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Lawmakers review president’s authority to fire a nuclear weapon

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Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Coker, R- Tenn. Photo: Senate Foreign Relations Committee

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Senators on Capitol Hill held a hearing Tuesday, to re-evaluate the administrative procedures for firing a nuclear weapon.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, signed by President Harry S. Truman, established an Atomic Energy Commission to utilize “atomic energy for peaceful purposes to the maximum extent consistent with the common defense and security and with the health and safety of the public.” The act placed the sole discretion of firing a nuclear weapon under political control, not military control. Only the president has the authority to order the use of a nuclear weapon.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing was the first time the topic had been broached by the committee in 41 years, according to the Congressional Research Service. The purpose of the hearing was to determine if the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons and the realities of the current system that is in place.

Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Coker, R- Tenn, pressed upon the importance of reviewing this policy.

“Making the decision to go to war of any sort is a heavy responsibility for our nation’s elected leaders. And the decision to use nuclear weapons is the most consequential of all,” Corker said. “Whether we are responding to a nuclear attack or not, once that order is given and verified there is no way to revoke it.”

Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, D – Md, said he saw an increase of questions at local town halls pertaining to the possibility of a nuclear conflict with North Korea. The ranking member blamed President Donald Trump’s August remarks to North Korea; specifically, when the president stated if Pyongyang's threats continue, they will “face fire and fury like the world has ever seen.”

“And as the chairman pointed out base on my understanding of the nuclear command and control protocols there are no checks no checks on the president authority,” Cardin said. “The system as it set up today provides the president with the ultimate and sole authority to use nuclear weapons.”

He along with the committee’s chairman stated that the protocols the nation has in place today were primarily established as a result of the Cold War and the potential threat from the nuclear Soviet Union. Cardin then stated that the United States faces a different set of challenges, and as a result must evaluate its policy regarding a procedure for firing those weapons.

He even suggested requiring the president seek the permission of Congress before making his decision.

“Given today’s challenges, we need to revisit this question on whether a single individual should have this sole and unchecked authority to launch a nuclear attack under all circumstances including the right to use it as a first strike,” Cardin said.

The former Commander of the United States Strategic Command, Gen. General C. Robert Kehler, USAF (Ret.), was an expert witness during Tuesday’s hearing. He reassured the committee that while the power to fire a nuclear weapon is a given, there are processes in place.

“The president’s ability to exercise that authority and direction is ensured by people, processes, and capabilities that comprise the nuclear command and control system,” Kehler said. “This is a system controlled by human beings. Nothing happens automatically.”

He added that the process in place allows for assessment and review between the president and key civilian and military leaders.

“I think it is important to remember that United States military doesn’t blindly follow orders. A presidential order to employ U.S. nuclear weapons must be legal. The basic legal principals of military necessity distinction and proportionality apply to nuclear weapons just as they do to every other weapon.” Kehler stated.

Cardin asked Kelher if he would have disobeyed orders if he believed the nuclear strike was not legal.

“Yes. If there is an illegal order presented to the military. The military is obligated to refuse to follow it” Kelher said.” That would be a very difficult process and a very difficult conversation.”

He along with several other witnesses before the committee urged extreme caution with changing the procedures in place as it could have profound implications and unintended consequences.

Dr. Peter D. Feaver, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, asked the committee to emphasize the importance of preserving the human element in the decision-making process.

“For decades, it has been technically possible to build a nuclear command and control system that would eliminate the human element altogether. Every generation of strategic leaders has understood that such a system would be foolhardy in the extreme,” Feaver said. “The human element introduces risk to be sure but it also introduces the opportunity to mitigate risks.”

Witness and former Acting Under Secretary For Policy U.S. Department of Defense Brian McKeon told the committee that it would be reasonable to require the president to seek the authority of Congress for a “first use” of a nuclear weapon scenario. “First strike” in nuclear policy would constitute the United States making a preemptive nuclear strike on another country with nuclear capability.

McKeon was asked by Sen. Tom Udall if an additional person, like the vice president, should be required to sign off on such a lunch.

“Hard cases make bad law and this is a hard case,” McKeon said. “I think taking away the president’s authority as commander in chief or diluting it in some respect by requiring him to go to another constitutional officer in a formal sense -- I’m not sure that is a wise course.”