Why President Trump Has Exclusive Authority To Order A Nuclear Strike
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump, like every president before him, has sole authority over the use of nuclear weapons. He can ask for advice, but the decision is his alone. This presidency is atypical in so many ways. Now there is one more because NPR's national security correspondent David Welna has learned that this week about 30 lawmakers from both houses, both parties, have asked for and will get an unusual briefing. They want to know exactly what steps the president would need to take to launch a nuclear attack. This comes just a few days after Trump's tweet that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was wasting his time trying to talk with North Korea over its nuclear weapons buildup, and that, quote, "we'll do what has to be done." David Welna joins me now to talk about this. Hi, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: First of all, how is it that a single person, the U.S. president, has the power to begin a nuclear war?
WELNA: Well, this goes all the way back to President Truman after going along with his military commanders' plans to drop nuclear bombs on Japan. He said there would be no more nuclear attacks unless he'd expressly ordered them, and that's been the case ever since.
MARTIN: Why vest all that power to obliterate millions of people in one person?
WELNA: Well, it's - in a word, it's about speed. I talked about this with the expert who'll be briefing lawmakers this week. He's a former nuclear launch officer himself, and his name is Bruce Blair.
BRUCE BLAIR: I served as a minuteman launch officer for several years in Montana, '72 to '74, and nothing much has changed. And I have to tell you that (laughter).
WELNA: Blair is now a research scholar at Princeton who has received the MacArthur genius grant. He says the protocols for using nuclear weapons were designed primarily to respond to a nuclear attack.
BLAIR: The system is poised, keyed, geared for very rapid reaction to bypass almost everyone and to make sure that we could start launching our forces and get them off the ground before missiles arrived on U.S. territory. So it was all designed to bypass checks and balances.
WELNA: Here's how it would work. Radar and satellites show what appears to be a nuclear missile headed to the U.S. An early warning team in Colorado has three minutes to decide if that missile is real or a false alarm - three minutes. Again, Bruce Blair.
BLAIR: An assessment is passed to the Pentagon war room. If it looks like that missile's headed toward the United States, the war room initiates the protocol that would bring the president and his advisers into this emergency conversation, and a decision would be made as to whether it warranted the use of American nuclear weapons in retaliation.
WELNA: Blair says the president has about one minute to make that decision.
BLAIR: There's no one who can veto his decision. The secretary of defense, contrary to popular opinion, is passive. He has no more role to play than the secretary of state, and he may be ignored completely, as might the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
WELNA: Which brings us to the football, that black satchel carried around by the military attache who is always at the president's side. In it is a menu of nuclear attack options. The president makes his choice and relays it to the Pentagon war room. He proves his identity with an alphanumeric code written on a card he carries around known as the biscuit. At that point, the Pentagon takes over, sending the order to launch teams that man silos, submarines and bombers.
BLAIR: A launch order is very short. It is about the length of a tweet - 140 characters - and all of the contents of that launch order, including authorization codes, are held strictly in the custody of the U.S. military.
MARTIN: So, David Welna, what if it's the president who launches the first strike, though? Is there any difference in how that would be carried out?
WELNA: Well, the biggest difference would be that there would be the luxury of time, time to ponder that decision.
MARTIN: But it's still the president's decision alone.
WELNA: Yes, exclusively. Bruce Blair hopes Defense Secretary Mattis and the other generals serving President Trump would take precautions on their own.
BLAIR: That the war room would be under instructions to check with Mattis and the national security adviser or possibly others in that if this order was deemed off the wall by those people, those senior officials, that they would take the case to Vice President Pence who would then invoke the 25th Amendment.
WELNA: The 25th Amendment calls for the vice president to take over should a majority of the president's cabinet find him, quote, "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." A two-thirds majority of Congress would be needed to confirm such a decision. It's a cumbersome procedure. Four days after Trump took office, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey, along with California House Democrat Ted Lieu, filed legislation stripping the president of his sole authority over first use of nuclear weapons.
ED MARKEY: The president should have to come to Congress in order to get the authorization of the Congress to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea or any country. And I think it's important for us to understand that nuclear weapons are meant to be used defensively and not offensively.
WELNA: This is quite a touchy subject on Capitol Hill, and the bill may not even get a hearing. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker chairs the Foreign Relations Committee that Markey sits on.
BOB CORKER: You know, it depends on what the situation is. We're obviously looking at those situations because members have brought it up. But every president since we've had nuclear weapons has had the ability to launch them. That's the way our nation is.
WELNA: One prominent Republican, though, is deeply worried about nuclear weapons actually being used.
GEORGE SHULTZ: We hear lots of people carelessly talking about use of nuclear weapons, and I think people have forgotten the awesome power of these weapons.
WELNA: That's 96-year-old George Shultz. He was President Reagan's secretary of state.
SHULTZ: I think the North Korea thing is scary not just because of the back and forth between the two leaders but also if you look at the history of our nuclear weapons you'll see how many times we had what were called broken arrows.
WELNA: Broken arrows - that's military jargon for nuclear weapons accidents. There have also been false alarms of an imminent nuclear attack. Happily, things have never gone further than that - so far.
MARTIN: David Welna, in studio with us still, is there any example of when the president's authority over nuclear weapons was checked?
WELNA: Well, there is one example. It was during President Nixon's final days in office. His secretary of defense and his secretary of state colluded and told people in the Pentagon war room that if Nixon sent any kind of orders that seemed strange that they should check with them first.
MARTIN: NPR's David Welna, thanks so much.
WELNA: You're welcome.
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