Published: Wed, November 15, 2017
Worldwide | By Isabel Fisher

For first time in 40 years, Congress debates U.S. president's nuclear power

For first time in 40 years, Congress debates U.S. president's nuclear power

"We are concerned that the president is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear-weapons strike that is wildly out of step with USA national-security interests", Murphy said.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the president's powers to launch a nuclear strike, and chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said it was not specifically about Trump.

Corker publicly questioned Trump's decision-making abilities last month when he expressed concern over the president's heated rhetoric that, in his view, undermined US diplomatic efforts with foreign adversaries and put the country "on the path to World War III".

As president, Trump holds sole authority to launch a nuclear attack using the U.S.'s nuclear triad of land, air and sea assets.

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"I don't know", Kehler admitted, to nervous chuckles in the chamber. "I fear that in the age of Trump the cooler heads and strategic doctrine that we once relied upon as our last best hope against the unthinkable seem less reassuring than ever".

The actual launch of a nuclear missile is a classified process.

Addressing the committee, Brian McKeon, a former top Pentagon official, said Trump's tweets during the ongoing stand-off with North Korea should not be taken lightly given that North Korea does not have the capabilities to check to see if some of Trump's comments are mere bluster.

Ed Markey, a Democratic senator from MA who is sponsoring legislation that would limit the president's authority to launch a first nuclear strike, said he was not reassured by Kehler's arguments.

There are two situations in which the president decides to use nuclear force, Feaver said: When the president wakes up the military and when the military wakes up the president.


"It wouldn't be the president alone persuading a single military officer alone on the other side of the telephone", he said.

Kehler acknowledged, however, should the military reject a nuclear strike order that would result in a "very hard conversation".

Republican members on the committee said they anxious that adversaries would see and read about the committee hearing and infer that Trump was losing support in his role as commander in chief, making them more likely to attack the United States or its allies.

On Tuesday, former officials cautioned that adding Congress to the equation would hamper the United States response in a high-stress scenario without a lot of time.

The authority to launch a nuclear strike has remained with the White House since President Truman ordered dropping atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Gerald Ford was president.

He, however, acknowledged that the protocol is different when the country is under attack.

As former Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden put it, the current system "is designed for speed and decisiveness, it's not created to debate the decision". The deterrent strength of a nuclear arsenal is not only in its ability to strike anywhere, but in the ability of the Commander-in-Chief to expeditiously make that decision.

The assurances came at the first congressional hearings since 1976 on presidential authority to order the use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, against a background of mounting concern over North Korea's nuclear programme - and Donald Trump's emotional stability. The order then travels down a chain of military command. In this scenario, Mattis, national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are not part of the chain of command.

"I'm the president's principal adviser on the use of force", he said. Tuesday, he said Congress needs to examine "the realities of the system".

"I think that we have to keep trust, keep faith in the system that we have that has proven effective now for decades", he said.

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