In late September, just over half of voters surveyed nationwide said they wouldn’t trust Donald Trump with the codes to launch a nuclear attack. About a third said the same of Hillary Clinton.
For the first time in decades, the prospect of nuclear warfare is a center-stage issue in presidential politics. Tensions with Russia are at a post-Cold War high, and North Korea appears close to developing a nuclear missile that could reach U.S. soil. Meanwhile, some global leaders and foreign policy experts have been disturbed by Trump’s statements questioning U.S. alliances and the wisdom of nuclear nonproliferation.
As a result, the Clinton campaign has hammered the Republican nominee in debates and in TV ads. Clinton released a new spot Monday featuring the “Daisy Girl” actress from a famous ad questioning Barry Goldwater’s fitness to be president during the 1964 campaign, the last time control of nuclear weapons figured so prominently in a presidential race.
The political discussion raises questions about the role of a president in a moment of nuclear crisis, a moment that would unfold at the White House, the Pentagon and just south of Omaha at the U.S. Strategic Command.
While Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have many checks on presidential power, the decision to launch an emergency nuclear weapons strike is entirely in the hands of the president.
Adm. Cecil Haney, who will step down Thursday as StratCom’s commander, said as much in an interview with The World-Herald last week:
“Only the president can authorize the use of a nuclear weapon.”
Few people know more about nuclear command and control than Bruce Blair, a research scholar at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. He’s been studying the topic for decades — ever since his days as a junior Air Force officer with the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base, and later as a missile launch control officer.
He recalls being on duty during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when a coalition of Arab states attacked Israel. President Richard Nixon boosted the military’s alert level to DEFCON 3.
Had a launch order come, Blair said, he would have obeyed.
“I had no idea what was going on in the Middle East,” he said. “The guys down the chain of command don’t have any basis (to reverse an order).”
His experience helped turn him against nuclear weapons. He is the co-founder of Global Zero, an organization dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons around the world.
He also appeared for Clinton in a campaign ad, walking around an empty missile silo in South Dakota.
In an interview, Blair laid out what might happen in a nuclear scenario.
A military aide is always near the president, carrying the nuclear “football” — a suitcase with communication tools and a book with prepared war plans for certain targets.
The president, Blair explained, can choose to target nuclear or other weapons facilities, military-industrial centers and the headquarters of foreign leaders. Preset plans are available targeting Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, Blair said in an interview. (A plan targeting Syria was recently removed, he said.) He said about 900 nuclear weapons are available for instant launch.
Time permitting, the president would quickly get together key aides in the White House situation room. They would hold a teleconference with the chief of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), who would offer details about inbound enemy missiles, and the StratCom commander, who would lay out the strike options.
“The role of the head of Strategic Command is really important,” Blair said. “Essentially, everyone else is listeners.”
The president would have only minutes to select an option, prepare his or her instructions and contact the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon. After identifying himself or herself with codes from a unique ID card known as the “biscuit,” the president would transmit the launch order — sending a duplicate copy to StratCom in case one or the other is annihilated before the order is carried out.
“Once it’s transmitted to the war room, they would execute it in a minute or so,” Blair said. “The (land-based) Minuteman missiles will fire in two minutes. The submarines will fire in 15 minutes. It’s just too late to reverse that.”
The issue of who controls the nukes came up at some length in September at Senate hearings on the confirmation of Haney’s successor, Gen. John Hyten.
Hyten said his job is to give advice. But he made it clear that the authority lies with the president — a fundamental principle since the dawn of the nuclear age.
“The commander in chief is the commander in chief,” Hyten said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee’s chairman, raised eyebrows when he admonished Hyten.
“I think, General, you ought to read the Constitution,” McCain said. “Nuclear strike, depending on the circumstances, would require a declaration of war. Only the Congress can ... approve of a declaration of war.”
McCain is correct that the Constitution reserves to Congress the power to declare war — a power last invoked 75 years ago during World War II.
But U.S. forces have been deployed for combat many times since then, sometimes with minimal congressional consultation. In the nuclear era, when leaders may have only minutes to execute a response to an attack, presidents and congressional leaders of both parties have accepted the president’s authority in nuclear matters.
“McCain’s wrong,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. “The president has the full and sole authority to authorize nuclear weapons.”
There are rules that are supposed to govern the use of nuclear weapons.
“An action has to be necessary. It can’t be gratuitous,” Lewis said. “You can’t use a nuclear weapon just to scare the (expletive) out of somebody.”
There’s a rule against overkill, too. Commanders shouldn’t use a nuclear weapon if a conventional one will do — for example, they shouldn’t drop an atomic bomb on the hideout of a terrorist leader.
Military officers who carry out launch orders are well-versed in these nuances, and they are obliged to disobey an order that they believe to be illegal.
“You could have a commander saying, ‘You’re a wacko, we’re not going to do this,’ ” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “They are human beings that have to execute it.”
But there’s also a strong culture of following orders and sticking with established protocols.
“For a lot of different reasons, I don’t think anybody would step in,” Blair said.
Anyway, Blair said, even if one person disobeyed the order, it wouldn’t make a difference. The nuclear command structure is set up to insulate against a single person, or even multiple people, failing to carry out orders. Launching an ICBM requires two launch officers to turn keys simultaneously — but in an attack that features multiple missiles, not every crew needs to succeed for missiles to fly.
“Once the order goes, it goes so fast,” Lewis said. “The idea of a 3 a.m. phone call, the president having his or her finger on the button — that’s the extreme character test.”