Which raises the question: can the president order a nuclear strike at, say, a nation that he thinks has sponsored a terrorist attack?
And the answer is that no outsider really knows:
Washington keeps details of the nuclear chain of command and its workings secret. The spokesman for the National Security Council, Ned Price, refused to say whether any other member of the chain of command could stop a presidential order to use nuclear weapons.Although that hasn't kept various people from making the statement that this power resides entirely in the president:
“There’s no veto once the president has ordered a strike,” said Franklin C. Miller, a nuclear specialist who held White House and Defense Department posts for 31 years before leaving government service in 2005. “The president and only the president has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.”Wikipedia, on the other hand, has this:
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 Deputy Secretary of Defense would then assume the office of Acting Secretary of Defense in accordance with the Secretarial order of succession. An Acting Secretary would, likely, face the same test: to countersign the Presidential order or be relieved from office. This potential cycling of Acting Secretaries of Defense could be reminiscent of the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” at the Department of Justice in 1973. (However, the Vice President and a majority of the heads of the Executive Departments could invoke section 4 of the Twenty-fifth amendment to the Constitution and have the President declared incapacitated. The Vice President would then become Acting President until the President submits a declaration to the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate that affirms his ability to discharge his duties.)Interesting. Both of these descriptions may be correct, but they give very different pictures of how a nuclear attack would play out. I suppose the point of keeping the details of these arrangements secret was to keep the Soviets guessing, and prevent them from mucking up our nuclear response by kidnapping or assassinating the guy who keeps the other half of the code.
Back to the Times article:
In 1974, in the last days of the Watergate scandal, Mr. Nixon was drinking heavily and his aides saw what they feared was a growing emotional instability. His new secretary of defense, James R. Schlesinger, himself a hawkish Cold Warrior, instructed the military to divert any emergency orders — especially one involving nuclear weapons — to him or the secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger. It was a completely extralegal order, perhaps mutinous. But no one questioned it.Two questions: as the Cold War fades into history, do we really need the state of hair-trigger alert we were on for so long? If the president still can launch a nuclear attack by himself, should we maybe think about changing that? Could Congress perhaps leave the president with the power to respond to a nuclear attack on America, but require that any first use of nuclear weapons get Congressional authorization?
“Although Schlesinger’s order raised questions about who was actually in command,” Eric Schlosser writes in “Command and Control,” a 2013 book, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
And how can we, as a democracy, have a discussion about this if many relevant details are secret?