Sunday, December 10, 2017

Trump’s Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons

During the 2016 campaign for the presidency the authority the president has over the use of our nuclear weapons became a topic of considerable interest.  Concern was driven by the fact that Donald Trump could become our next president and could gain control over those weapons.  Could a psychologically unstable and perhaps demented person launch a nuclear weapon based solely on his own initiative was the question.  Several articles appeared in the media essentially claiming that yes he could.  An article from titled If President Trump decided to use nukes, he could do it easily was an example.  The implication was that the president had the authority to do almost any damned thing he wanted to do.

Trump has now been president for almost a year and the concerns about his mental state have not subsided; rather, they have been augmented by a perceived lack of knowledge and understanding on his part of what a nuclear explosive is and what it is capable of doing.  The ongoing exchange of schoolboy taunts and threats between Trump and North Korea’s leader have served to elevate the level of concern even further.  Recent articles have come out raising anew the question of the extent of authority an incompetent president might have in initiating the use of nuclear weapons.  Garry Wills wrote Big Rocket Man for the New York Review of Books and Adam Schatz produced The President and the Bomb for the London Review of Books.  Both authors expressed the concern that there was no mechanism in place to stop Trump from impulsively launching an unwarranted nuclear attack.

One of the difficulties in addressing this issue is that the mechanisms in place are not known to the people writing about them—including myself.  The people who know are not about to publicly acknowledge the procedures they adhere to.  One must rely on incidents from the past and experiences of people who have had incomplete knowledge about the process of nuclear authorization.  Most of what is discussed is based on what is presumed known of presidential authority in the case of an ongoing nuclear attack on the United States by another power.  In that situation, where mere minutes are available to initiate a response, absolute authority to launch by a single person, the president, is the only option.  The concern with Trump is that he will go rogue and launch an attack on his own initiative with no credible threat justifying such an act.  That is a completely different situation in which his presidential authority could come up against limitations.  In such a situation it would have been foolish to give unlimited authority to a single individual.  One has to assume that after seventy years of wrestling with these issues a system that makes sense would have been developed.

Wikipedia is usually a credible source of information, but in this case it illustrates the risk in drawing conclusions from dubious sources.  Under the rubric of “National Command Authority” its knowledge is summarized in two brief paragraphs, one of which is merely a definition of the term.  The second is as follows.

“Only the President can direct the use of nuclear weapons by U.S. armed forces, including the Single Integrated Operational Command (SIOP). While the President does have unilateral authority as commander-in-chief to order that nuclear weapons be used for any reason at any time, the actual procedures and technical systems in place for authorizing the execution of a launch order requires a secondary confirmation under a two-man rule, as the President's order is subject to secondary confirmation by the Secretary of Defense. If the Secretary of Defense does not concur, then the President may in his sole discretion fire the Secretary. The Secretary of Defense has legal authority to approve the order, but cannot veto it.  The Secretary of Defense succession plan designates numerous individuals that may serve after a President removes his or her predecessor.  Traditionally, a civilian United States officer must countersign a Presidential order or resign.”

The notion that a two-man rule is in place at the presidential level while our country is presumed to be under a nuclear attack with only a few minutes available to take action seems dubious.  At that point there is no time to waste in discussing the plan to move forward.  As a practical matter, the decision that an actual attack is underway must have already been vetted through the Secretary of Defense or his/her representative.  Before the president even hears about the situation, the system has decided that this is real, in which case the president and his advisors should have already gamed out what to do when this occurs.  The idea that the Secretary of Defense could decide to change his mind about the appropriate course of action forcing everyone to wait until a search is initiated to find the next person on the succession list seems ridiculous.

The paragraph from Wikipedia quoted above lists three references to support it.  One is the article referred to earlier, one is from Politico, and the third is from the New York Times.  None of these articles offer any hard sources for any of their conclusions.  In fact, only the article makes the claim about a two-man rule being in place; the other two disagree with this assertion.  So much for reliability in what you read.

The above situation assumes that at least one nuclear weapon is headed towards the United States.  When that is not the case, there is time to have a more leisurely process in place, and one would hope that at least a two-man rule is active, and there are mechanisms whereby others can provide counsel.  It would make no sense to assign the president unquestionable authority in this case.

Some hope of enforced sanity is obtained from a few remarkable comments coming from General John Hyten, head of the U.S. strategic Command (STRATCOM), the entity responsible for operational control of our strategic nuclear weapons.  As reported by Kathryn Watson under the heading Top General says he would resist ‘illegal’ nuke order from Trump (11/18/2017).

“Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Saturday that he has given a lot of thought to what he would say if Mr. Trump ordered a strike he considered unlawful.” 

"’I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do,’ Hyten added. ‘And if it's illegal, guess what's going to happen? I'm going to say, 'Mr. President, that's illegal.' And guess what he's going to do? He's going to say, “What would be legal?” And we'll come up options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that's the way it works. It's not that complicated’."

The notion that the president can “put his finger on the nuclear button” seems misleading.  The “nuclear football” that is always nearby the president is apparently a device that allows the president to authenticate his presence and set up a communication link with those who have operational control.  General Hyten’s comments suggest that the president can’t press the button, somebody else has that responsibility.  And that someone else, Hyten for example, seems to have procedures in place that must be followed before acquiescing to whatever the president might wish to do.  It is interesting that the general used the word “illegal” with respect to potential actions Trump might wish to take.  That implies there is a code of ethics written down somewhere with respect to the usage of nuclear weapons.

“Hyten said he has been trained every year for decades in the law of armed conflict, which takes into account specific factors to determine legality -- necessity, distinction, proportionality, unnecessary suffering and more. Running through scenarios of how to react in the event of an illegal order is standard practice, he said.”

"’If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life,’ Hyten said.”

Whether Hyten is in a position to say “hell no” to a president is not clear, but the fact that he refers to the penalty for acquiescing to an “illegal” usage suggests he might have the justification to do just that.

It would seem that the nation’s leaders have put in place a system that has anticipated the existence of a rogue president.

It seems one fool is not sufficient to start a nuclear war, so perhaps we should relax a bit.  It seems it would take a number of fools to stumble into a nuclear conflict…..well…. maybe we should be at least a little worried. 

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