A military aide carries the ‘nuclear football’ on the South Lawn of the White House on April 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. | Getty
In 1997, as a member of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, I was once the “designated survivor”—the senior official who stayed away from the State of the Union speech in the event of an attack that killed America’s entire executive and congressional leadership all at once. It was a heady experience. I was taken to a location outside of Washington (my daughter’s apartment in New York), where I was accompanied by key military staff and Secret Service, including a military officer carrying what I presumed to be the nuclear football—a black, leather-encased aluminum briefcase that would be used to authenticate the person ordering a nuclear strike. The football, formally known as the “president’s emergency satchel,” also contains options for different strike packages—to hit, say, Moscow, Pyongyang, or a much wider set of targets.
On this particular day, the person who would have to punch the authorization code into the nuclear football was me. Within nanoseconds, an order would go to the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center, and minutes later the missiles would launch. Millions would die.
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I don’t recall getting any specific instructions on what to do if the doomsday scenario happened. All I knew is that if necessary, I could turn to that military officer accompanying me, holding that 45-pound bag, and trigger a military response, including a nuclear strike. It felt like an awesome responsibility to put on one man’s shoulders, even if it was exceedingly unlikely the president—or in this case, the secretary of agriculture—would ever have to use it. I sometimes wonder if I would have had the courage to give the order.
I’ve been thinking about that day a lot lately as I read alarming stories about how President Donald Trump is ordering up options for “limited” strikes on North Korea, or how he reportedly once mused to top Pentagon officials about wanting a nuclear arsenal 10 times our current size.
I’m by no means, a nuclear expert, but I’m hardly the only one alarmed. On Wednesday, former CIA Director John Brennan said he rated the odds of a war with North Korea at 25 percent. Days earlier, the sober-minded chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, said he was worried the president might start “World War III.” Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has warned that today’s situation is as dangerous as anything he saw during the Cold War—and he lived through the Cuban missile srisis up close as a satellite photography consultant for the CIA.
Right now, the decision to trigger a preemptive or retaliatory nuclear attack lies solely in the hands of one person, without any required oversight from Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the secretary of defense. Since the advent of nuclear weapons and the passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, all presidents have had virtually unlimited power and authority to trigger a nuclear attack. And while there are processes in place to verify codes and communication links—the nuclear football—that power does not require any input or consultation with Congress. The framers of the Constitution never envisioned investing the president with the sole power to wipe out all human life on earth several times over.
It’s past time to re-examine the War Powers Act and the role of Congress, the president and war-making in the modern era, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons. This effort must be bipartisan, should involve public hearings if possible and should probe questions such as: What is the specific role of military commanders downstream to execute on a presidential decision? Are we sufficiently protected against the threat of a cyberattack that could trigger nuclear war? How do we prevent mistakes, either human or technological? How should congressional leaders participate in the planning and decision-making process when it comes to such grave choices?
I recognize that in war, sometimes quick decisions are necessary and lengthy consultation isn’t possible. But at the same time, the present system violates a basic principle of self-governing democracy: The American people’s right to have a say in whether to go to war. I’m confident we can still protect the president’s ability to act decisively when necessary, but otherwise provide robust congressional and military oversight to the process by which a nuclear attack is triggered.
In the great movie “Crimson Tide,” a valid launch order is sent to Captain Frank Ramsey, an American submarine commander played by Gene Hackman. As they are preparing to launch, a second emergency message comes through. But it is garbled. Ramsey’s second in command, played by Denzel Washington, believes the scrambled message means the original order is now void, and a mutiny against Hackman is initiated to prevent accidental nuclear war with the Soviets. It turned out Washington was right.
No one should use Hollywood as a strategic guidepost, but the story is a reminder that when such power is consolidated in one person, without any oversight, mistakes can happen. Even under the best of circumstances, there’s no perfect way to manage nuclear weapons. But we can do better. It’s time for Congress to act.