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Trump Era Sparks Nuke Authority Debate 11/20 06:23

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's hard to overstate how thoroughly the U.S. military 
has prepared for doomsday --- the day America gets into a nuclear shooting war.

   No detail seems to have been overlooked. There's even a designated "safe 
escape" door at the nuclear-warfighting headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska, 
through which the four-star commander would rush to a getaway plane moments 
before the first bomb hit.

   Procedures are in place for ensuring U.S. nuclear weapons are ready for a 
presidential launch order in response to --- or in anticipation of --- a 
nuclear attack by North Korea or anyone else. There are backup procedures and 
backups for the backups.

   And yet fundamental aspects of this nightmare sequence remain a mystery.

   For example, what would happen if an American president ordered a nuclear 
strike, for whatever reason, and the four-star general at Strategic Command 
balked or refused, believing it to be illegal?

   Robert Kehler, a retired general who once led that command, was asked this 
at a congressional hearing last week. His response: "You'd be in a very 
interesting constitutional situation."

   By interesting, he seemed to mean puzzling.

   Brian McKeon, a senior policy adviser in the Pentagon during the Obama 
administration, said a president's first recourse would be to tell the defense 
secretary to order the reluctant commander to execute the launch order.

   "And then, if the commander still resisted," McKeon said as rubbed his chin, 
"you either get a new secretary of defense or get a new commander." The 
implication is that one way or another, the commander in chief would not be 

   The current head of Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, said Saturday at the 
Halifax International Security Forum in Canada that he would refuse a launch 
order from a president if he believed that order to be illegal. Hyten also 
predicted that the president would then ask him for options that Hyten judged 
to be legal.

   Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer and co-founder of the 
Global Zero group that advocates eliminating nuclear weapons, said the Kehler 
scenario misses a more important point: The Strategic Command chief might, in 
effect, be bypassed by the president.

   A president can transmit his nuclear attack order directly to a Pentagon war 
room, Blair said. From there it would go to the men and women who would turn 
the launch keys.

   The renewed attention on these questions reflects unease --- justified or 
not --- about President Donald Trump's temperament and whether he would act 
impulsively in a crisis.

   This past week's Senate hearing was the first in Congress on presidential 
authority to use nuclear weapons since 1976, when a Democratic congressman from 
New York, Richard L. Ottinger, pushed for the U.S. to declare it would never 
initiate a nuclear war. Ottinger said he wanted to "eliminate the prospect that 
human ignorance and potential human failure in the use of nuclear materials, 
especially nuclear weapons, will lead to the destruction of civilization."

   Forty-one years later, the U.S. hasn't ruled out first-strike nuclear 
options and is unlikely to do so during Trump's tenure. This troubles experts 
who worry about a president with the sole --- some say unchecked --- authority 
to initiate nuclear war.

   "We are concerned that the president of the United States 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," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said at the outset of 
last week's hearing.

   The committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he was not targeting 
Trump. But he, too, has publicly questioned whether Trump's aggressive rhetoric 
toward North Korea and other countries could lead the U.S. into a world war. In 
the end, Corker's hearing produced little impetus for legislation to alter the 
presidential authorities.

   James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie 
Endowment for International Peace, saw politics at play.

   "But I think it's a genuinely important subject, and I think it's one we 
should be debating irrespective of who the president is," he said.

   Acton said a president rightly has unchecked authority to use nuclear 
weapons in response to an actual or imminent nuclear attack. In his view, the 
president should otherwise be required to consult in advance with the 
secretaries of state and defense, and the attorney general, and get approval 
from two of the three before acting.

   Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School, says changes of this 
sort would put a valuable check on the president and protect his nuclear 
authority from potential military insubordination.

   Waxman and Richard Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and 
Peace Studies at Columbia University, have a proposal: To order a nuclear first 
strike, the president would first have to get "certification" from the 
secretary of defense that the order is valid and authentic, and from the 
attorney general that it is legal.

   These added safeguards wouldn't risk delaying a response to an enemy attack 
in progress, Betts said. They would apply "only in situations where the United 
States is considering starting the nuclear war."


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