Friday, August 5, 2016

What are the President's Nuclear Powers?

Trying to scare people about Trump, Hillary and Obama have been harping on the chance that he might order a nuclear strike at somebody who pissed him off.

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.

“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.”
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?

And how can we, as a democracy, have a discussion about this if many relevant details are secret?


Shadow said...

And China? Russia? Nuclear Subs?

Here's interesting article (two years old) in the WSJ about American, Chinese, and Russian nuclear subs. The article starts by recalling a confrontation between U.S. destroyers and a Russian nuclear submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"U.S. protocol is secret, but naval experts say American boomers can launch missiles only if they receive launch codes from the president or a designated alternative, because the U.S. doesn’t envision a nuclear attack in which it couldn’t communicate with at least one of its 14 boomers."

Shadow said...

Whoops! Link.

G. Verloren said...

The thing is, whatever one's complaints about the US military, the fact is that the top brass are essentially all highly intelligent, capable men who know their jobs and carry out their duties with conscience and prudence.

I have very firm faith that any unprovoked first strike authorized by an unhinged president would be blocked by the Joint Chiefs and other top figures. No one gets to be a four star general by displaying a reckless willingness to commit crimes against humanity and total strategic suicide. These men and women know unquestioningly that a senseless nuclear first strike literally betrays everything the military values and seeks to achieve, and I struggle mightily to imagine a situation in which they would allow such a thing to happen, without some utterly extreme justification for it.

Heck, I actually think they'd not only flatly refuse to carry out the order, but would in fact immediately go to Congress and start the process of having the president deemed unfit for office and impeached.