Headlines about the discovery of nuclear weapons-related materials in the trove of highly classified documents that former President Trump stashed at his private residence in Mar-a-Lago are not exactly confidence inspiring. The fact that a former president simply walked off with information at the highest levels of classification leaving it unguarded for more than a year should raise alarms for anyone who is concerned about national security.
The news gets worse
But if you think it’s unbelievable that it was so easy to sidestep the safeguards and procedures in place to ensure that some of the most secret information known to our government was not packed up and stuck in a basement, I’ve got even worse news for you. Because the process to order the launch of US nuclear weapons has fewer safeguards and would require no sidestepping, leaving it even more vulnerable to the whims of an unstable leader. That decision is put in the hands of a single individual—the president—while the rest of us all just have to cross our fingers and hope that they take this responsibility more seriously than the former president took his responsibility to safeguard those classified documents.
The process that the United States has now for making decisions about the use of nuclear weapons is called “sole authority.” It is an outdated artifact of an earlier time that now carries more risks than benefits. During the Cold War, the main concern was that if the Soviet Union launched a “bolt-from-the-blue” surprise attack against the United States, the president might not have the ability to consult with advisors in time to respond. At that time, the US relied heavily on its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), buried in silos deep beneath the Plains states. Because these missiles are stationary, they could be targeted and, if not launched before incoming missiles hit, risked being destroyed before they could be used. Thus, reducing the amount of time needed to make a launch decision was a major consideration for Cold War-era nuclear planners.
For this reason, sole authority intentionally includes no checks and balances. No requirement to consult with advisers or Congress. There is also no one with the legal authority to countermand the order if the president does decide to launch (despite workarounds that those like James Schlesinger or Mark Milley might try to implement). And once missiles are launched, there is no going back—they cannot be called back or ordered to self-destruct.
The good news: we can fix it
Times have changed since the decision was made to give the president sole authority over the decision to launch a nuclear attack. Communications systems have improved immensely. And despite the deterioration of US-Russian relations, a surprise Russian nuclear attack on the US homeland is still not a realistic concern these days. And, the US now has a fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines that are essentially invulnerable when they are hidden on patrol in the ocean, rendering the need for split-second nuclear launch decisions obsolete.
Unfortunately, the nuclear launch decision-making system has not kept pace with the times. The good news, however, is that it would be an easy fix, that we could implement very quickly. There have been many suggestions of how this could be done, including a proposal by some of my colleagues at UCS.
The UCS proposal would require that the president obtain the consent of two other high-level officials in the presidential line of succession—for example, the vice president and the speaker of the House—to carry out any order to launch a nuclear attack. The Federal Emergency Management Agency already continuously tracks the location of officials in the presidential line of succession. The same system could be used to track and communicate with these officials if their consent were required in the event of a nuclear launch decision. The idea would not be to require consensus but a simple a yes/no vote on the president’s proposed attack plan. If either of the two officials believed that the order was not legal under the Law of Armed Conflict, that the president was not mentally fit to issue such an order, or that starting a nuclear war was unwise, they could veto the order.
The time to change the system is now
You can be sure that those in charge of securing top secret documents are taking a long, hard look at their procedures and safeguards right now, thinking about how to prevent another such incident in the future, while other parts of the government are still in the process of assessing the damage that has already been done to US security (and potentially that of our allies). Despite the seriousness of the breach in this case, we are fortunate that we have an opportunity to learn from it. In the event of a misuse of the president’s sole authority over nuclear weapons, we may very well have no such opportunity. The consequences of such a misuse could be death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. Regardless of who the president is, the system is flawed and needs to be changed.
We do not have the luxury of waiting for “lessons learned.” We must take the only opportunity we have to change this outdated, undemocratic, and dangerous system—now. Making this change permanent would require action from Congress, but that is no reason to delay the immediate steps that we can take. UCS and many others, including members of Congress, have already asked President Biden to change the decision-making procedures for using nuclear weapons.
You can join us in asking him to take his opportunity to do so, before it is too late.