Thursday, February 25, 2021

Trust Everybody, But Always Cut The Cards

Politico has reported that nearly three dozen House Democrats have sent to the White House a letter proposing that the President relinquish sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. Alternatives suggested include one which would require the Speaker of the House or the vice president  "neither of whom can be removed by the president if they disagree — to concur with a launch order.”

As usual, the right-wing propaganda machine is not arguing against the merits of the proposal, instead borrowing from their bag of ad hominem attacks.  This includes Gateway Pundit retweeting the remark "Joe Biden is mentally compromised and they know it" and concluding "Biden is not nearly as sharp as he used to be. Anyone who has watched him trying to speak knows this."

In 2019 Elizabeth Warren introduced (with six co-sponsors) the Senate version of a bill to declare as USA policy no first use of nuclear weapons. The proposal was met with hostility from Republicans and skepticism from some Democrats. However, it should bring to mind this BBC story of a Cold War near-miss:

In the early hours of the morning, the Soviet Union's early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched. The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.

But duty officer Stanislav Petrov - whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches - decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm.

This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up.

But his decision may have saved the world.

"I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it," he told the BBC's Russian Service 30 years after that overnight shift.

Mr Petrov - who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel and now lives in a small town near Moscow - was part of a well-trained team which served at one of the Soviet Union's early warning bases, not far from Moscow. His training was rigorous, his instructions very clear.

His job was to register any missile strikes and to report them to the Soviet military and political leadership. In the political climate of 1983, a retaliatory strike would have been almost certain.

And yet, when the moment came, he says he almost froze in place.

"The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it," he says.

The system was telling him that the level of reliability of that alert was "highest". There could be no doubt. America had launched a missile.

"A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from 'launch' to 'missile strike'," he says.

Mr Petrov smokes cheap Russian cigarettes as he relates the incidents he must have played over countless times in his mind.

"There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union's military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay.

"All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders - but I couldn't move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan," he told us.

Although the nature of the alert seemed to be abundantly clear, Mr Petrov had some doubts.

Alongside IT specialists, like him, Soviet Union had other experts, also watching America's missile forces. A group of satellite radar operators told him they had registered no missiles.

But those people were only a support service. The protocol said, very clearly, that the decision had to be based on computer readouts. And that decision rested with him, the duty officer.

But what made him suspicious was just how strong and clear that alert was.

"There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those 'checkpoints'. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances," says the retired officer.

Mr Petrov called the duty officer in the Soviet army's headquarters and reported a system malfunction.

If he was wrong, the first nuclear explosions would have happened minutes later.

Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief," he says with a smile.

One of President Reagan's favorite quips- "trust, but verify"- was a translation of the Russian "Doveryai no proveryai." It's critical that other nations trust that the USA will avoid using nuclear weapons as a first option. When Senator Warren was asked at an 8/19/15 debate about her bill, she explained "We don't expand trust around the world by saying, ‘You know, we might be the first ones to use a nuclear weapon." 

In order to trust that a decision by the federal government to order a nuclear strike is reasonable, there should be two very high-ranking officials, neither beholden to the other, to agree. If that policy were known to our rivals- as obviously it would be- they would be less likely to mistake an act of ours for a nuclear attack. Thus, it probably wouldn't be necessary in the coming decades or centuries for another Stanislav Petrov to save the world.


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