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A Vandenberg Air Force Base photo shows an intercontinental ballistic missile being launched in 2008. (AP)

Ask Obama the hair-trigger alert question

ASK THIS | March 17, 2009

How many ballistic missiles do the U.S. and Russia have pointed at each other, ready to be set off in an instant? Will you work with Russia to bring down the threat level?

By Morton Mintz

Questions for President Obama involving nothing less than a wholly unnecessary but persisting threat to the survival of Planet Earth need to be asked by a White House correspondent. But first a bit of background.

None other than George W. Bush warned of the threat during his presidential candidacy. In a speech in Washington on May 23, 2000, he had two themes. The mainstream press reported on one, the purported need for Star Wars. But it ignored the other despite its extreme importance. Here is what was brushed off:

The United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status--another unnecessary vestige of cold war confrontation. . .For two nations at peace, keeping so many weapons on high alert may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch. So, as president, I will ask for an assessment of what we can safely do to lower the alert status of our forces.

Now the questions for President Obama. You have said that you seek a world without nuclear weapons. And at the Web site of your presidential campaign, you said you would work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert. Thousands of ballistic missiles were on hair-trigger alert during the previous Administration. Did President Bush reduce that number, and if he did, to what? If he did reduce it, are you working, or will you work, with Russia to cut it still further? Should it be zero?

It's worth recalling a New York Times "Editorial Observer" piece by Carla Anne Robbins last June 30. The "who's who of the national security establishment," as she called it, urged "the United States to lead a global campaign to devalue and eventually rid the world of nuclear weapons." George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn--two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense and a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee--are not men "given to casual utopianism - or anything casual," Robbins wrote. "They are trying to shock sensibilities."  She continued:

In two opinion articles in The Wall Street Journal, they described a frightening new world of ever-expanding nuclear appetites, in which traditional deterrence no longer works. They argued that the only way for the United States to rally the cooperation it needs to confront such dangers is with a clear commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

They called for backing that up with policies that have also long been anathema to hawks: including banning all nuclear testing, taking American and Russian missiles off of hair-trigger alert [my italics] and agreement on "further substantial reductions" in both countries' arsenals....

It is hard to see their proposals as anything but a rejection of President Bush's failed nuclear weapons policy. Mr. Bush's aides have spent eight years ridiculing arms control agreements as "old think" and denying any relationship between what America does with its own nuclear weapons and its obvious inability to constrain others' behavior....

Today--19 years after the Berlin Wall came down--the United States and Russia still have more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, thousands ready to launch within minutes. North Korea may or may not be persuaded to give up its weapons and Iran is mastering the skills it needs to make its own. Many other countries have developed a sudden enthusiasm for nuclear energy-and for fuel programs that could someday help build a weapon. In the midst of all this, the danger that terrorists might buy or steal a weapon, or the makings for one, is also frighteningly real.

I believe something I wrote in a previous piece for this site bears repeating: "It is nothing less than indefensible for the mainstream media to all but kiss off the threat to the planet that the United States and Russia needlessly perpetuate by keeping thousands of planet-threatening nuclear weapons "ready to launch within minutes."

Questions of a different order are triggered by the repugnant shenanigans of a powerful senior Congressman.

"A Pennsylvania defense research center regularly consulted with two "handlers" close to Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) as it collected nearly $250 million in federal funding through the lawmaker, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post and sources familiar with the funding requests," Carol D. Leonnig wrote on March 16. "The center then channeled a significant portion of the funding to companies that were among Murtha's campaign supporters.

"The two advisers included a lobbyist for PMA, a firm with close ties to Murtha that is the subject of a federal probe into whether it made illegal contributions by reimbursing donors to the Pennsylvania lawmaker and other members of Congress. The Electro-Optics Center also relied on advice from a longtime Murtha friend who now works on the congressman's appropriations staff."

This suggests questions to President Obama along these lines: Public financing of federal election campaigns would deter such plausibly illegal campaign contributions as those made to Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha. Are you for or against public financing?

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