust plenty of Hayden’s jobs and actions. I will be a lot less confident than he could be that the NSA’s assist Congress, as an example, comprises appropriate oversight (it is plainly clear that Congressional committees could be “captured” by the agencies they oversee, sufficient reason for regards towards the NSA specifically, there appears to have been some pretty explicit deception tangled up in recent years). I will be not at all confident that drone hits do a net good inside regions which we employ them. I will be deeply troubled by such things as extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, water boarding, and something that shades towards torture, deficiencies in adherence towards laws and regulations of war, or perhaps a not enough adherence towards the essential civil liberties our Constitution articulates while the American idea. Merely to put my views up for grabs. (also to make it clear, I do not necessarily think you can find “simple” methods to the problems worldwide, the center East, to America. But i’m deeply, inherently suspicious that the response to any of them involves doing items that are so deeply oppositional to these fundamental US army and Constitutional values.)

But, then again, we’d never go in control of the NSA or the CIA, either, and there is most likely no body who would ever go in control of said companies that I would accept on all fronts. The things I did respect about Hayden is that he had been ready to engage. He did not actually shirk from concerns. He additionally did not take the career that everything that the government has been doing, or is doing, is golden. But the majority crucial, for me, had been that he took some instead nuanced roles on some tough issues. The core of what I heard him state over and over had been your Hobbesian dilemma — your requirement for safety trumps all — cannot be given a complete turn in the United States. Even though we may disagree on how that works out in practice, which he ended up being willing to walk down that path, and never merely be saying it as platitude, implied something if you ask me. He was talking truth be told, and not just a celebration or policy line. That is a rare thing, i do believe, for previous high-ranking public officials (and not way too long away from workplace) who’re offering general public speaks — frequently they are quite dry, quite unsurprising. Hayden, whether you agree or disagree with him, is neither of these things.

2010s, CIA, Compartmentalization, Leslie Groves, NSA, Secrecy reform

Citation: Alex Wellerstein, “My conversation on secrecy with a Super Spook,” limited Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, March 18, 2016, accessed April 27, 2017, http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2016/03/18/conversation-with-a-super-spook/.