Shoot to Wound
February 2, 2017 12:17 PM   Subscribe

So once upon a time I read a thing where, basically, on the eve of his impeachment Nixon's security detail was told that if it looked like he was suddenly taking an unusual interest in nuclear security codes, like he decided to commit suicide and take the rest of the world with him, they were to stop him by whatever means necessary. This almost certainly wasn't a formal order and might have been in someone's memoirs. Anyone know where I can find a reference to this?
posted by Kid Charlemagne to Law & Government (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite says that a variant (Defense Secretary orders all forces not to accept orders from Nixon) was one of many rumours circulating at the time, and was denied by Vice-President Ford's press secretary Jerald terHorst. Not surprising -- it was a scary time, with a lot of unknowns.

Not sure how reliable historycommons is.
posted by Mogur at 12:25 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

As much as the "football" suitcase is along for the ride when a president goes on a trip it's unlikely that it contains a big red button that automatically triggers the end of the world. More like a secure communications device with very strong encryption and authentication to give a message to the specific generals in charge that day.
posted by sammyo at 12:36 PM on February 2, 2017

Not quite that, but various people have said that on more than one occasion, a drunk Nixon had to be ignored and/or talked down off the proverbial button.
posted by Etrigan at 1:44 PM on February 2, 2017

Nonetheless, there is nothing legally stopping the president from ordering the use of nuclear weapons (which is a scary thought in Trump's Amerika). He's the only one who can order the use of nuclear weapons, and if he starts the process, he has to be the one to stop the process.

If I remember correctly, the highest tech part of the president's part of the process is radio. Authentication and control are all verbal and based on codes that change frequently. The Soviets had a similar bit of luggage they called "the little briefcase", and I'm sure that same thing follows Putin around as well.
posted by lhauser at 6:53 PM on February 2, 2017

Background: The briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes and associated paraphernalia in the US is properly "The Presidential Emergency Satchel" (PES) and colloquially the "football" (the Russian version is the Чегет or "cheget"). I do not believe that the communications equipment it contains have ever been disclosed, although it's presumably some combination of HF and VHF (for satellite reception, useful globally) radio.

More important than the communications equipment though is the authentication card, sometimes called "the biscuit", and a book of strike options. In Nixon's time, the strike options would have come from the SIOP and been something of a "menu" of choices, including Major / Selected / Limited Attack Options. More recent Presidents pick from options derived from (the much less memorably named) OPLAN 8022 and its successors, which are updated periodically in response to changing perceived threats and preferred nuclear strategy. AFAIK, there's no provision for an unplanned strike on an arbitrary location using only the PES; the President can't just call an audible and nuke any point on the surface of the planet -- doing so would require work all down the chain of command to do the appropriate targeting. If you want to nuke something now, with minimal further intervention except for mechanistic key-turning, it has to be one of the SIOP/OPLAN pre-plotted options. (At least, it's pretty clear this was the case in Nixon's time; it's a little murkier today with Global Strike.)

Anyway, the President as Commander in Chief does have the legal authority to unilaterally order a military strike, but practically is subject to a de facto Two Man Rule by virtue of the validation requirement: the Secretary of Defense or his designate (the senior officer) in the NMCC would validate the President's identity using a challenge-response based on a series of one-time pads, one of which is either carried by the President on his person (Presidents Carter and Reagan, reportedly) or kept in the PES.

It seems, based on reports of how the system is supposed to function, that the SECDEF is really the only "fusible link" in the chain, because after him the pyramid starts broadening significantly as the order is disseminated (in the case of a massive end-the-world sort of option). If he was truly concerned about a President's actions, he could refuse to perform the validation step. The President would then have the option of dismissing him and appointing an acting Secretary (there is a SECDEF line of succession, but the President can override it and appoint an Acting Secretary without the Senate) and you'd have something of a race-against-the-clock to see whether the President would get an agreeable officer into the SECDEF role before the Cabinet -- assuming they were not in favor of the action -- managed to declare the President incapacitated. Or, potentially, until Congress under the 25th Amendment stripped the Cabinet of its incapacitatation-determining authority and gave it to another body who was willing to do it.

I'm not really sure how that would work, though. I mean, if you're one of the NMCC watch officers and you've just seen or were told that the SECDEF refused to validate a launch order as genuine, it would follow that you might not accept an order to replace the SECDEF as genuine, either. You could imagine a certain amount of time being burned up in this way, perhaps until the President could get himself physically to the Pentagon or something. I've also always wondered what happens if the SECDEF just destroys the NMCC portion of the challenge-response biscuit, presumably forcing creation and distribution of a new one.

Regarding Nixon, the Guardian has a relevant excerpt from The Arrogance Of Power, but it doesn't discuss any specific steps that were taken to protect an unstable Nixon from starting a war in the waning days of his Presidency. Most of the text deals with the contrary example, of when the Nixon Cabinet brought US forces to DEFCON 4 (i.e. on nuclear alert) during the runup to the Yom Kippur War, largely at Kissinger's direction, while Nixon was passed out. It does allude to some conversations that took place off-the-record (and not in the WH where they would have been potentially taped) concerning the possibility, though, so it doesn't surprise me that there's a lot of speculation today about plans.

For irony points, the declassified version of the "Emergency Action Procedures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff" from 1985 is tough to beat. It's a ... brief read.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:10 AM on February 3, 2017 [16 favorites]

For irony points, the declassified version of the "Emergency Action Procedures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff" from 1985 is tough to beat. It's a ... brief read.

Yes. It's good to know that it isn't necessary to spell out alpha-numerics, so long as care is taken to pronounce them.

I didn't see the part discussing what to do when it's determined that the clothes have no emperor. I'll check it again.
posted by mule98J at 1:20 PM on February 3, 2017

Sorry this isn't a direct answer to your question (you've already got some great answers above), but just in case it's of interest:

There is a bill before congress right now, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, that would prohibit the president from a first strike. If you support such a thing, I encourage you to contact your members of congress, and perhaps also the members of the Committee on Foreign Relations.
posted by kristi at 10:55 AM on February 7, 2017

« Older Suggestions for Checklist Journaling?   |   A list of lawyers to fight Trump's immigration ban... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.