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A nuclear threat that just keeps ticking

COMMENTARY | November 17, 2005

In 2000, Bush said the US should remove many of the hair-trigger missiles pointed at Russia. Morton Mintz writes that the press didn’t report what Bush said then—and it hasn’t reported his reversal of position since.

By Morton Mintz



[Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review,November/December 2005. © 2005 by Columbia Journalism Review]

The reporting that allows Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism - derided in the trade as stenography - was condemned by Bill Moyers in a widely acclaimed address last May.


The press is led "all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny," he told the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis. "Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin, invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading."

This critique contains a paradox that's worth examining: the journalism that does not simply recount "what officials say," or that does not transcribe "both sides of the spin," can also do grave disservice to the public. Consider just one story - albeit one that concerns the survival of the planet - in which the basics of reporting official statements, and following up, could have made all the difference.

The cold war is long over, and the United States and Russia are at peace. Yet together they have approximately 4,000 nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert, meaning this: weapons with a combined destructive power nearly 100,000 times that of the atomic bomb which leveled Hiroshima are armed and fueled at all times. Their targets - Washington and New York, Moscow and St. Petersburg - have been programmed by internal computers. They will launch on receiving three computer-delivered messages. Launch crews - on duty 24-7 - will send the messages on receipt of a single computer-delivered command.

On May 23, 2000, presidential candidate George Bush embraced National Missile Defense in a speech in Washington. The mainstream press - the New York Times and the Washington Post, in particular - reported this. In the same speech, however, Bush also said: "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."

Bush's commitment to Star Wars was utterly predictable. His concern about "unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch" was a highly newsworthy surprise. For one thing, Bush was implicitly repudiating a long-standing position of his fellow Republicans in Congress. For another, he was taking the lead on an issue that President Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore had ignored. The mainstream press told voters none of this.

The neglect of candidate Bush's stand on high-alert nuclear weapons would prove to be only a prologue to five years of sustained journalistic neglect of the issue. Here are highlights of what the press ignored:


  • Bush did in fact request the assessment, or nuclear-posture review, and received it in early 2002. Soon thereafter, the president reversed the course he'd set as a candidate, meaning that after entering the White House he'd somehow found acceptable the very risks he'd found "unacceptable" while campaigning.
  • Bruce G. Blair, who heads the Center for Defense Information and is widely considered the nation's foremost authority on nuclear command and control, has warned frequently that ready-to-fire nuclear weapons are susceptible to unauthorized launch by heavily armed terrorists, who might either capture a missile or electronically hack into a missile launch control system. In 2002, for example, Blair cited "a super-secret Pentagon study that concluded that cyberterrorists could hack the U.S. submarine communications network and "actually transmit a launch order to the Trident fleet." [See also Nieman Watchdog for an essay on this subject by Blair.]
  • Two years and a day after his Washington speech, President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin signed the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reduction. But they were silent about the thousands of warheads on hair-trigger alert. The press was silent about the silence. Nor did it remind the public of candidate Bush's view that too many warheads were ready to fire.

Two months after Bush and Putin met in Moscow, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the treaty. Two long-time experts on strategic nuclear arms, former Senator Sam Nunn, co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and Eugene Habiger, former commander-in-chief of the Strategic Command, testified. Nunn said that progress toward de-alerting "may well be more important to stability and security than the number of nuclear weapons." Habiger warned, "There is only one thing that can destroy the United States of America today-and that is Russian nuclear warheads." Major news organizations reported the testimony of neither Nunn nor Habiger.

All this information was readily available to journalists if not always staring them in the face. Tim Russert recognized the peril by making "the threat and prevention of nuclear terrorism" the subject of "Meet the Press" on May 29, 2005. Among Russert's guests that day were Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who co-authored the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

Russert to Nunn: "What about each side having their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert?"

Nunn: "Well, that makes no sense, particularly from our security point of view because the Russian's radar system and their warning systems have deteriorated substantially, so there's more chance of an accident now. Here again, you've got to have presidential leadership. These changes are not going to bubble up from the bottom. They've got to come from the top."

Earlier in the program, Lugar said: "Every time I call President Bush, he says, 'Well, I'm going to call Condi Rice right away,' or Don Rumsfeld. And he does, and they call people. But if somebody like us around the table was not calling them-you know, that's why our government really works, checks and balances."

Lugar's plain-and newsworthy-implication was that Bush does not assign a high priority to reducing the nuclear threat. Yet I could find no news coverage on any aspect of this survival-of-the-planet edition of "Meet the Press." No news coverage in the U.S., that is. In Russia, Izvestia published a story on the nuclear threat.


And seven days after the "Meet the Press" program, a newspaper reported that former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara had told a conference earlier in the week, "If I were to characterize U.S. and NATO nuclear policies in one sentence, I would say they are immoral, illegal and militarily unnecessary." Once the overseer of 30,000 nuclear warheads but now an advocate of disarmament, he described nuclear weapons as "very, very dangerous in terms of the risk of inadvertent or accidental launch." The newspaper was the Sunday Times of London.

U.S. journalism is rightly criticized these days for its broad failure to get beyond the spin, to adjudicate factual disputes, to challenge the official version of truth. This story, though, required none of that. It was simply a matter of reporting what the officials said, and following up.       

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