WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening remarks Tuesday at a hearing on the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons:
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I almost always, in a perfunctory way, thank you for holding hearings but in this case, I really do believe this is a critically important discussion to have, not just with ourselves in the United States Senate but with the American people.
“I must tell you, I am always amazed as to what subjects come up at town hall meetings that I hold throughout Maryland. Most of the topics deal with the local economic or domestic issues. We don’t normally get a lot of foreign policy questions at town hall meetings. But as of late I’ve been getting more and more questions about, ‘can the President really order a nuclear attack without any controls?’ That question is asked more and more by the American people.
“And of course, it’s fueled by comments made by President Trump in regards to North Korea.
“I’m quoting the President in his August interview, ‘North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.’ Or the President’s comments that we’ll have ‘no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.’
“Now, many interpret that to mean that the President is actively considering the use of nuclear weapons in order to deal with the threat of North Korea. That is frightening. And as the Chairman pointed out, based on my understanding of the nuclear command and control protocols, there are no checks – no checks – on the President’s authority.
“The system as it is set up today provides the President with the sole and ultimate authority to use nuclear weapons. And that was developed because of the realities of the security of our country.
“The nuclear command and control system we have in place is the result of three factors.
“The first was the particular threat and challenge of the Cold War. For decades, the United States faced a nuclear-armed adversary in the Soviet Union with a large and capable nuclear force. The United States settled upon a strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which placed distinctive demands on our nuclear warfighting command and control systems.
“The second, and related, factor is the laws of physics. An ICBM launched from Russia to the United States has around a 30-minute flight time. There wasn’t time to convene a special session of Congress or to have the type of consultations that would infringe upon our ability to actually have a deterrent.
“This means the President and his team have an incredibly short window to identify, assess, communicate, decide, and, if necessary, launch our nuclear forces.
“There was no time for cabinet meetings and no time for consultation.
“The Cold War may be long behind us, but such a scenario, based upon the need to deter a massive Soviet nuclear attack with little or no warning time, remains the driving force behind the current command and control architecture even today.
“The final factor behind the U.S. nuclear command and control system rests with the fact that nuclear weapons, ever since their development, have always been considered unique – not like any other military weapon.
“Starting under President Truman, the point was made crystal clear that the White House was in charge of the atomic bomb and its uses, not the military. Nuclear bombs were not a ‘military weapon,’ whose use would be controlled by the Armed Forces, but a strategic weapon, under the strict control of civilian and elected officials. The president, as both our highest elected civilian official and commander in chief under the Constitution, played a unique role with this unique weapon. The president and only the president assumed sole and unchecked power to launch a nuclear attack.
“President Truman said, ‘You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.
“Nuclear weapons remain unique, but today we face a different question than the one we faced during the Cold War. Given today’s challenges we need to revisit this question of whether a single individual should have the sole and unchecked authority to launch a nuclear attack under all circumstances, including the right to use it as a first strike.
“The most likely attack we face is not a massive surprise nuclear attack by Russia or China, but a nuclear conflict that springs from an escalating conflict with the smaller nuclear forces of North Korea. In this sort of circumstance, where the United States would not face the same sort of ‘use them of lose them’ pressure we faced during the Cold War, it may be both possible and certainly wise for the President to take the time to consult Congress before the profound and historic decision to use nuclear weapons is made.
“I would like to be able to tell my constituents and the American people we have a system in place that prevents an impulsive and irrational decision to use nuclear weapons.
“Unfortunately, I cannot make those assurances today.
“I look forward to hearing from our very distinguished witnesses.
“I would like to acknowledge Mr. McKeon’s presence here as former counsel on this Committee to Senator Biden. It’s nice to have him back.”