Sunday, 10 January 2021

A paranoid president and 7,000 plutonium warheads

Of all the issues raised by the Trump boycott of the inauguration of Joe Biden as President on 20 January, the issue of how the codes that control the launch of US nuclear weapons is the most pressing and terrifying. Here are several articles addressing this problem: Here's what happens to the 'nuclear football' if Trump skips Biden's inauguration by Ryan Pickrell Jan 8, 2021, 4:01 PM American presidents are accompanied by a military aide carrying a briefcase with the tools necessary for nuclear war. During presidential inaugurations, nuclear command authority and the "nuclear football," as the briefcase is called, are transferred to the new president. But President Donald Trump says he will not participate in President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, which could complicate the transfer. The Pentagon told Insider there was a plan for the transfer in that scenario but declined to provide details. Nuclear-weapons experts and a former military aide who carried the briefcase were able to offer some insight though. An important yet discreet part of the inauguration of a new president is the transfer of command and control authority over the US nuclear arsenal, but President Donald Trump does not plan to attend President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, which could complicate matters. Trump said Friday that he "will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th." He did not say where he will be instead. So what happens to the "nuclear football" that accompanies the president if Trump doesn't show? How does it get to Biden? "That's a good question," Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told Insider. "It is an unprecedented situation." In the nuclear age, no president has skipped their successor's inauguration. The president has the sole authority to conduct a nuclear strike, and wherever he goes, he is accompanied by a military aide carrying a briefcase called the "president's emergency satchel," more commonly known as the nuclear football. Every president since John F. Kennedy has been accompanied by the aide carrying the hefty briefcase, which gives the commander in chief the ability to command US nuclear forces while away from physical command and control centers. The briefcase does not contain a button that can instantly unleash hundreds of nuclear warheads deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers. Instead, the briefcase contains communication tools, codes, and options for nuclear war. Separate from the football, presidents carry a card, sometimes called the "biscuit," on their person containing authentication codes. In a nuclear conflict, the president would use the codes in coordination with the tools in the briefcase to identify himself to the military and order a nuclear strike. Incoming presidents are typically briefed on their nuclear responsibilities before taking the oath of office. Then, during the inauguration, the codes they received that morning or the day before become active, and control of the football is quietly and seamlessly passed to the new president. Trump described that moment as "sobering" and "very scary," telling ABC News in 2017 that "when they explain what it represents and the kind of destruction that you're talking about, it is a very sobering moment." The transfer of the nuclear football is supposed to occur at noon as the new president is sworn in. The military aide who has been carrying the briefcase hands it off to the newly designated military aide, former Vice President Dick Cheney said in a past Discovery documentary. This traditionally happens off to the side and is not a part of the show. If Trump is not at the inauguration, then the transfer process will be different. Still, the transfer will need to be instantaneous, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Buzz Patterson, who carried the football for former President Bill Clinton. "That's the way it has to be," he told Insider. "For the process to work, you have to have this clear handing off of responsibilities." He said that how that happens would be up to the Pentagon, which serves the office of the commander in chief, not the man. A Pentagon spokesperson told Insider the Department of Defense had a plan for the transfer on Inauguration Day but declined to provide any further details. "We war game this stuff, and we practice it ad nauseam for years and years," Patterson said. "There are systems in place to make sure that happens instantaneously. There won't be any kind of question about who has it, who is in charge at that point in time." "We don't take this stuff lightly," he added. "There won't be any kind of hiccup. It'll just go down without anybody even noticing, which is what is supposed to happen." Kristensen, the nuclear weapons expert at FAS, speculated that the plan could resemble plans in place for situations in which a president is suddenly killed or incapacitated, situations in which nuclear command and control authority and all accompanying equipment have to be immediately transferred to the vice president or another designated survivor. Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, discussed what would happen to the nuclear football if Trump did not attend the inauguration with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in December. Schwartz, known for his research on the nuclear football, said there was more than one football. In fact, he explained, there are at least three of them — for the president, vice president, and a designated survivor. He said that if another nuclear football had not already been prepared, one likely would be before the inauguration. There would be a military aide ready then to begin following Biden as soon as he is sworn in. And, at that time, Trump's nuclear command and control authority would expire. "Hopefully President Trump will be there and it will be just a handoff, which is what it's been for decades," Patterson said, adding that if he didn't, "it's not that big of a deal" because the military will make sure that the transfer occurs as needed. Note: This post, which was first published on December 15, has been re-posted following Trump's announcement on Friday, Jan. 8, that he will not attend Biden's inauguration. President Trump at a campaign rally for Republican U.S Senate candidates in Dalton, Ga., on Jan. 5, 2021. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock) By Elizabeth N. Saunders Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2021 at 7:27 p.m. UTC On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to her Democratic colleagues that included the following remarkable statement: “This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike. The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.” Subsequently, Milley issued a statement saying that “Speaker Pelosi initiated a call with the Chairman” and that he “answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority.” I asked Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT and a nuclear proliferation and strategy scholar, what this does — and doesn’t — mean. (The content has been lightly edited.) AD 1. Is there anything Milley can do to prevent the president from “accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike”? The answer is emphatically no. The president, and the president alone, possesses the sole authority to order a nuclear launch, and no one can legally stop him or her. Despite reports that Pelosi received assurances that there are safeguards in place in the event the president of the United States (POTUS) wants to launch a nuclear weapon, any such meaningful or effective safeguards would be illegal. Although it may be customary for the president to consult with his White House advisers, STRATCOM (U.S. Strategic Command, the military command in charge of nuclear weapons), or the (civilian) secretary of defense, there is no legal requirement to do so on nuclear launch. Contrary to popular belief, neither the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff nor the White House chief of staff nor the (civilian) secretary of defense nor the STRATCOM chief nor the vice president are in the nuclear launch chain of command. AD 2. What would happen if someone tries to enter the chain of command, for example by countermanding or refusing to obey a presidential order? Anyone who attempts to contravene a valid, authentic and legal (in the sense of whether the strike package was legal, and all off-the-shelf nuclear strike packages are pre-vetted for legality to some degree) order would be doing so illegally and risk the charge of mutiny. Now, if POTUS ordered a nuclear first strike out of the blue against China or Russia, there would be questions about legality. But if, for example, he ordered a limited nuclear strike against targets in Iran, such as the hardened and buried Fordow enrichment facility, or a complex in North Korea, it would be very difficult to argue that the president did not have the legal right to do that out of the blue if he or she deemed it in America’s national interest. So how does the president order the launch of nuclear weapons? The procedure, as far as we publicly know, is as follows: If POTUS decided to launch some or all of America’s nuclear weapons, s/he would simply take out the “biscuit” or authenticator which s/he carries on his/her person at all times, summon the military aide that accompanies POTUS at all times, who connects POTUS directly to the duty officer at the National Military Command Center. Based on an alphanumeric code on the “biscuit,” POTUS authenticates himself or herself to the duty officer and orders the desired nuclear launch package. AD At this point, if the order is deemed to be authentic (did POTUS respond with the correct authenticator) and valid (is the strike package valid?), it is considered a legal order from the commander in chief. The duty officer then transmits the order and strike package directly to America’s nuclear missiles and submarines and bombers to carry out the order and the desired strike package. At no point is anyone else legally, or even practically, in the chain of command for nuclear launch. Anyone — the duty officer or a missileer — who contravenes or fails to carry out this order would be doing so illegally. 3. Why does this system rely so much on one single actor: the president? The system originated in the Cold War, when the concern was the president would have extremely limited time, measured in minutes, to launch nuclear weapons, and therefore should not face hurdles that would slow him down. Some have suggested this system should change, but it remains the basic fact that if the president gives a launch order, only a military refusal to follow the order could stop it. AD For much of the Cold War, and since, sole authority was believed to be a feature not a bug — allowing the president to quickly preempt adversaries or retaliate in the event other principals were unavailable. In the hands of Donald Trump until Jan. 20, absent his removal from office, it is a risk, one that Pelosi herself raised. The United States is one of the only countries to have sole launch authority — even Russia does not. It is striking that the Russian system requires an additional vote to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s, but America’s does not. 4. What does Pelosi making this public mean? Pelosi likely knows all of this. But making this statement public may be a way to send another signal about the gravity of Trump remaining in office. It is the most extreme example of the powers he retains until the moment he is removed from office. AD The only way to guarantee that Trump cannot order a nuclear strike is to remove him from office through civilian means (i.e., impeachment or the 25th Amendment). Pelosi may want to remind civilians of that fact, even if they know it already. 5. Has this happened before? There is some debate about whether Defense Secretary James Schlesinger asked those around President Richard M. Nixon to double check with him before carrying out any military orders, including nuclear ones in the final days of the Nixon presidency. For using nonnuclear military force, that is legal as orders flow through the secretary of defense to the combatant commands. And the Pentagon can drag its heels in implementing any order to deploy nonnuclear forces. But if Schlesinger intended to try to block or circumvent a valid and authentic nuclear launch order from Nixon — and we are not sure he actually did — it would have been illegal, even if it was the responsible thing to do. There has been discussion about revising sole authority in the Trump years, given his history of nuclear threats and desire to play the ‘madman.' But right now, launching nuclear weapons is solely the president’s decision. Pelosi’s statement just gives everyone a reminder. Opinion | Who Can We Trust With the Nuclear Button? No One - The New York Times

1 comment:

  1. Hard to read. Would be better if it were organised into paragraphs.