Trump's Finger On The Button

Two Democrats have authored a bill that would require a declaration of war by Congress before a president could launch a first strike.


A large number of news stories and blog posts have just appeared on whether President Trump – or any president – has the authority to launch nuclear weapons without permission or counsel, and over the objection of top advisors.

The short answer is yes, a president has sole authority to order a nuclear strike. Even in a moment of inebriation, insanity, miscalculation, stress, emotional distress or anger, the president of the United States need not ask for anyone’s permission to launch a first strike.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg Politics published an explanation by Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman missile-launch officer now at Princeton University, of the procedure for launching a nuclear strike. First, the president convenes his military and civilian advisors, talks with other world leaders, and perhaps asks for a briefing on strike options from the U.S. Strategic Command. All of this lasts about a minute.

Next, a senior officer in the Pentagon’s war room authenticates that it’s the president ordering the launch. The officer gives the president a code. The president takes out the laminated card that he or his military aide carry at all times with the code he needs to complete the verification.

Then the National Military Command Center prepares a launch order that contains a war plan and a launch time, along with more authentication codes. It sends out an encoded and encrypted message about the length of a tweet. By now, two or three minutes have passed.

When crews at missile launch sites receive the message, they open safes to get a sealed authentication code. They compare the codes they received with the launch order. Two officers in each of five launch crews enter the war plan into their computers. With a few more keystrokes, the crews unlock the missiles, then both officers in each crew turn the launch keys they recovered from the safe. The five two-man crews must turn their keys simultaneously. This sends five “votes” for launch. Only two votes are necessary, so a mutiny by up to three of the other crews will not prevent the launch. Once the missiles are in the air, they cannot be called back.

This entire process takes about five minutes, or about 15 minutes on submarines.

As the Congressional Research Service confirmed last year, a president has sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons and “does not need the concurrence of either his military advisors or the U.S. Congress.”

Recently, a podcast on Radiolab told the story of an Air Force Major Herald Hering, a former Minuteman missile crewman and one of the officers that would have to execute a launch. Hering knew that a rigorous protocol was in place along the chain of command, but he asked a question: “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” As one writer put it, the entire system of protocols is “concerned with the president’s identity, not his sanity.”

To his superiors, Hering’s question indicated that he might have doubt at moment he was supposed to turn his key. The Air Force discharged him on grounds that he failed to demonstrate “acceptable qualities of leadership.” When Hering appealed and appeared before an Air Force Board of Inquiry, the Board decided that whether or not a launch order was valid and lawful was beyond the crew’s need to know. Hering argued, “I feel I do have a need to know because I am a human being. It is inherent in an officer’s commission that he has to do what is right in terms of the needs of the nation despite any orders to the contrary. You really don’t know at the time of key turning whether you are complying with your oath of office.”

Nevertheless, the board upheld his discharge.

So what, if anything, should be changed to ensure that the president of the United States makes a rational decision in ordering a nuclear strike (assuming for a moment that any decision to start a nuclear war can be rational)?

Two Democrats, Rep. Ted Lieu of California and Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, have authored a bill that would require a declaration of war by Congress before a president could launch a first strike. Congress’s approval would not be necessary for a president to launch a retaliatory strike.

But Congress is notoriously slow at making big decisions. There could be a case, God forbid, when a president has firm intelligence that another country is about to launch a nuclear attack against the U.S. Should the president have to get an okay from Congress before launching a preemptive strike?

These are the very difficult questions that occur in a world in which many nations become nuclear powers. A more fundamental question has been on the table unresolved for generations: How do we free the world from these weapons and the danger that someone will use them? The most important concern about sanity is why we have these weapons at all.

Author’s note: Thanks to Radiolab, Wikipedia and Bloomberg Politics for the reporting I drew on here.