leroymoore

Archive for November, 2017|Monthly archive page

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.

Senate hearing planned on Trump’s ability to authorize nuclear strike

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on November 14, 2017 at 11:03 pm

By Chris Perez, New York Post, November 13, 2017

A Senate hearing will be held Tuesday on the president’s ability to authorize a nuclear strike as tensions continue to rise between the US and North Korea.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised the question in recent months following President Trump’s “fire and fury” threats against the Hermit Kingdom and other heated moments with Pyongyang.

Since there’s technically not a single person on planet earth who could stop Trump from ordering a preemptive strike on the North — not even Congress — many fear that a momentary lapse in judgement or knee-jerk reaction could lead to all-out nuclear war.

“This discussion is long overdue,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a statement announcing the hearing, which is being held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Military experts are expected to testify during the proceedings, including General C. Robert Kehler — former commander of the United States Strategic Command — and Brian McKeon, who served as acting undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Lawmakers will ultimately discuss whether they feel President Trump is actually fit to hold the nuclear “football” — a military term for the device that carries the missile launch codes — despite his numerous rants on Twitter and the escalating rhetoric in his speeches.

“Do not underestimate us. And do not try us,” Trump said last week during an address at South Korea’s National Assembly in Seoul.

“Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face,” he added. “America does not seek conflict or confrontation, but we will never run from it.”

Tuesday’s hearing will be the first time since 1976 that the Senate or House “have looked specifically at the authority and process for using US nuclear weapons,” Corker said.

According to the Associated Press, the president has the power to order a nuclear strike without having to seek approval from military leaders or lawmakers.

“He doesn’t have to check with anybody,” then-Vice President Dick Cheney explained in December 2008. “He doesn’t have to call the Congress. He doesn’t have to check with the courts.”

If President Trump did decide to launch an attack on North Korea, experts predict that he would first hold an emergency conference with the defense secretary, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and other advisers before being briefed by the commander of US Strategic Command.

He would then verify his authorization using the nuclear football and security codes that he was given after being sworn into office. The codes are unique to him and contained on a small card known as the biscuit, which is kept on the president at all times.

Once they’re punched in, experts say the order would then be sent to the Pentagon and Strategic Command for launch.

“The technology of the bomb itself does not compel this sort of arrangement,” said Alex Wellerstein, historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology and expert on presidential nuclear authority.

“This is a product of circumstances,” he told the AP. “I think the circumstances under which the system was created, and the world we now live in, are sufficiently different that we could, and perhaps should, contemplate revision of the system.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down his role in the nuclear launch decision-making on Monday, telling reporters: “I’m the president’s principal adviser on the use of force.”

Asked whether he was happy with the current system as it was — with President Trump having full, autonomous power — Mattis simply said, “I am.”

His reluctancy to speak on the matter shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing how US officials have always remained tight-lipped about nuclear strategies in the past.

Tuesday’s hearing will mark the second time in two months that Sen. Corker has publicly questioned the president’s authority.

In October, he led a similar meeting about the use of military force, which included testimony from Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“The president’s de facto ability to initiate conflict has grown in an age of advanced technology, including the use of unmanned drones, and war from a distance, where large numbers of boots on the ground are not necessary to conduct a very significant military engagement,” Corker told the foreign relations committee.

Pope Says World Should Condemn ‘Very Possession’ of Nuclear Weapons

In Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on November 11, 2017 at 12:54 am

November 10, 2017

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis, in some his strongest comments ever on nuclear weapons, said on Friday that the world should condemn not only their possible use but “their very possession”.

The appeal came at the start of a two-day conference on nuclear disarmament that has brought together 11 Nobel Peace Prize winners, as well as United Nations and NATO officials, discussing prospects for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Addressing the group, Francis spoke of “the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices” and added:

“If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Copyright 2017 Thomson Reuters.

Authority to Order the Use of Nuclear Weapons

In Democracy, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on November 9, 2017 at 11:00 pm

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) announced Wednesday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would hold a hearing next week on “the executive’s authority to use nuclear weapons.”

“A number of members both on and off our committee have raised questions about the authorities of the legislative and executive branches with respect to war making, the use of nuclear weapons, and conducting foreign policy overall,” Corker said in a statement announcing the Nov. 14 hearing.

“This continues a series of hearings to examine these issues and will be the first time since 1976 that this committee or our House counterparts have looked specifically at the authority and process for using U.S. nuclear weapons,” he continued. “This discussion is long overdue, and we look forward to examining this critical issue.”

A debate over nuclear authority has reignited among lawmakers after President Trump warned in August that North Korea could face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continues to advance its nuclear program.
A number of rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans have come forward saying Congress must authorize the use of nuclear weapons and a declaration of war should Trump want to strike North Korea.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said “preemptive war” on the Korean Peninsula “would require the authorization of Congress.”

Both Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced bills this year that would bar Trump from launching a preemptive nuclear attack before Congress approves a declaration of war. Those bills have stalled in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also called on Congress to bar the president from using nuclear weapons unless the United States is attacked first.

Corker has emerged as a fierce critic of President Trump over the last month, saying Trump could put the U.S. “on the path to World War III.”

The meeting will take place on Tuesday, November 14, 2017.

Can anyone stop Trump from attacking North Korea?

In Jefferson Parkway, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on November 2, 2017 at 9:52 pm

By Josh Rogin,  Washington Post, November 1 at 1:26 PM

In testimony Monday, top Trump administration officials confirmed that if President Trump decided to strike North Korea, even with a nuclear weapon, there likely would be no way Congress or anyone else would be able to stop him. For at least some in Congress, that’s a matter of urgent concern.

Senators on both sides of the aisle pressed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about whether they believed Trump has the authority to initiate a preemptive or preventive strike on Pyongyang and what exactly would happen if he made that decision. But they left their Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing without firm answers. Their level of anxiety reflects a real fear that Trump believes he can attack the North even if there is no imminent threat to the United States.

“There is no authorization for the use of military force against North Korea absent an imminent attack against the United States or against U.S. forces in this region,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said at the beginning of the session.

 

He asked Tillerson and Mattis if they agreed. Tillerson said yes. Mattis said the president has only “Article 2” authority, referring to Trump’s constitutionally mandated duty to protect the nation. Several senators reminded Tillerson and Mattis such authority is interpreted as authorizing the president to use military force only in response to an attack on American citizens or interests, or in the case an attack is “imminent.”

The definition of “imminent” is crucial because top Trump administration officials constantly say that Kim Jong Un cannot be allowed to possess the capability to strike the United States homeland with an intercontinental ballistic missile topped with a nuclear warhead. That red line seems to suggest that Trump might attack when North Korea acquires that capability, not when the regime of Kim Jong Un is actually set to use it.

“We all understand that ‘imminent’ has some subjectivity,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told me after the hearing. “But you can’t stretch it to mean to prevent them from the ability to attack us sometime in the future.”

Pressed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on whether the Trump team would see North Korea’s mere possession of such a capability as an “imminent” threat, Tillerson said it would have to be a “fact based” analysis at the time.

“The possession could be sitting in an underground, not ready to be used position. Or possession could be sitting upright … about to be launched,” Tillerson said.

He also said that historically, Article 2 has been used not just to respond to attacks or prevent an imminent attack but also for circumstances that do not rise to the level of a declaration of war.

“And I think that’s the circumstance that we have in the peninsula today in North Korea,” Tillerson said.

The Trump administration relied on Article 2 when attacking the Assad regime in Syria in April, but Kaine told me that, despite months of pleas, the administration has yet to send Congress any detailed legal justification for that strike.

Murphy is pushing new legislation with several other Democrats that would specifically require Trump to obtain congressional authorization before striking North Korea, absent an imminent threat. But it’s not just Democrats who are concerned.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is clearly worried that Trump’s behavior could lead to armed conflict with North Korea. Last month, he warned Trump’s reckless rhetoric could set the United States “on the path to World War III.” He also said officials such as Tillerson and Mattis “separate our country from chaos.”

At Monday’s hearing, Corker pledged to hold a separate hearing to determine exactly what would happen in the case that Trump decides he wants to go to war with North Korea. Corker said the process of deciding to strike could take as little as 15 to 20 minutes and he wanted Congress’s role to be understood.

Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) also pressed Tillerson and Mattis for details about what would happen if North Korea actually did attack. That sparked a debate over whether the United States would use nuclear weapons first, even if the attack from North Korea was a conventional one.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has a bill that would require congressional authorization before the president could use nuclear weapons first in any conflict.

“Since the dawn of the nuclear age seven decades ago, we have been relying upon cooler heads and strategic doctrine to forestall the unthinkable. But too often those kind of ad hoc measures seem less reassuring than ever,” he said.

Mattis said that while there have not been discussions yet about using nuclear weapons first against North Korea, he “could imagine it.” He added that congressional oversight does not equate to operational control.

If Trump decides to attack North Korea, there is ultimately no person or institution that will likely be able to stop him. But using military force just because Kim Jong Un had achieved the capability to strike the U.S. homeland would be legally unjustified — and horribly unwise.

When the World Lucked Out of a Nuclear War

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on November 2, 2017 at 8:20 am

YASMEEN SERHAN,  The Atlantic, OCT 31, 2017

The escalating crisis with North Korea coincides with the 55th anniversary of a Russian naval captain’s fateful decision to prevent a torpedo launch at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For approximately four hours below the Caribbean Sea on October 27, 1962, Vasili Arkhipov found himself in the middle of a nuclear standoff. The 34-year-old Russian naval officer was stationed aboard the B-59, one of four Soviet Foxtrot-class submarines bound for Cuba. It was no small mission—the island had been placed under strict blockade by then-President John F. Kennedy less than a week before. When the U.S. Navy detected Arkhipov’s submarine headed in the island’s direction, it sent several vessels to identify it.

Unbeknownst to the U.S. Naval forces at the time, however, the submarine they were pursuing was outfitted with a nuclear torpedo.

In an attempt to force the B-59 to the surface, U.S. forces began dropping low-explosive practice depth charges the size of hand grenades—a procedure then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said would allow American forces to “actually hit the submarine without damaging the submarine,” which those aboard the vessel would interpret as a “warning notice and the instruction to surface.” The risk of this type of action wasn’t lost on Kennedy. When the president discussed the possibility of these depth charges being mistaken for an actual attack with the National Security Council’s Executive Committee, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy described it as “the time of greatest worry to the president,” adding that “his hand went up to his face and he closed his fist.”

Kennedy was right to worry. To hear Vadim Orlov, an intelligence officer onboard the B-59, tell it, the depth charges sounded less less like a warning than like war itself. “They exploded right next to the hull,” he wrote years later. “It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer. … We thought—that’s it—the end.” Orlov said the barrage of explosions prompted the submarine’s captain, Vitali Savitsky, to panic. Unable to make contact with Moscow for several days, Savitsky had not been notified of the United States’ intent to employ practice depth charges as part of its Cuban blockade. Convinced all-out conflict had broken out, he ordered the B-59’s nuclear torpedo to be assembled for launch. “Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here,” Savitsky said, according to Orlov’s account. “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not disgrace our navy!”

It didn’t matter that the B-59 was incommunicado—Moscow had already authorized the vessel to launch the torpedo if deemed necessary. Still, protocol required Savitsky to get unanimous agreement from two others on board before the order could take place: his deputy political officer, Ivan Maslennikov, and his second-in-command, Arkhipov.

Maslennikov said yes. Arkhipov said no.

Though it’s impossible to know exactly what would have taken place if Arkhipov wasn’t onboard the B-59 that day, it’s not hard to imagine. For one, the submarine likely wouldn’t have returned to the surface (where it would have been met not with an outbreak of war, but with a U.S. destroyer that would have ultimately allowed the vessel to return back toward Russia). Instead, Savitsky’s order to launch the torpedo would have been followed, leading to the destruction of one of the U.S. vessels surrounding the submarine—an act of aggression that, as Russian archivist Svetlana Savranskaya noted, would have sparked a chain reaction almost certainly leading to “global nuclear war.”

“We were extremely lucky that Vasili Arkhipov happened to be the guy who was there,” Max Tegmark, the president of the Boston-based Future of Life Institute (FLI), told me at an event honoring Arkhipov with FLI’s inaugural Future of Life award Friday in London. “Vasili Arkhipov is arguably the most important person in modern history, thanks to whom October 27, 2017 isn’t the 55th anniversary of WWIII. We’re showing our gratitude in a way he’d have appreciated, by supporting his loved ones.”

Though the award was being bestowed posthumously to Arkhipov, who died at the age of 72 in 1998, Tegmark said FLI managed to track down Arkhipov’s daughter, Yelena Andriukova, and grandson, Sergei Andriukova, who accepted the award in London on his behalf. When I asked Sergei what his grandfather told him about the experience, he said he didn’t learn the full story of what happened until 2000, two years after his grandfather’s death. “He never said a word to his family because it was closed, secret information—he wasn’t allowed to talk about it,” he told me through an interpreter. “For many years he was collecting photographs, writing notes, writing down his memories, and when the members of the family asked him, ‘Why are you doing this?,’ he would always answer, ‘I can’t tell you now, but one day you will know.’”

 

The timing of FLI’s decision to honor Arkhipov was not lost on Tegmark, who noted that more than half a century since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of nuclear escalation has not diminished. “The risk of nuclear war today is much larger than most people realize, and Vasili Arkhipov’s story beautifully illustrates that,” Tegmark said. “People think, ‘Oh it’ll never happen,” because Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un and Putin would never want to launch a nuclear war. But here we see that you can get a nuclear war anyway, even though none of the leaders—neither [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev nor Kennedy—wanted it. It still almost happened.”

Since the story about what happened on the B-59 was revealed, Arkhipov has been dubbed “the man who saved the world” and the person to whom “you (and almost everyone you know) owe your life.” Still, Tegmark noted, most people don’t know his name. “There are more people who have heard of Justin Bieber than Vasili Arkhipov, and more people that have heard of Trump and Putin and Kim Jong Un than Vasili Arkhipov, but frankly no matter how much you love any politician or singer. I would argue that no other person has ever made a more valuable contribution to humanity than he did,” he said. “We should celebrate heroes like him … not just to celebrate heroism, but to remind us that relying on luck with nuclear weapons is not a good longterm strategy.”