Congress Questions Trump’s Exclusive Hold on the Nuclear Football

In an extraordinary hearing, lawmakers plan to review presidential powers to launch a nuclear strike.

A military aide carries the "nuclear football" on the South Lawn of the White House on April 25 in Washington, DC. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
A military aide carries the "nuclear football" on the South Lawn of the White House on April 25 in Washington, DC. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

For the first time in more than 40 years, U.S. lawmakers are holding a hearing to examine whether the president should have carte blanche to launch a nuclear strike.

The extraordinary hearing Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reflects growing anxiety in Congress about President Donald Trump’s impulsive temperament and whether he should still have the absolute authority to wage nuclear war with no outside check or restraint.

The Republican chairman of the committee, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, has openly questioned Trump’s fitness for office. Last month, Corker — once the favorite to become Trump’s secretary of state — said he was concerned that the president’s threatening rhetoric toward other countries had undermined diplomacy and could put the country “on the path to World War III.”

Trump has warned North Korea that “we’ll do what has to be done,” though his aides reportedly talked him out of delivering a more bellicose speech in South Korea during his stop there last week. Meanwhile, frustrated with Trump’s tenuous grasp of national security issues, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this past summer reportedly called him a “moron.”

The Senate hearing reflects a remarkable about-face. The protocols for ordering a nuclear strike created during the Cold War were designed to ensure that the president — and not the military — had full authority over the nuclear arsenal, and that the president could act quickly to respond to an imminent onslaught of nuclear-armed missiles from the Soviet Union.

But instead of worrying about rogue military commanders, many lawmakers are now concerned the current occupant of the Oval Office could make a hasty decision without consulting with his full national security team. That decision is his alone to make under current law, congressional aides said.

In the event policymakers believed an attack was underway, the president could have as little as six minutes to make a decision before being evacuated to a blast-proof shelter, experts said. While military officers would inform him of his options, no one in his Cabinet — including Secretary of Defense James Mattis — would have a legal say in endorsing or opposing the president’s verdict. And if he were to opt for a preemptive nuclear strike, rather than react to an incoming attack, Trump would have sole authority to issue the order.

“There are really no checks and balances,” said Bruce Blair, a research scholar at Princeton University who served as a U.S. Air Force nuclear launch control officer in the 1970s. “No one can veto this decision,” said Blair, co-founder of Global Zero, the international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Under the current rules that concentrate authority in one individual, the president could railroad military commanders and insist on a dubious course of action. But the system also puts enormous pressure on the commander in chief to make a decision quickly, Blair said, and “greatly increases the risk of a bad call.”

Blair and some former senior officials have argued for revising the nuclear protocol to add the defense secretary and the attorney general to the chain of command. The defense secretary would have to vouch that the order was genuine, and the attorney general would have to vouch that the decision was legally justified. This would provide some counterweight to the president’s authority, but it also would add another step to a compressed timeline for a decision in the event of an attack.

Some Democratic lawmakers have gone further, proposing legislation that would prohibit the president from initiating a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war from Congress. The bills, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), would not affect the president’s authority to order a retaliation if the United States came under nuclear attack.

Despite Corker’s sharp public comments, and concerns voiced by lawmakers privately, the prospects of a Republican-controlled Congress adopting a law that would restrict a Republican president’s authority over nuclear weapons remains a distant possibility. But merely raising the issue at an open hearing — the first for the Senate or House foreign relations committee since 1976 — illustrates the level of trepidation on Capitol Hill over Trump and sends a signal to the Pentagon that some lawmakers lack confidence in the commander in chief.

Legal experts disagree as to whether Congress has the constitutional authority to alter the chain of command. And some defense scholars strongly oppose any major rewriting of the protocol, arguing that any reform that watered down a president’s power to react with speed and authority would undercut the effect of America’s nuclear deterrent.

“It’s important to have faith in American institutions and the office. And it’s also important that our adversaries have complete faith in the credibility of U.S. deterrence,” said Thomas Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There should be no question about it.”

However, there is a broad consensus that the process for notifying the president and his top advisors of a nuclear threat needs to be updated and improved with more modern and secure communications equipment and more rigorous training. The nuclear command and control system has been relying on outdated technology, including floppy disks and antiquated 1970s-era computers, but commanders are now overseeing a major digital overhaul of the system.

Long before Trump entered office, arms control experts and former top U.S. officials also worried about the country stumbling into a nuclear conflagration due to a false alarm, a technical glitch possibly coupled with human error that could lead the military to wrongly conclude the country was under imminent attack.

False early warnings occurred during the Cold War, including a notorious incident in 1980, when a training tape simulating a Soviet nuclear attack was mistakenly fed into the military’s computer command system.

In the Cold War, the U.S. military focused primarily on the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. But now more countries are armed with ballistic missiles, including North Korea and Iran, and that has only increased the risk of a false warning, experts said. The danger is compounded by the short timeline for a president to make a decision in the face of an incoming missile salvo, before a threat can be thoroughly confirmed and verified.

Under presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, the military detected indications of a possibly nuclear-armed ballistic missile heading toward the United States or one of its allies and informed the president of the threat, Blair said. In each case, it turned out to be a false alarm.

“It has been described as [occurring] on multiple occasions over the past 10 years. And that it happened under both Bush and Obama’s watch,” Blair told Foreign Policy, citing unnamed sources in the government. But lawmakers worry that with an impatient president at the helm, an ambiguous early warning could trigger a rash reaction before senior officials could weigh in and assess the threat.

Satellite, radar, and other technology designed to detect a launch and the trajectory of a ballistic or other missile has steadily improved over the years, and some experts say the risk of a false alarm is overblown.

U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the country’s nuclear forces on land, air, and sea, was not immediately available to comment. But it has previously expressed confidence in its early warning and detection systems.

Retired Gen. Robert Kehler, who led Strategic Command from 2011 to 2013, is scheduled to testify at Tuesday’s hearing.

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