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June 16, 2021

Chairman King Convenes Top Experts to Discuss Nuclear Posture, “Sole Authority” Question for Launching Nuclear Weapons

Senator invokes “Saturday Night Disaster” scenario as he questions national protocols

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, convened top nuclear experts to talk through the strengths and weaknesses of U.S.’s current nuclear posture. During the hearing, Senator King questioned Dr. Matthew Kroenig on the question of whether or not the President of the United States has unilateral authority to launch a nuclear weapon. In addition, he pressed witnesses on topics including nuclear modernization, deterrence, and the role of nuclear weapons in protecting America’s allies worldwide.

Senator King: “Let me pursue with you one of the questions that Mr. Collina raised, which I think at least bears discussion, and that is the sole authority issue. Richard Nixon was notoriously unstable toward the end of his period in the White House, heavy drinking and there was even a time when Secretary Schlesinger said, ‘don’t do anything that the President tells you without checking with me. We’re talking about civilization. We’re not talking about strategic strike on an arms depot, we’re talking about the fate of civilization, and it’s unlikely, as I’ve seen the various scenarios that it’s a bolt from the blue, where it has to be a momentary decision. Why not a system that says the President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Speaker of the House, I just made that up, but some group of people to make the tremendous decision, because in many cases, as I said, it’s not a matter of minutes, it could be hours or days, and so that the entire fate of civilization is not resting in one person’s hands, whoever it is. We’re all human, the President of the United States is a human like the rest of us.”

Dr. Kroeing: First thing I would say, is that it’s not quite accurate to say that the President has the sole authority, there would be other people involved. The order would have to go through one other military officer, and then it would have to go down to the launch officer."

Senator King: I’ve went through this, the only stoppage is illegal order, but I’m old enough to remember the Saturday night massacre where President Nixon went through three layer until he got somebody who would carry out his order.  He fired three people until he got to Robert Bork. So, that doesn’t satisfy me, because I’m sure that some President could eventually get to some coronel who would say, yes Sir, Mr. President

Dr. Kroeing: The second thing I would say is that I think there are scenarios where prompt use of nuclear weapons would be important and could save many lives. So, for example, if North Korea used a nuclear weapon against Seoul and was getting ready to use a second or a third, I don’t think we would want a committee meeting to decide whether we should use US capability, possibly nuclear weapons, to stop that attack from taking place, promptness can save lives in certain plausible scenarios

In addition to Dr. Kroeing, who serves as Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Deputy Director Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security for the Atlantic Council, today’s hearing featured testimony from Dr. Sharon Weiner, Associate Professor at the School of International Service American University; Lisa Gordon Hagerty, Former Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration; Madelyn Creedon, Research Professor, George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs; and Tom Collina, Director of Policy, Ploughshares Fund.

As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces – which oversees the United States’ nuclear posture worldwide – and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator King is recognized as a thoughtful voice on national security and foreign policy issues in the Senate. In addition to his committee work, Senator King serves on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the Senate North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Observer Group, and is co-chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. He voted in favor of the Senate’s passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, which includes several funding and policy priorities advocated for by Senator King to support military facilities and communities in Maine and advance the national defense. The legislation – containing 25 bipartisan cybersecurity recommendations from the Cyberspace Solarium Commission – became law earlier this year after Senator King and the overwhelming majority of his colleagues voted to override former President Trump’s veto.

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