Failure to Factor Nuclear Close-Calls Into National Security Equation Threatens Us All

Nuclear warhead (British). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear warhead (British). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As I posted recently, nuclear-weapons advocates forget to factor human error into their national-security equation. Command and Control, the new book by Eric Schlosser (Penguin Press) about nuclear close-calls (which I have not read) illustrates this clearly. A new example of sloppiness in the command and control of nuclear weapons has recently arisen regarding the Permissive Action Link (PAL), a security device for nuclear weapons intended to prevent unauthorized detonation. At Gizmodo, Karl Smallwood revisits a 2004 article by Bruce Blair, co-founder of Global Zero. Smallwood writes:

… though the devices were supposed to be fitted on every nuclear missile after JFK issued [National Security Action Memorandum 160], the military continually dragged its heels on the matter. In fact, it was noted that a full 20 years after JFK had order PALs be fitted to every nuclear device, half of the missiles in Europe were still protected by simple mechanical locks. Most that did have the new system in place weren’t even activated until 1977.

Those in the U.S. that had been fitted with the devices, such as ones in the Minuteman Silos, were installed under the close scrutiny of Robert McNamara, JFK’s Secretary of Defence. However, The Strategic Air Command greatly resented McNamara’s presence and almost as soon as he left, the code to launch the missile’s, all 50 of them, was set to 00000000.

Why ― besides resenting the meddling of Kennedy, McNamara, et al? Smallwood again.

This ensured that there was no need to wait for Presidential confirmation that would have just wasted valuable Russian nuking time.

And you feel guilty about using the same password for numerous sites and accounts.

Another instance of a government official ― none other than a president ― failing to treat nuclear weapons with the respect they deserve (not that, in an absolute sense, they deserve any at all) was revisited by Britain’s Telegraph in 2010.

Gen Hugh Shelton, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, said in his new memoir, “Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior” that “the codes were actually missing for months. That’s a big deal — a gargantuan deal.”

A similar claim was made by Lt Col Robert Patterson, a former aide, in a book published seven years ago. He was one of the men who carried the briefcase, known as the “football”, and he said that the morning after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke that he made a routine request of the president to present the card so that he could provide an updated version.

“He thought he just placed them upstairs,” Lt Col Patterson recalled. “We called upstairs, we started a search around the White House for the codes, and he finally confessed that he in fact misplaced them. He couldn’t recall when he had last seen them.”

Those lovable absentminded presidents!

Thus far, Providence has played far too large a role in heading nuclear accidents off at the pass. It’s time we recognized the Catcher in the Sky can’t continue to rescue us ―  much like J.D. Salinger’s protagonist dreamed of saving children ― before we go over the apocalyptic cliff. The development of nuclear weapons were understandable in a time of total war. But their continued design, updating, manufacture, and deployment constitute a study in raising institutional inertia to a black art.