Is the New START treaty a dead duck in lame-duck session?

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 17 2010 4:05 PM

Nukes Go Rogue

Is the START treaty a dead duck in lame-duck session?

LGM-30G Minuteman III missile.

Strange reports have been surfacing recently about missiles and nukes. The one that got the most media attention, the so-called "mysterious missile" filmed off the coast of Los Angeles, turned out not to be a secret U.S., Chinese, or other missile at all but—probably—a conventional flight's contrail. But the L.A. incident followed closely upon a far more real missile crisis, one that received much less attention: the rogue nukes of Wyoming.

It was just a one-day story in the last week of October, so you may have missed the fact that 50 nuclear missiles went rogue a few days before the election. And shortly before the Senate may vote on Obama's New START treaty, which proposes to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads by one-third.

(The odds for an imminent vote just got longer when influential GOP Sen. Jon Kyl* announced he wanted to wait till after New Year's—when his party would have more leverage in the new Senate line-up—for a vote, though Democrats vowed to continue to press for a vote in the lame-duck session.)

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But back to the rogue nukes of Wyoming. What happened was that 50 missiles—Minuteman III's, which lurk on hair-trigger alert in underground silos surrounding Wyoming's F.E. Warren Air Force Base, each tipped with a thermonuclear warhead whose megatonnage could slaughter upward of 10 million in an instant, depending on where it landed—simultaneously slipped their electronic leash. Stopped answering their e-mail, so to speak. Spam-filtered attempts to contact them. Became unreachable by their controllers at the base.

In the frantic moments after the loss of contact, those in charge had to have been hoping against hope these weapons of genocide-scale death hadn't been hacked by cyberterrorists from the outside or usurped by a madman on the inside who had decided to settle some score with humanity by starting a nuclear war.

The crisis was over before the day (Oct. 23) ended, and everyone in charge rushed to assure us that there was no big problem. But the way they defined the problem itself was deeply disturbing.

The assurances were all about how if the president had really, really wanted to fire those 50 nukes in Wyoming during the outage—hey, no worries! There were workarounds, airborne command posts that could have made it happen if necessary. The "problem" they were worried about, or at least spoke publicly about, was not unauthorized launches, but the inability to carry out authorized launches.

So if we really wanted to use those 50 nukes to kill a billion people that afternoon, yes, it could very easily have been done. Nothing to see here, folks, move along. Learn to stop worrying and live with the bomb.

But in his Atlantic blog Marc Ambinder, who along with Noah Shachtman of Wired's "Danger Room" was among the first to report the rogue nuke crisis, quoted one source in the military as saying, "We've never had something as big as this happen." And believe me, I've studied the history: There have been some very scary close calls. If they weren't as big as this, then this is very big.

Shachtman quoted a former missile man saying, "This is 50 ICBM's dropping off at once. I never heard of anything like it." So who do you believe? One could consult the precedent of the last high-profile missile control fail, back in 2007, when six nuclear cruise missiles were mistakenly attached to a wing of a B-52 long-range bomber and flown from Minot, N.D., to Barksdale, La.—nukes dangling from the wing—without anyone knowing there were nukes in the air. Indeed, this was the first time nukes had been flown over U.S. territory in 40 years.

Back then, too, everyone rushed to assure us it was a minor glitch, but by the time a year of investigation was complete, dozens of personnel, up to and including the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, were fired, and the investigation exposed a culture of carelessness that prevailed when handling nuclear warheads.

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.

It's a modest treaty. The 1,550 nukes it proposes keeping is a long way from zero, but it's the next step forward, at least.

Since Obama has not shown real leadership on this issue, the ratification process has been presided over by that strategic genius, Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, who let Republicans on his committee add so many "unilateral understandings," "conditions," and "declarations," whoring after a minimally bipartisan vote. Even so, he managed to produce a document which got only four Republicans to vote yes.

It is not uncommon for members of a Senate committee considering a treaty to—rather than simply vote yes or no—add their own "understandings" of what the treaty provisions really mean, and even make "declarations" about aspects of it. None of which is binding on the other party, but which can make opponents of ratification think they've scored some points. Kerry used this process to appease fence-sitting Republicans, producing in the process a nightmarish 10-page document, "A Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification," that may satisfy Republican concerns (over the sanctity of ballistic missile defense, among other things), but that may also end up being a "poison pill" if the Russian legislature (or—who are we kidding?—Putin and Medvedev) feels the Obama administration was caving in to missile-defense hawks after the treaty had been signed.

Indeed, this 10-page document—almost completely unread, it seems, by the media—is an astonishingly self-subverting document that has already begun to cause trouble. The day after the U.S. election, the Russian Duma's equivalent of the Senate foreign affairs committee, which had previously endorsed ratification of the treaty, did a total 180 and withdrew its endorsement, citing among other things Kerry's committee's unilateral "understandings," which in fact they did not share, and which they regarded with some justification as unilateral attempts to distort or even amend the treaty by the U.S. side. Particularly those parts of it involving Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) which suggest American nuclear hawks may still have a Star Wars gleam in their eyes.

Missile defense may be a deal-breaker for the Russians, who have always seen it as an offensive capacity. In other words, a foe is more likely to try a first-strike, surprise attack if it feels it has a defense against ballistic missile retaliation. The Russians have declared they'll withdraw from the treaty if they feel we're using its language to mask a BMD program.

So here's the state of play as the lame-duck session gets underway. Obama administration officials such as Hillary Clinton and Ellen Tauscher have given what might charitably be called weakly hopeful statements that it sure would be great if the lame-duck session would ratify the treaty—but in a manner that suggests they don't know, after all this time, whether they still have the votes. It could be voted down.

On the other hand, if it's not voted on in the lame duck session, it's virtually good as dead in next January's new Congress. They're damned if they do, damned if they don't.

And they may be damned whatever they do because Kerry's "Resolution," with its many off-ramps out of the treaty if anything displeases us, will be unacceptable to the other side and is likely to kill the treaty before we even get around to killing it ourselves. The treaty might have already been iced by the publication of the Kerry document. And since the treaty has to go back to the foreign affairs committee with a heavier Republican lineup in a new Congress, it's bound to get even worse.

One expert who worked on the treaty and ratification told me he still feels it could pass in the lame-duck session, but that he thinks Obama's election setback meant "the deal was still on but the price went up." In other words, the Obama administration will have to add more money for planning a new generation of nukes to the billions he's already pledged, in order to satisfy the opposition. If it can possibly be satisfied any more.

If you think I'm exaggerating about the problems the Kerry document can cause, here's one of the milder "conditions" Kerry's committee has tacked on to its pseudo-ratification. As the Kerry resolution puts it in Section A, Paragraph 5, Subsection B, the U.S. denies any obligation to tell the Russians about "any satellite launches, missile defense sensor targets and missile defense intercept targets, the launch of which uses the first stage of an existing type of United States ICBM or SLBM listed in paragraph 8 of Article III of the New Start treaty." In other words, with this "condition" they're trying unilaterally to obtain something they couldn't get in the bilateral negotiations: the ability to secretly devise a BMD system and spring it full-blown on the Russians any time we want, without even hinting we were testing one. That's certainly what I would be thinking if I were in the Russian Duma.

This is just one example of the offensive language about defensive technology that may well damn the treaty to doom in the Duma even if the Senate were to pass it. Things get even worse when Sen. Kerry's botched resolution addresses our right to use our nuclear missiles to deliver non-nuclear weapons. The whole thing is a nightmare of counterproductivity.

My feeling is that Obama should make this—which frankly is more important than health care—his last stand, his chance to turn things around not just for himself but for history, for the planet, for the sake of fewer missiles going rogue in a far more threatening way. The downside, the failure, the crash and burn of his dream will be too demoralizing if he doesn't fight for it. We've never come this close or seemed so far away.

Now or never, Barack. And, reader, call your senator, e-mail Harry Reid and the White House. Demand a vote before it's too late.

While you're at it, call the White House. What is really needed is presidential leadership. This weekend, for instance, from far off Yokahama, Japan, Politico reported that the president confided to his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev that he was really, really strong for the treaty:

"I reiterated my commitment to get the START treaty done during the lame duck session," Obama said after meeting with Medvedev. "And I've communicated to Congress that it is a top priority."

But look at the way it came off. He's confiding this to Medvedev, and he's talking to Congress from half way around the world. Why is he not talking to the American people?

Why is this not important enough—this idea of reducing the number of genocide-scale weapons subject to "inadvertent launch"—for an address to the nation? If Obama gets this treaty, he will have genuinely made history. And who knows—looking back on it—perhaps he will have saved us from a plunge back into the balance of terror hell we thought we'd left behind.

* Correction, Nov. 17, 2010: This article originally misspelled Jon Kyl's first name.

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