Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Stopping the President from Going Nuclear

Add yesterday’s rage-spasm of a press conference to the growing list of reasons reasonable people are inclined to worry about Donald Trump’s proximity to nuclear weapons. In addition to what it suggested about Trump’s moral compass (“Very fine people” aren’t attracted to posters that look like this), his performance also highlighted questions about the judgment, temperament, and impulse control of the man entrusted with the world’s most fearsome arsenal.

Last week, recall, Trump threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States…. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen.” “Fire and fury” was ad-libbed, apparently, but on Thursday, he upped the ante: “if anything, that statement may not be tough enough.” (For a cooldown lap, on Friday, Trump warned he was “not going to rule out a military option” in Venezuela.)

When you’re faced with a president who has weekly meltdowns on Twitter and likes to “wing it” with nuclear threats, it tends to concentrate the mind painfully on the legal and practical restraints to presidential power. Does the president have the constitutional power to launch a nuclear first strike on a country for “mak[ing] threats”? If he decides to act on that impulse, is there anything Congress can do to stop him?

The first question’s the easy one: the answer is no. In the absence of an imminent attack, the president has no constitutional power to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea. As Ilya Somin explains here, “the Constitution very clearly reserves to Congress the power to start a war.”

The president retains some independent power to act defensively: to “repel and not to commence war” or “repel sudden attacks,” as Madison’s notes from the Convention put it. We can argue about whether a second strike—launch under attack—is included within this power. But the constitutional power to “repel sudden attacks” doesn’t include the power to launch them.

The whole point, as James Wilson told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in 1787, was to design a “system [that] will not hurry us into war…. It will not be in the power of a single man… to involve us in such distress; for the important power in declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”

Is there anything Congress can do to prevent a trigger-happy president from hurrying us into nuclear war?  Congressman Ted Lieu has drafted a bill that he hopes will do just that.  HR 669, the “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act,” provides that “The President may not use the Armed Forces of the United States to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress that expressly authorizes such strike.”

Someone from the John Yoo school of constitutionalism might argue that the law encroaches on presidential prerogatives by “micromanaging” the means available to protect national security. But Lieu’s bill is clearly constitutional: if Congress can tell the president not to use ground combat troops in a particular war, it has the legal authority to bar him from launching an unauthorized nuclear first strike.

Would Lieu’s bill work, though? Here, I have my doubts.

How Do Police View The Neo-Nazi/White Supremacist Threat?

Two years ago, researchers at Duke University, drawing on a survey they conducted with police departments around the country through the Police Executive Research Forum, published a study on police perceptions of the domestic terrorist threat. It’s worth recounting the key findings:

Law enforcement agencies in the United States consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence that they face.

They perceive violent extremism to be a much more severe threat nationally than the threat of violent extremism in their own jurisdictions.

And a large majority of law enforcement agencies rank the threat of all forms of violent extremism in their own jurisdictions as moderate or lower (3 or less on a 1-5 scale). 

The study looks at post-9/11 incidents and comes to conclusions comparable to a GAO study on the topic, commissioned by the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, earlier this year. Nearly a decade ago, a then-controversial DHS report on domestic extremism highlighted the potential danger for violent acts by white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups. 

My colleague Alex Nowrasteh has a very interesting and informative piece out today that goes into some depth about the relative threat from terrorists compared to other forms of violence. One point I would make is that the 9/11 attacks represent an anomaly in the overall picture because of the magnitude of the intelligence failure involved. As I’ve written previously, that foreign terrorist attack on America was entirely preventable. That’s not to suggest that Salafist terrorism does not pose a domestic threat; clearly it does. But the on-the-ground daily reality—as the studies cited above show—is that in post-9/11 America, the threat from white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” and those professing similar views and acting on them is at least as great a threat as Salafist-inspired killers.

In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, the phrase “anti-government group” is likely to get tossed around rather carelessly, both in the media and by some in the advocacy community. Calling for a smaller federal government whose powers—especially surveillance powers—are reduced and properly controlled does not make one an “extremist.” Spewing racial hatred and committing acts of murder is the very manifestation of violent extremism, something all of us should condemn and oppose.

 

America versus North Korea: Which President Is More Dangerous?

I never expected to have trouble distinguishing the rhetoric of America’s president and North Korea’s leader. Nor did I ever imagine it would be unclear which official was more impulsive, emotional, blustering, and reckless. But these are not normal times.

For anyone contemplating the odds in a war between the U.S. and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a few numbers are instructive. Last year the U.S. had a GDP of almost $19 trillion, roughly 650 times the GDP of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The latter is equivalent to the economy of Portland, Maine or Anchorage, Alaska. America’s population is around 13 times as large as that of the DPRK.

The U.S. military spends upwards of 100 times as much as the North’s armed forces. With the world’s most sophisticated nuclear arsenal and 1411 warheads (the peak was 31,255 50 years ago), Washington could incinerate the North in an instant. Pyongyang is thought to possess around 20 nukes, of uncertain status and deliverability.

Does the DPRK’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un recognize this reality? There’s plenty of evidence that he is ruthless and cruel. But none that he is blind or suicidal. Like his father and grandfather, who ruled before him, he most assuredly prefers his virgins in this world.

The North’s rhetoric is bombastic, splenetic, confrontational, and fantastic. But it always has been thus. Even before Pyongyang possessed deployable nukes and long-range missiles, it was promising to turn New York (as well as Seoul) into a “lake of fire.” The North Koreans even distributed a video showing precisely that result. If calm ever descends upon the Supreme Leader and his minions, then perhaps Americans should really worry.

The North’s rhetoric and behavior is determined at least in part by domestic considerations. Politics is all-consuming and militaristic images are everywhere. (I visited in June and put up a bunch of photos on Forbes. We are holding a CatoConnects session on Tuesday, August 15 to discuss my visit.) The regime seeks support by portraying itself as heroically defending—against overwhelming odds—a society under siege by imperialistic Americans and their South Korean puppets. The constant mantra, almost irrespective of subject, place, or person, I heard was “under the wise leadership of the Supreme Leader.” Whether the population believed it seemed secondary.

“Fire and Fury” Signifying Nothing: Comparing North Korean and American Deterrent Threats

Seventy-two years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the specter of nuclear war once again hangs over the world. In the span of a few hours, both the United States and North Korea made nuclear threats against one another. Donald Trump went first, saying “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.”

Shortly after Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, North Korea’s KCNA carried a statement from the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) that threatened the “air pirates” stationed at Guam with a nuclear strike. The KCNA statement closed with the warning, “[The United States] should immediately stop its reckless military provocation against the state of the DPRK so that the latter would not be forced to make an unavoidable military choice.” While KCNA did not reference Trump’s comments, the timing of its release creates the impression that the two countries had issued dueling nuclear threats.

At their core, both Trump’s “fire and fury” comment and the KCNA statement are deterrent threats, which seek to prevent a certain action by threatening a high cost in retaliation. If the target of the deterrent threat takes the action that the threat issuer deems unacceptable, then the former will suffer a worse fate. The credibility of deterrent threats depend on whether or not the targeted state believes that the issuer will follow through on its rhetoric.

While both Trump and KCNA issued deterrent threats, the quality of the threats are markedly different. Trump’s threat is incredibly vague both in terms of what the threat is trying to prevent and what costs the United States would inflict on North Korea in response. A lack of clarity about what Trump wants to deter could prevent North Korea from taking any escalatory actions, but given the high stakes involved for North Korea it is unlikely to view Trump’s threat as credible. Kim Jong Un will keep making nuclear threats because the vulnerability of the United States to nuclear attack deters America from attacking North Korea in the first place.

Ambiguous deterrent threats can work, but such threats are not usually issued by powerful countries. Meanwhile, the uncertainty created by Trump’s comment is not reassuring to the other parties involved in the North Korea issue. The “fire and fury” statement could complicate relationships with U.S. allies if they feel that Trump’s rhetoric increases the likelihood of escalating the crisis and putting their security at risk. Additionally, efforts to convince China to do more to help the United States solve the North Korea problem could suffer if Trump’s rhetoric is seen as an indication of unpredictable U.S. policy.

Will Public Aversion to Casualties Constrain Trump’s War-Making Instincts?

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is doing everything in his power to ensure that he remains atop the United States’ enemies list. For months, his government has been test-launching missiles and issuing threats. This week the rhetoric got even hotter. President Trump pledged to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea. The North Koreans responded with a promise to attack the U.S. base at Guam.

Notwithstanding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statements last week and in April that the United States does not seek regime change in Pyongyang, other tin-pot dictators have heard similar assurances before. If KJU doesn’t want to go the way of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, he’ll hold onto his nukes.

Unsurprisingly, hawks in Washington – who don’t like being so deterred – are urging President Trump to launch a preventive war, and denude the latest Crazy Kim of his dangerous toys.

For example, John Bolton explained last week that, since diplomacy is unlikely to be successful, Trump has only three options: “pre-emptively strike at Pyongyang’s known nuclear facilities, ballistic-missile factories and launch sites, and submarine bases”; “wait until a missile is poised for launch toward America, and then destroy it”; or launch “airstrikes or [deploy] special forces to decapitate North Korea’s national command authority, sowing chaos, and then sweep in on the ground from South Korea to seize Pyongyang, nuclear assets, key military sites and other territory.”

To summarize: small war now, small war later, or big war now. And, of the middle option, Bolton warns that a preemptive strike would “provide more time but at the cost of increased risk” and that “Intelligence is never perfect” – so that leaves war now (or soon).

Bolton grudgingly admitted “All these scenarios pose dangers for South Korea, especially civilians in Seoul,” and that “The U.S. should obviously seek South Korea’s agreement (and Japan’s) before using force, but no foreign government, even a close ally, can veto an action to protect Americans from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons.”  

Along similar lines, Lindsey Graham explained “Japan, South Korea, China would all be in the crosshairs of a war if we started one with North Korea. But if [North Korea gets] a missile they can hit California, maybe other parts of America.”

“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un],” Graham continued, “it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.”

Will the Pentagon Get a Big Budget Increase?

CSBA’s Katherine Blakeley has published a brief but highly informative analysis of the prospects for a major military spending boost.

Bottom line up front: The combination of “procedural and political hurdles” in Congress make an increase along the lines of what the Trump administration requested (approx. $54 billion) unlikely. The substantially larger increases passed out of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (roughly $30–33 billion more than the president’s request) seem even more fanciful.

Blakeley concludes:

The wide gulfs between the political parties, and between the defense hawks and the fiscal hawks, will not be closed soon. Additionally, the full legislative calendar of the Congress before September 30, 2017, including Obamacare repeal, FY 2018 appropriations, and an impending debt ceiling debate, increase the likelihood that FY 2018 will begin with a several-month-long continuing resolution, rather than a substantial increase in defense spending.  

This aligns with what I’ve suspected all along – but Blakeley provides critical details to back up her conclusions.

For years now, we’ve heard defense hawks say that adequately funding the defense budget shouldn’t be a struggle for a country as wealthy as the United States. A mere 4 percent of GDP, for example, should be a piece of cake. And, at one level, that is absolutely correct. It should be easy. But when you dig into it, as Blakeley has done, you discover that even 3 percent is a real struggle. After all, $50 billion – a rounding error in a $19 trillion economy – threatened to bring the entire budget process to a screeching halt in late June, and may do so again.

If and when a final budget deal is hammered out, the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account may provide at least some of the additional billions that the HASC and the SASC want. Because OCO is exempted from the bipartisan Budget Control Act’s spending caps, additional defense dollars do not have to come at the expense of non-defense discretionary spending, as President Trump’s budget proposed.

But many billions from the Pentagon’s base budget (i.e. non-war spending) have been shoved into the OCO for years now, and the gimmick is starting to wear thin – after all, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan peaked years ago. The voices in Congress and beyond who pushed the BCA in the first place, and who remain committed to reducing the deficit (e.g. current OMB chief Mick Mulvaney), are likely to feel that they’re being played.

The defense vs. non-defense spending debate is, and always has been, about politics, not math. And it isn’t obvious that the Pentagon will win this political battle. Given this uncertainty, we should adapt our military’s objectives to the means available to achieve them. We should prioritize U.S. security and defending vital national interests, and approach foreign adventures that don’t advance these interests with great caution. Expecting our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to do the same – or more – with less money isn’t fair to them, and isn’t likely to work.

The Curious Case Of Ex-NSA Inspector General George Ellard

On August 3, The American Conservative ran a lengthy piece of mine dealing with the whistleblower protection nightmare that is the Department of Defense. One of the subjects of that piece is now former NSA IG George Ellard, and because I had even more on his case than I could fit into the TAC piece, I wanted to share the rest of what I know–and don’t know–about the allegations against Ellard, the final disposition of the case, why the Obama administration’s whistleblower retaliation “fix” is itself broken, and what might be done to actually provide meaningful protections for would-be national security whistleblowers in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the national security establishment.

Regarding what little we know about the specifics of Ellard’s case, I had this to say in the TAC piece:

As the Project on Government Oversight first reported in December 2016, a three-member interagency Inspector General External Review Panel concluded in May 2016 that the then-Inspector General of the National Security Agency (NSA), George Ellard, had, according to POGO, “himself had previously retaliated against an NSA whistleblower[.]” This apparently occurred during the very same period that Ellard had claimed that “Snowden could have come to me.” The panel that reviewed Ellard’s case recommended he be fired, a decision affirmed by NSA Director Mike Rogers. 

But there was a catch: the Secretary of Defense had the final word on Ellard’s fate. Outgoing Obama administration Defense Secretary Ash Carter, apparently indifferent to the magnitude of the Ellard case, left office without making a decision.

In the months after Donald Trump became president, rumors swirled inside Washington that Ellard had, in fact, escaped termination. One source, who requested anonymity, reported that Ellard had been seen recently on the NSA campus at Ft. Meade, Maryland. That report, it turns out, was accurate.

On July 21, in response to the author’s inquiry, the Pentagon public affairs office provided the following statement:

“NSA followed the appropriate procedures following a whistleblower retaliation claim against former NSA Inspector General George Ellard. Following thorough adjudication procedures, Mr. Ellard continues to be employed by NSA.”

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