Indeed the culture of carelessness is not new. We were reminded of this fact just the week before the Wyoming incident, when the memoir of a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, revealed that a dozen years ago, during the Clinton administration, the entire tranch of presidential nuclear codes—the Gold Codes that identified the possessor as the president, the one person capable of ordering nuclear launches—had simply gone missing for months.
Do you get the feeling that we've been counting on our good luck for too long?
The long respite from the Cold War balance of terror that we've enjoyed since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has eroded our concern for nuclear weapon security. Nuclear dread is dead. Perhaps that explains the lack of urgency about the New START treaty.
Still, I felt a special frisson when I read about the 50 Wyoming nukes going rogue. I'd been there, to that base; I'd been down in an underground launch control capsule command center there, buried beneath the badlands, so I felt a kind of—well, not exactly kinship—but personal relationship to those Wyoming nukes. Cold War relics with the power to destroy the post-Cold War world. I'd been there, I'd talked to the men who held the keys, the launch keys that could fire the missiles off, the keys to kingdom come. They'd even let me turn the keys in a test slot so I could feel, physically at least, what it would be like to begin the end of the world.
And now I felt almost as if the rogue missiles were somehow trying to get our attention. "We're still here, you idiots! You don't think accidents can happen? Accidents that can kill tens of millions of people, as long as we're on hair-trigger alert?"
The timing could scarcely be more fortunate. The incident occurred just as the fate of the new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (or "New START," as the administration calls it) is to be decided. Indeed, the treaty, which reduces the number of nuclear warheads on each side by one-third, from 2,200 to 1,500, faces what will probably be a life-or-death moment in the lame duck congressional session that began Monday.
There's no certainty the treaty will even get brought up for a vote before the new, more heavily Republican Congress takes office in January, and an Obama initiative of this sort will seem even more, shall we say, radioactive. Even to the shrunken band of Democratic senators who might vote for it. So, basically, it's now or never. Lame duck or dead duck for the treaty. And the Wyoming incident may yet focus some attention on the vote that could conceivably happen during the session.
I say "could conceivably happen" because a vote on the treaty, which requires a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate (67 votes), has been pushed off and pushed off, and there has been no firm commitment by Senate leaders even to bring it up.
(I will confess that the timing was a bit unfortunate for me personally, in an admittedly self-centered way, because the rogue nukes of the Wyoming incident first surfaced the day after I sent the final galleys of my new book on nuclear dangers, How the End Begins, off to the printers, and thus couldn't include the chilling confirmatory incident.)
Still, I can live, if the incident can focus the minds of the nation and in particular the senators who are supposed to vote on the ratification of the treaty during the lame-duck session, when there will still be close to 60 Democratic votes, as well as four Republicans who have already voted for the treaty in the foreign affairs committee.
Theoretically, the treaty could be three or four votes away. So near and yet, alas, probably too far. Especially considering the lack of leadership, the unwillingness to take the issue out of the back rooms of the foreign affairs committee—where it's being strangled to death with "understandings"—and bring it to the attention of the country, whose population, after all, is at risk as a consequence of our lack of nuclear stability.
Most especially there has been a lack of leadership from the president himself, who made nuclear abolition one of the loftiest, most potentially legacy-making goals of his administration, with his first "world without nukes" speech in Prague, the "I Have a Dream" speech of nuclear abolitionists. He probably won his Nobel Prize for that speech, but he has yet to take an active part in this last-ditch effort to get this nuclear arms reduction treaty ratified.