More than 30 Democrats serving in the United States have written President Joe Biden asking him to consider expanding the number of people involved in the decision to launch a nuclear strike, the New York Post reported Thursday.
“As president, two of your most critical and solemn duties are the security of the country and the safeguarding of its nuclear arsenal,” the letter reads, noting the president’s sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons assures keeping them under civilian control.”
The request was not because of concerns over Mr. Biden’s health, advanced age, or because some commentators have expressed doubts about his mental fitness. Instead, the letter said, the issue was being raised at this time because “Past presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons” – which a footnote explains is a reference to tweets posted by former President Donald J. Trump directed at North Korean President Kim Jong Un – and because they have “exhibited behavior that caused other officials to express concern about the president’s judgment.”
The latter point, another footnote indicates, is a reference to an attempt by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to inject herself into the string of command over U.S. nuclear weapons after the November election by reaching out to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Several legal scholars have suggested that by doing so, Mrs. Pelosi vastly exceeded her authority under the U.S. Constitution and could, under different circumstances, have found herself under investigation for doing so.
The Democrats writing to Mr. Biden proposed a variety of alternatives to the current procedures should Mr. Biden agree to surrender the authority currently vested solely in the president to order the use of nuclear weapons. These include:
- Requiring additional officials in the line of presidential succession, starting with the vice president and the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives – neither of whom can be removed by the president if they disagree – to concur with a launch order, and utilizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s tracking of those officials to ensure prompt communication.
- Requiring certifications from the secretary of defense that the launch order is valid and from the attorney general that it is legal. Concurrence from the chair of the Joint Chiefs of staff and/or the secretary of state could also be required.
- Requiring a congressional declaration of war and specific authorization from Congress before any nuclear first strike can be conducted.
- Creating a permanent active council of congressional leaders that would regularly participate in deliberations with the executive branch on vital national security issues and mandate some portion of the council be consulted before the first use of nuclear weapons.
“We respectfully request that you. As president, review ways in which you can end the sole authority you have to launch a nuclear attack and to install additional checks and balances into the system,” the letter concludes.
Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee slammed the effort, the Post reported. GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wy., Committee Ranking Member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Turner, R-Ohio, released a statement calling the idea “dangerous.”
“The President of the United States must have the exclusive ability to command and control our nuclear deterrent. Democrats’ dangerous efforts suggesting a restructuring of our nuclear command and control process will undermine American security, as well as the security of our allies,” the three said.
“These proposals, if enacted, would leave Americans vulnerable, destabilize the nuclear balance, and shake our allies’ confidence in the nuclear umbrella. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping would cheer if the United States adopted such a unilateral restriction,” Cheney, Rodgers, and Turner continued.
The suggestions offered by Panetta and Lieu in their letter would, if adopted, be the most far-reaching effort to reduce the president’s constitutional authority as commander-in-chief of any effort since the War Powers Act was adopted in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
The White House has not yet commented on the letter but that does not mean the proposal is by any means dead. In fact, say some Republicans, it sounds just like the kind of thing a President Joe Biden would love to take up, regardless of the way conceptually it could make the United States more vulnerable to an attack rather than make the world safer.
Peter Roff is a former U.S. News & World Report contributing editor now affiliated with several Washington, D.C. public policy organizations. He appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Reach him by email at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.