According to the US constitution, the president is the commander in chief of the military forces and thus has the power to order them to do anything without anybody being able to challenge that decision. That power extends to the use of nuclear weapons. A new book by two Washington Post reporters says that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley, the head of the US military, was so concerned that Trump had become unhinged by his election loss and the events of January 6th that he feared he might ‘go rogue’ and do something dangerously irrational such as start a war, perhaps with nuclear weapons. Milley reportedly convened a meeting of the officers who would be involved in the process to tell them that they had to promise to make sure that any order to start a war or use nuclear weapons also involved him. Milley also called his Chinese counterpart to reassure him.
Woodward and Costa write that Milley, deeply shaken by the assault [on January 6th], ‘was certain that Trump had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election, with Trump now all but manic, screaming at officials and constructing his own alternate reality about endless election conspiracies.’
Milley worried that Trump could ‘go rogue,’ the authors write.
“You never know what a president’s trigger point is,” Milley told his senior staff, according to the book.
In response, Milley took extraordinary action, and called a secret meeting in his Pentagon office on January 8 to review the process for military action, including launching nuclear weapons. Speaking to senior military officials in charge of the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon’s war room, Milley instructed them not to take orders from anyone unless he was involved.
“No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure,” Milley told the officers, according to the book. He then went around the room, looked each officer in the eye, and asked them to verbally confirm they understood.
This has created an uproar, that Milley was violating the constitution by taking away the prerogative of the president.
Milley’s fear was based on his own observations of Trump’s erratic behavior. His concern was magnified by the events of January 6 and the ‘extraordinary risk’ the situation posed to US national security, the authors write. Milley had already had two back-channel phone calls with China’s top general, who was on high alert over the chaos in the US.
Then Milley received a blunt phone call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to the book. Woodward and Costa exclusively obtained a transcript of the call, during which Milley tried to reassure Pelosi that the nuclear weapons were safe.
Pelosi pushed back.
“What I’m saying to you is that if they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol, who even knows what else he may do? And is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?”
Pelosi continued, “You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time.”
According to Woodward and Costa, Milley responded, “Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything.”
This has caused an uproar, with some arguing that Milley had undermined the principle of civilian control of the military, and led to calls in some quarters for his resignation or firing.
What is astonishing is that both Pelosi and Milley take it for granted that Trump is nuts. And yet, he can make the decision to start a nuclear war and no one can stop him. Is there really no check on this awesome power?
A few years ago, Radiolab explored this question as to what checks and balances, if any, existed on the president on the decision to launch a nuclear war. They told it through the lens of Harold Hering, a missile launch officer, one of the people “who sit in a underground bunker and just wait to get an order to turn their key and unleash a nuclear attack.” This is a major responsibility and Hering took it very seriously. These low-level officers are not expected to question the order, just carry it out. Radiolab producer Latif Nasser described the training Hering got. There are always two officers needed to execute the order, so that a Dr. Strangelove situation, where a single military officer decides to launch a nuclear strike, does not occur..
So imagine that [Hering] gets an order to launch. That order has to be decoded, so he would decode the order and then his partner would decode the order, and then they would verify it with one another. So one guy would be like, “Okay. I got the order Alpha Bravo One Two Four.” And then his partner would say, “I confirm. Alpha Bravo One Two Four.” And then they launch. So neither of them has the power to launch on his or her own.
The two officers each had a key and had to turn their keys simultaneously in order to launch the missiles and one person could not do it even if they had both keys. Each of them was armed so that they could shoot the other person if they tried to force them to launch the weapons.
But while Hering was satisfied with these checks on low-level officers, he started to wonder how to know what checks existed at the presidential level. Questions about whether the president might not be in his right mind occurred in 1974 with Richard Nixon when he was drinking heavily during the Watergate crisis and this was when Hering started to wonder about whether there was a system to prevent the president from just picking up the phone on a whim and order the deaths of 60 million people. How could he know that the order he received was not an invalid, unlawful one?
He started asking his superiors that question and was asked to put it in writing. He wrote that if he was given the order he would follow it but that he would have a “conflict of conscience” because “I would be required to assign blind faith values to my judgment of one man, the President. Values which could ultimately include health, personality and political considerations. This just should not be.”
Hering never got the reassurances he sought about any checks and balances on the president. Instead what happened was that his mere raising of the issue got him in trouble and eventually ruined his career. Hering was put on trial for asking his question and the judge urged his to forget it and just do his job. But he persisted up the chain of command, also writing to members of Congress and even the president. He was seen as a pest but instead of reassigning him to some other branch of the military where his ‘crisis of conscience’ would be allayed, they punished him.
“My promotion to lieutenant colonel was withheld. I was removed from flight status, so I no longer would get flight pay. I was then permanently disqualified from the human reliability program, and along with that my top secret security clearance was taken away from me. And once you have a security clearance removed and you’re permanently disqualified, there’s no hope for your career.
I pursued every avenue available to me to have my military record corrected, and to have the findings reversed and to remain in the Air Force. Only after I exhausted all of my appeals was I ordered to be retired.”
He became a truck driver.
We should compare his story with that of Stanislav Petrov, his counterpart in the Soviet Union, who in 1983 saved the world from nuclear war by deciding on his own that the alert that he received that the Soviet Union was under a nuclear attack from the US must be a mistake and as a result he did not inform his superiors about it, as his training required him to do, and which could well have resulted in a retaliatory strike with catastrophic consequences for the entire world.
The Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system displayed, in large red letters, the word “LAUNCH”; a computer screen stated to the officer on duty, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, that it could say with “high reliability” that an American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) had been launched and was headed toward the Soviet Union. First, it was just one missile, but then another, and another, until the system reported that a total of five Minuteman ICBMs had been launched.
“Petrov had to make a decision: Would he report an incoming American strike?” my colleague Max Fisher explained. “If he did, Soviet nuclear doctrine called for a full nuclear retaliation; there would be no time to double-check the warning system, much less seek negotiations with the US.”
But Petrov did not report the incoming strike. He and others on his staff concluded that what they were seeing was a false alarm. And it was; the system mistook the sun’s reflection off clouds for a missile. Petrov prevented a nuclear war between the Soviets, who had 35,804 nuclear warheads in 1983, and the US, which had 23,305.
Preventing the deaths of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people was a costly decision for Petrov. If he had been wrong, and he somehow survived the American nuclear strike, he likely would’ve been executed for treason. Even though he was right, he was, according to the Washington Post’s David Hoffman, “relentlessly interrogated afterward [and] never rewarded for his decision.”
After the Cold War, Petrov would receive a number of commendations for saving the world. He was honored at the United Nations, received the Dresden Peace Prize, and was profiled in the documentary The Man Who Saved the World. “I was just at the right place at the right time,” he told the filmmakers. He died in May 2017, at the age of 77.
The staff at Radiolab decided to pursue Hering’s question and find out what checks and balances there are and much of the show deals with their investigation. They asked around and the only person that was suggested by scholars that might be able to question the president about the launch order was the secretary of defense. So they asked William Perry who held that position under president Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997. Perry says that the president need not even ask for his advice, let alone take it. He describes the process.
“[T]he system is set up so that only the President has the authority to order a nuclear war. Nobody has the right to countermand that decision. He might choose to call the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to get his advice or his counsel, but even if he does that he may — he may or may not accept that counsel.
He has the call directly to the Strategic Air Command to do the launching, and they will respond to his orders. They don’t call the Secretary of Defense or the Chairman and say, “Should I do this?” They do it.”
So there we are. As it stands, there is absolutely no check on the president’s ability to order a nuclear strike, as frightening as the thought is. Why? The rationale given for this system is that in the event that another country launches a nuclear attack on the US, there would be no time for consultations about how to respond, since there would only be about six minutes between awareness of the attack and when the missiles hit, destroying the command and control centers of the US military. They argue that having the president be the sole decider serves as a deterrent to potential enemies by ensuring that there would be an immediate response.
There are other options that have been considered. One is to remove all fixed land-based missile systems and put them in the air or on submarines making them harder to target, so that the window of time needed to launch a retaliatory strike is greater. Congress had also been discussing legislation that says that unless the United States has been verifiably attacked, then the president has to go to Congress for permission before they launch nuclear weapons and that before the President can launch a nuclear first strike, the President must first get a declaration of war from Congress.
This bill was not in response to the Trump presidency. It was actually drafted before the 2016 election when people thought that Hillary Clinton would win. But Trump’s election scuttled the plan since he would never agree to it. Sociopath that he is, he loved to talk about how he had the power to launch a nuclear strike.
Perhaps the controversy over Milley could act as a trigger to really reform the system, since Trump has shown us that that there is no guarantee that only a rational person would be elected president.
It is time to change the system. No single individual should have this kind of power. It is horrifying that we have to even discuss the best way to launch nuclear weapons, something that should be unthinkable on its face.