Clarifying the Issue of Nuclear Weapons Release Authority

In the United States, the president—and only the president—has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.  This exclusive authority is consistent with president’s Constitutional role as commander in chief of the armed forces and reflects the principle of civilian control of the military.  It is also consistent with the intent of the nation’s Founders—expressed in the Federalist Papers—to ensure that the direction of war be executed by a sole commander.  As Alexander Hamilton stated in Federalist 74, “Of all the cares or concerns of government, the direction of war most peculiarly demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a single hand.”[1]

Recently, controversy has arisen over the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in nuclear weapons launch authority.  This controversy was fueled by passages in a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, entitled, Peril, in which they recount statements purportedly made by the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley regarding his potential involvement in the decision process of launching nuclear weapons.  As The New York Times reported:

General Milley convened a meeting in a war room at the Pentagon with the military’s top commanders, telling them that he wanted to go over the longstanding procedures for launching a nuclear weapon. The general reminded the commanders that only the president could order such a strike and that General Milley needed to be directly involved.

‘If you get calls,’ General Milley said, ‘no matter who they’re from, there’s a process here, there’s a procedure. No matter what you’re told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure. You’ve got to make sure that the right people are on the net.’

The general added: ‘The strict procedures are explicitly designed to avoid inadvertent mistakes or accident or nefarious, unintentional, illegal, immoral, unethical launching of the world’s most dangerous weapons.’

Then, he went around the room and asked each officer to confirm that they understood what he was saying.[2]

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