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’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,

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,

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.

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.)

  1. “Transcript: Vice President Cheney on ‘FOX News Sunday’,” (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.