leroymoore

The Senate Questions the President’s Power to Launch Nukes

In Democracy, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on November 17, 2017 at 12:26 am

The Editorial Board, New York Times, November 15, 2017

President Trump and North Korea have prompted Congress to do something it hasn’t done in more than four decades: formally consider changes to the law that gives American presidents the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons.

In a governing system that relies on checks and balances, that may strike some people as odd. But the uncomfortable truth is that Mr. Trump, like all his post-World War II predecessors, is uniquely empowered to order a pre-emptive strike, on North Korea or anywhere else. We’re talking about the authority to unleash thousands of nuclear weapons within minutes. And with scant time to consult with experienced advisers.

As the first formal hearing on the issue in 41 years unfolded before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Senator Christopher Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, bluntly outlined the stakes with a president who “is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.”

Republicans were not as harsh nor so Trump-centric. But Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who is the committee’s chairman, and recently expressed concern that Mr. Trump could lead the country to World War III, said it was important to examine the “realities of this system” by which the use of nuclear weapons is decided. He’s right.

Newsletter Sign UpContinue reading the main story
Sign Up for the Opinion Today Newsletter
Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, the Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.

Mr. Trump has brought on himself this examination of his authority to order the launch of the world’s most deadly weapons. His erratic, taunting threats to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and even destroy the country, his glib talk about nuclear weapons and his impulsiveness generally raise serious questions about his willingness to incite war.

He is engaged in a dangerous game of chicken with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, who has kept up his own steady stream of bombastic insults against Mr. Trump and threatened attacks on the United States with an arsenal that has gone from zero to at least 20 nuclear weapons, plus the missiles to deliver them, over the past 30 years.

 

The president’s sole control of nuclear launches stems from the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, passed when there was more concern about hawkish generals than elected civilian leaders. C. Robert Kehler, a retired Air Force general who once headed the Strategic Command that oversees the nuclear arsenal, said at the hearing on Tuesday that the military could refuse to follow what it considers a disproportionate and unnecessary order. He said he did not know what the president’s response would be in such a case. But Brian McKeon, a former Pentagon official, told the committee that the president could appoint a new general and defense secretary to carry out his orders — further evidence, not at all reassuring, of the president’s unilateral powers.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, have introduced legislation to bar the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. A president would, of course, still have the power to retaliate if America was attacked, but their bill could help restrain a trigger-happy president. Another idea would be to stipulate that the vice president or the secretaries of state and defense, or all three, must concur in any decision to strike first with nuclear weapons.

Because such changes could affect the country’s ability to deter adversaries with the threat of a rapid nuclear attack, they must be carefully considered. The Republican-led Congress, which has shown few signs of pushing back against presidential powers, may end up taking no action. Mr. Corker says he does not see a legislative solution at the moment, though “over the course of the next several months one might develop.” What we do know is that there are hard questions to be addressed, especially now that the American people have been alerted to the scope and potential peril of Mr. Trump’s powers.

Advertisements

Thousands of scientists issue bleak ‘second notice’ to humanity

In Climate change, Environment, Politics, Public Health on November 15, 2017 at 9:38 am

By Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, Speaking of Science, November 13, 2017

In late 1992, 1,700 scientists from around the world issued a dire “warning to humanity.” They said humans had pushed Earth’s ecosystems to their breaking point and were well on the way to ruining the planet. The letter listed environmental impacts like they were biblical plagues — stratospheric ozone depletion, air and water pollution, the collapse of fisheries and loss of soil productivity, deforestation, species loss and catastrophic global climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“If not checked,” wrote the scientists, led by particle physicist and Union of Concerned Scientists co-founder Henry Kendall, “many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

But things were only going to get worse.

To mark the letter’s 25th anniversary, researchers have issued a bracing follow-up. In a communique published Monday in the journal BioScience, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries assess the world’s latest responses to various environmental threats. Once again, they find us sorely wanting

“Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” they write.

This letter, spearheaded by Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple, serves as a “second notice,” the authors say: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

Global climate change sits atop the new letter’s list of planetary threats. Global average temperatures have risen by more than half a degree Celsius since 1992, and annual carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 62 percent.

The government’s National Climate Assessment released on Nov. 3 cited human influence as the “dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)
But it’s far from the only problem people face. Access to fresh water has declined, as has the amount of forestland and the number of wild-caught fish (a marker of the health of global fisheries). The number of ocean dead zones has increased. The human population grew by a whopping 2 billion, while the populations of all other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by nearly 30 percent.

The lone bright spot exists way up in the stratosphere, where the hole in the planet’s protective ozone layer has shrunk to its smallest size since 1988. Scientists credit that progress to the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons — chemicals once used in refrigerators, air conditioners and aerosol cans that trigger reactions in the atmosphere to break down ozone.“The rapid global decline in ozone depleting substances shows that we can make positive change when we act decisively,” the letter says.

The authors offer 13 suggestions for reining in our impact on the planet, including establishing nature reserves, reducing food waste, developing green technologies and establishing economic incentives to shift patterns of consumption.

To this end, Ripple and his colleagues have formed a new organization, the Alliance of World Scientists, aimed at providing a science-based perspective on issues affecting the well-being of people and the planet.

“Scientists are in the business of analyzing data and looking at the long-term consequences,” Ripple said in a release. “Those who signed this second warning aren’t just raising a false alarm. They are acknowledging the obvious signs that we are heading down an unsustainable path. We are hoping that our paper will ignite a widespread public debate about the global environment and climate.”

In late 1992, 1,700 scientists from around the world issued a dire “warning to humanity.” They said humans had pushed Earth’s ecosystems to their breaking point and were well on the way to ruining the planet. The letter listed environmental impacts like they were biblical plagues — stratospheric ozone depletion, air and water pollution, the collapse of fisheries and loss of soil productivity, deforestation, species loss and catastrophic global climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“If not checked,” wrote the scientists, led by particle physicist and Union of Concerned Scientists co-founder Henry Kendall, “many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

But things were only going to get worse.

To mark the letter’s 25th anniversary, researchers have issued a bracing follow-up. In a communique published Monday in the journal BioScience, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries assess the world’s latest responses to various environmental threats. Once again, they find us sorely wanting.

“Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” they write.

This letter, spearheaded by Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple, serves as a “second notice,” the authors say: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

Global climate change sits atop the new letter’s list of planetary threats. Global average temperatures have risen by more than half a degree Celsius since 1992, and annual carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 62 percent.

The government’s National Climate Assessment released on Nov. 3 cited human influence as the “dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)
But it’s far from the only problem people face. Access to fresh water has declined, as has the amount of forestland and the number of wild-caught fish (a marker of the health of global fisheries). The number of ocean dead zones has increased. The human population grew by a whopping 2 billion, while the populations of all other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by nearly 30 percent.

The lone bright spot exists way up in the stratosphere, where the hole in the planet’s protective ozone layer has shrunk to its smallest size since 1988. Scientists credit that progress to the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons — chemicals once used in refrigerators, air conditioners and aerosol cans that trigger reactions in the atmosphere to break down ozone.“The rapid global decline in ozone depleting substances shows that we can make positive change when we act decisively,” the letter says.

The authors offer 13 suggestions for reining in our impact on the planet, including establishing nature reserves, reducing food waste, developing green technologies and establishing economic incentives to shift patterns of consumption.

To this end, Ripple and his colleagues have formed a new organization, the Alliance of World Scientists, aimed at providing a science-based perspective on issues affecting the well-being of people and the planet.

“Scientists are in the business of analyzing data and looking at the long-term consequences,” Ripple said in a release. “Those who signed this second warning aren’t just raising a false alarm. They are acknowledging the obvious signs that we are heading down an unsustainable path. We are hoping that our paper will ignite a widespread public debate about the global environment and climate.”

Does Congress Think Trump Can Be Trusted With Nuclear Weapons? At a hearing, senators shared their fears.

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on November 15, 2017 at 9:24 am

Bryce Vickmark/ZUMA; RomoloTavani/iStock  November 14, 2017

This past summer, I explored probably one of the most important questions facing the nation and the world: could President Donald Trump be stopped from recklessly using nuclear weapons? Interviews with several experts in nuclear command and control yielded an answer that was not encouraging: probably not, unless his order to launch was met with a full-scale mutiny from the military. On Tuesday, the Senate foreign relations committee examined this topic, and it hardly presented a clearer or more reassuring picture.

As senators questioned three experts—retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, a former commander of the US Strategic Command, Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University, and Brian McKeon, a former acting undersecretary of policy at the Pentagon—the point was repeatedly made that Trump has the ultimate and sole authority to send nuclear weapons flying. This is especially true in the case of the United States facing an imminent threat, such as a foreign adversary launching (or preparing to launch) a nuclear strike against the United States. In these circumstances, the president would have minutes to decide whether to order a nuclear assault. There would be little time for the president to consult with anyone but a few advisers before reaching a decision. The nation and the rest of the world would be at his mercy.

The other scenario considered by the committee and its witnesses was less cut and dry: what could happen if the president ordered a nuclear attack when there was no imminent threat? Say, Trump wanted to strike at Rocket Man in North Korea because he would not give up his nuclear weapons program. Was there any ability to counter a presidential decision to use nuclear weapons in such an instance?

Kehler contended that a rational process was in place and that a presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would be subject to the fundamental constraints applicable to all military orders. “The military does not blindly follow orders,” Kehler said, explaining that such orders “must be legal” in terms of military necessity and proportionality. He seemed to be suggesting that the US Strategic Command, which is in charge of the US nuclear arsenal, could reject an order it deemed illegal. “There are always legal constraints” on all military operations, he insisted, and he pointed out that the military “is not obligated to follow illegal orders.” He added, “If you believe [a military order] did not meet the legal test of proportionality…you retain the decision to disobey the commander in chief.”

That seemed heartening. But there was one one huge wrinkle. Asked what would happen if a military commander concluded a presidential order to use nuclear weapons was not legal, Kehler said that “would be a very difficult process and would be a very difficult conversation.” He did envision the possibility of a commander saying, “I have a question. I am not willing to proceed.” What would happen next? “I don’t know,” Kehler replied.

McKeon, though, had an answer. He told the committee that the president would certainly have recourse in the face of a defiant commander: He could order the defense secretary to instruct the commander to implement the order. If that didn’t work, the president could immediately fire the defense secretary and commander and get new ones. In other words, a commander refusing a nuclear order would likely only delay a president bent on deploying nuclear weapons. It would take essentially a military rebellion—commander after commander saying no to the president—to stop this nuclear war.

At one point, McKeon tried to present a calming sentiment: “It’s hard to imagine—and would be very unusual—for the president to make the decision to use nuclear weapons without consultations.” He insisted that if the president’s military and national security advisers had concerns about an order to use nuclear weapons, “we would be able to resolve those issues.” Feaver noted there would be a “large group” of military and legal advisers weighing in.

But Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) offered a sharp retort: “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable and is so volatile…that he might order a nuclear weapon strike that is so wildly out of step with US national security interests.” Could calmer heads prevail? Not necessarily.

Watching the hearing, Joe Cirincione, a nuclear weapons expert and president of the Ploughshares Fund, tweeted, “Those defending the status quo, like Kehler, pretend that a ‘conference’ or ‘consultation’ must take place. This is not true. POTUS can make decision all by himself.” He added, “Kehler is trying desperately to avoid the obvious: If a crazy President orders a legal nuclear strike from one of the already vetted war plans, there is no one that can stop him.” (Cirincione also criticized the selection of the panel: “If you’re having a hearing on changing the president’s ability to launch nuclear war, you might want to have at least one witness who thinks we need to change. Just saying.”)

At the hearing, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) promoted legislation he has introduced that would prohibit a president from launching a nuclear first strike—that means an attack that is not in response to an imminent threat—without a declaration of war by Congress. Markey has argued that no president should be allowed to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack. (Former Defense Secretary William Perry has endorsed Markey’s bill.) “I don’t think we should be trusting the generals to be a check on the president,” Markey said.

At the start of the hearing, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) noted that he usually doesn’t get questions about foreign policy when he holds town hall meetings with constituents, but lately he has repeatedly been asked if the president can “really order a nuclear attack without any controls.” And Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the committee chairman, said that this hearing was the first time in 41 years that any foreign affairs committee of Congress has met to discuss this topic.

That’s what Trump has done: he has made nuclear fears quite real again. The witnesses tried to depict the current policy as generally safe and reasonable. But they could not avoid a basic fact: the system ultimately depends on the judgement of one person. Trump is an erratic and impulsive man who has repeatedly demonstrated minimal devotion to facts. He also has expressed troubling views about nuclear weapons, sometimes adopting a fatalistic stance toward nuclear war. This hearing did little to allay reasonable worries about Trump and nukes. The only consolation prize is that it demonstrated that if you’re losing sleep about Trump possessing the power to destroy the civilized world, you are not alone.