Four Minutes to Armageddon

Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, and the nuclear alert.

Just one week into his presidency, on Jan. 27, 1969, Richard M. Nixon got an eye-opening briefing at the Pentagon on the nation's secret nuclear war plans -- the Single Integrated Operational Plan, as it was known then. "It didn't fill him with enthusiasm," Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, said later. The briefers walked Nixon through the absolutely excruciating decision a president would face upon receiving an alert of impending attack: whether to launch nuclear missiles.

The slides used to brief Nixon that day have been partially declassified and released by the National Security Archive, and they suggest how complex the whole decision process would be.  In the event of nuclear war, Nixon was told, he would have three functional tasks: Alpha, for strikes on the most urgent military targets; Bravo, for secondary military targets; and Charlie, for industrial and urban targets. If the president ordered an attack of Alpha and Bravo, urban areas would be spared. But beyond these were dozens of decisions, attack options, targets, and variations. There were committed forces and coordinated forces, hard-core forces and theater forces. Nixon was shown the "decisions handbook" or black book, with tabs, which was open in front of him.

At the end of the briefing, Nixon was shown a slide marked "Conclusion." He was reassured the war plan was flexible and responsive. "Procedures for execution are straight-forward and in themselves neither new or unusually complicated," Nixon was told. "It is in the decision-making process, the evaluation and selection of the many attack responses available, wherein the problem becomes complex."

Then the briefer warned:

"In a crisis mounted over a period of time, it should be possible to eliminate early some of the alternatives, such as whether or not to attack particular countries. In a long, drawn out crisis, with highly intensified force readiness on one or both sides, it may be even possible to eliminate from further consideration some of the attack options. But in a sudden emergency, with little or no warning, all of these considerations must be entertained and discussed with the president [pause] and perhaps in no more than a very few minutes."

Such a nightmare scenario hung over the Cold War until the very end, and even beyond. No one really could predict how a president or Soviet leader would react when faced with a do-or-die choice in just minutes. The imponderables troubled every American and Soviet leader of the nuclear age. And the high state of readiness of the weapons, on alert to fire in a short period, reflected the very deep tensions of the era.

In the early 1980s, U.S. officials were particularly worried that the system for command-and-control of nuclear weapons had become outdated, and began taking actions to improve it. One day, President Ronald Reagan told one of his assistants, Thomas C. Reed, that he didn't want to fly away in a helicopter if there was a nuclear alert. "I want to sit here in the office," Reagan said. Referring to Vice President George H. W. Bush, Reagan added, "Getting into the helicopter is George's job." A few years after the Soviet collapse, in January 1995, Russian President Boris Yeltsin got his own taste of the tension when he was called to the briefcase-sized remote terminal for nuclear command to monitor what looked like a possible nuclear attack. After a while the Russians realized it was not a threat; the rocket flew away from Moscow and toward the North Pole. It was not an American missile but a weather rocket launched from Norway. The Russians had been notified of the launch, but lost the paperwork.

Next week, this terrifying dilemma will be in the spotlight again. Sources tell me that President Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected to come out before he heads to Prague to sign the new strategic arms treaty, will make a fresh effort to address the issue of nuclear weapons on alert. The posture review is a document intended to establish the U.S. strategy and policy on nuclear weapons for the next five to 10 years. This is the third such review since the end of the Cold War, and is being closely watched for signs of change from the old days of superpower standoff. Both the United States and Russia keep their missiles ready to launch, a practice from the days when deterrence required each side face the other with cocked pistols.

Now that the Soviet Union is no more, many analysts have asked whether such a procedure is justified. It is inherently risky if a president must make a fateful decision to launch nuclear weapons in 20 minutes or even less, depending on the threat. Since relations with Moscow are no longer so hostile, the thinking goes, what would be the harm in building some kind of reversible, physical change in the weapons -- verifiable, on both sides -- so they could not be fired for a longer period? Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin took a symbolic step in 1994 with an agreement to retarget the missiles toward the open oceans instead of each other. But this agreement did not make it difficult to retarget the missiles, nor did it take them off alert.  Today, the length of those alerts range in time from minutes to hours and days.

According to a study published last October, the United States keeps roughly 1,000 nuclear warheads on alert atop land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles. This includes the warheads on all 450 Minuteman III ICBMs and those on perhaps four Trident submarines at sea. The study said, "Although there is nothing automatic about the process, the U.S. president could launch these missiles promptly after receiving warning of an impending attack." The launch time could be as short as four minutes for the land-based missiles and 12 minutes for the submarine-based. Russia keeps approximately 1,200 warheads on alert, nearly all on land-based missiles. France and Britain together keep about 112 warheads on alert, the study said. All U.S. and Russian strategic bombers are off alert.

The study, published by the East-West Institute, which brought together American and Russian participants, noted that military forces have been on heightened readiness for centuries, so it is not surprising that at least some nuclear forces today remain so. But, the study added, nuclear alert levels "have remained immune to major change" since the end of the Cold War.

In his campaign, the president's statement on defense issues declared: "[W]e should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. ... Maintaining this Cold War stance today is unnecessary and increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. As president, Obama will work with Russia to find common ground and bring significantly more weapons off hair-trigger alert."

The classic idea of de-alerting would be a technical fix, perhaps removing some part of the weapon to another location. Bruce G. Blair, then of the Brookings Institution and now president of the World Security Institute, outlined the case for dealerting in a 1995 publication, Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces.  It is an appealing idea, but has consistently run into strong opposition from the military, which fears that the whole process of putting the pieces back together again -- realerting -- could create more unnecessary panic and uncertainty. It could also be very difficult to verify; if submarines are invulnerable because they are hidden under the seas, how would the other side know if they were being re-alerted?

Obama's nuclear posture review looked at de-alerting the missiles, but the president has decided not to propose it in the sense of physically altering the weapons. Rather, the review is expected to highlight the need to get to the root of the problem: move away from nuclear doctrines and postures that would lead to a prompt launch. The Obama review is expected to seek ways to give the president more "early warning and decision time" in the event of an emergency situation, such as receiving a report of an incoming missile.  The logic is this: If a president has more time to gather information, to check the data, and to consult with others, he will be less likely to make a catastrophic mistake.  Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), has advocated this as an alternative to earlier de-alerting ideas.

This topic has always been exceedingly difficult to negotiate with Moscow-it touches the sensitive and secret nuclear weapons command and control procedures of each country. Yet it cries out for mutual action. An agreement in 2000 between the United States and Russia to set up a center to monitor ballistic missile and space launches never got off the ground. Reviving it would be a good idea, and in the age of high-speed communications, it might prevent some lost paperwork leading to a terrible error.

It might also give the president more time for a calm, sane decision if his military aide suddenly begins uttering the words: "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie."

AFP/Getty Images


Good Pope, Bad Pope

The debate over Benedict's handling of the child abuse scandal is splitting observers. A guide to the antis and the pros.

The scandal over the Catholic Church's handling of child sex abuse charges against priests has been building for years, but  in recent weeks  the controversy has focused closely on Pope Benedict XVI. A New York Times article about the Vatican's handling of the case of a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting hundreds of deaf boys and new revelations about abuse cases in the German church during Benedict's tenure as archbishop of Munich have raised questions about the pope's leadership. Both his adversaries and defenders have been amping up the rhetoric.

On one side are those who see Benedict as central to the church's institutional corruption. They argue that he has done little to punish abusive priests, pointing out that he reportedly ordered that trials be dealt with in secret and covered up known cases of abuse. One the other side are those who see Benedict as the victim of an ideologically motivated media storm. These defenders have counterattacked the media for blowing up baseless accusations and underestimating how much the pontiff has actually done to address the abuse problem.

The following are excerpts from some key voices on both sides of the good pope-bad pope debate -- a fight that has, at this point, knocked down more than a few metaphorical pews.

Bad Pope:

Christopher Hitchens


March 29, 2010

For Ratzinger, the sole test of a good priest is this: Is he obedient and discreet and loyal to the traditionalist wing of the church? We have seen this in his other actions as pope, notably in the lifting of the excommunication of four bishops who were members of the so-called Society of St. Pius X, that group of extreme-right-wing schismatics founded by Father Marcel Lefebvre and including the Holocaust-denying Richard Williamson. We saw it when he was a cardinal, defending the cultish and creepy Legion of Christ, whose fanatical leader managed to father some children as well as to shield the molestation of many more. And we see it today, when countless rapists and pederasts are being unmasked. One of those accused in the Verona deaf-school case is the late archbishop of the city, Giuseppe Carraro. Next up, if our courts can find time, will be the Rev. Donald McGuire, a serial offender against boys who was also the confessor and "spiritual director" for Mother Teresa. (He, too, found the confessional to be a fine and private place and made extensive use of it.)

This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain "confessors," who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck. Nor can it afford to admit that the church regularly abandoned the children and did its best to protect and sometimes even promote their tormentors. So instead it is whiningly and falsely asserting that all charges against the pope -- none of them surfacing except from within the Catholic community -- are part of a plan to embarrass him.

Maureen Dowd

The New York Times

March 27, 2010

The Catholic Church can never recover as long as its Holy Shepherd is seen as a black sheep in the ever-darkening sex abuse scandal.

Now we learn the sickening news that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" when he was the church's enforcer on matters of faith and sin, ignored repeated warnings and looked away in the case of the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys.

The church has been tone deaf and dumb on the scandal for so long that it's shocking, but not surprising, to learn from The Times's Laurie Goodstein that a group of deaf former students spent 30 years trying to get church leaders to pay attention.

Richard Dawkins

WashingtonPost.com's "On Faith"

March 28, 2010

"Should the pope resign?"

No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly -- ideally -- qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice -- the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution -- while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

Andrew Sullivan

The Atlantic Online

March 25, 2010

We all know this game is now over. The current Pope is now found directly responsible for two clear incidents of covering up or ignoring child abuse and rape. As head of the organization that took responsibility for investigating these cases for so long, his complicity in this vast and twisted criminal conspiracy is not in dispute. If he were the head of a secular organization, he would have already resigned and be cooperating with the police.

But he is the Vicar of Christ on earth.

It's hard to imagine a deeper crisis for the Catholic hierarchy than this. If the church is to survive -- and it will because it is the vessel of eternal truth -- it will have to go through a wrenching transformation.

Beginning with the resignation of this Pope and an end to priestly celibacy.

National Catholic Reporter


March 26, 2010

The focus now is on Benedict. What did he know? When did he know it? How did he act once he knew?

The questions arise not only about his conduct in Munich, but ... also as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A March 25 Times story, citing information from bishops in the United States, reported that the Vatican had failed to take action against a priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf children while working at a school from 1950 to 1974. Correspondence reportedly obtained by the paper showed requests for the defrocking of the priest, Fr. Lawrence Murphy, going directly from U.S. bishops to Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican secretary of state. No action was taken against Murphy.

Like it or not, this new focus on the pope and his actions as an archbishop and Vatican official fits the distressing logic of this scandal. For those who have followed this tragedy over the years, the whole episode seems familiar: accusation, revelation, denial and obfuscation, with no bishop held accountable for actions taken on their watch. Yes, there is a depressing madness to this story. Time after time, this is a story of institutional failure of the deepest kind, a failure to defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a failure to put compassion ahead of institutional decisions aimed at short-term benefits and avoiding public scandal.

The strategies employed so far -- taking the legal path, obscuring the truth, and doing everything possible to protect perpetrators as well as the church's reputation and treasury -- have failed miserably.

We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history. How this crisis is handled by Benedict, what he says and does, how he responds and what remedies he seeks, will likely determine the future health of our church for decades, if not centuries, to come.

It is time, past time really, for direct answers to difficult questions. It is time to tell the truth.

Good Pope:

Cardinal William Levada

Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Letter in response to the New York Times coverage of the scandal

March 26, 2010

The Times editorial wonders "how Vatican officials did not draw the lessons of the grueling scandal in the United States, where more than 700 priests were dismissed over a three-year period." I can assure the Times that the Vatican in reality did not then and does not now ignore those lessons. But the Times editorial goes on to show the usual bias: "But then we read Laurie Goodstein's disturbing report ... about how the pope, while he was still a cardinal, was personally warned about a priest ... But church leaders chose to protect the church instead of children. The report illuminated the kind of behavior the church was willing to excuse to avoid scandal." Excuse me, editors. Even the Goodstein article, based on "newly unearthed files," places the words about protecting the Church from scandal on the lips of Archbishop Weakland, not the pope.  It is just this kind of anachronistic conflation that I think warrants my accusation that the Times, in rushing to a guilty verdict, lacks fairness in its coverage of Pope Benedict.

As a full-time member of the Roman Curia, the governing structure that carries out the Holy See's tasks, I do not have time to deal with the Times's subsequent almost daily articles by Rachel Donadio and others, much less with Maureen Dowd's silly parroting of Goodstein's "disturbing report." But about a man with and for whom I have the privilege of working, as his "successor" Prefect, a pope whose encyclicals on love and hope and economic virtue have both surprised us and made us think, whose weekly catecheses and Holy Week homilies inspire us, and yes, whose pro-active work to help the Church deal effectively with the sexual abuse of minors continues to enable us today, I ask the Times to reconsider its attack mode about Pope Benedict XVI and give the world a more balanced view of a leader it can and should count on.


New York Daily News


March 31, 2010

It has become an increasingly prevailing belief that as a cardinal, before he ascended to the papacy, Pope Benedict enabled a pedophile priest to do enormous harm. This is false.


In June, 1998, [accused Wisconsin child molester Rev. Lawrence] Murphy wrote to Ratzinger, citing the fact that he had suffered strokes and asking to live out his days. Ratzinger's deputy suggested letting Murphy accept banishment, a step short of full defrocking, if he admitted guilt and expressed remorse. The Wisconsin bishop who had taken the case refused.

In August 1998, two weeks before Murphy's impending death, the archbishop of Milwaukee reported to Rome that he had suspended the trial and would try to get letters of apology from Murphy. The suspension order was never conveyed to the priest that headed the trial panel. He says he would have fought such a command and that Murphy died while charges were still pending.

What exactly did then-Cardinal Ratzinger do wrong? His office approved the trial and waived the statue of limitations. Those are not the makings of a coverup.

Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols

The Times (London)

March 26, 2010

Serious mistakes have been made within the Catholic Church. There is some misunderstanding about the Church, too. Within the Church there is a legal structure, its canon law. It is the duty of each diocesan bishop to administer that law. Certain serious offences against that law have to be referred to the Holy See to ensure proper justice. Some of these offences are not criminal in public law (such as profanation of the sacraments), others (such as offences against children) are. The role of the Holy See is to offer guidance to ensure that proper procedures are followed, including the confidentially needed to protect the good name of witnesses, victims and the accused until the trial is completed. It is no different from any other responsible legal procedure.

This "secrecy" is nothing to do with the confidentiality, or "seal" of the confessional, which is protected for reasons of the rights of conscience.


What of the role of Pope Benedict? When he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he led important changes made in church law: the inclusion in canon law of internet offences against children, the extension of child abuse offences to include the sexual abuse of all under 18, the case by case waiving of the statue of limitation and the establishment of a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders. He is not an idle observer. His actions speak as well as his words.

John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter

The New York Times

March 27, 2010

[A]ll the criticism is obscuring something equally important: For anyone who knows the Vatican's history on this issue, Benedict XVI isn't just part of the problem. He's also a major chapter in the solution.


After being elected pope, Benedict made the abuse cases a priority. One of his first acts was to discipline two high-profile clerics against whom sex abuse allegations had been hanging around for decades, but had previously been protected at the highest levels.

He is also the first pope ever to meet with victims of abuse, which he did in the United States and Australia in 2008. He spoke openly about the crisis some five times during his 2008 visit to the United States. And he became the first pope to devote an entire document to the sex-abuse crisis, his pastoral letter to Ireland.

What we are left with are two distinct views of the scandal. The outside world is outraged, rightly, at the church's decades of ignoring the problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation and tried to steer a new course.

Pope Benedict XVI

Letter to the Catholics of Ireland

March 19, 2010

On several occasions since my election to the See of Peter, I have met with victims of sexual abuse, as indeed I am ready to do in the future. I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them. Earlier in my pontificate, in my concern to address this matter, I asked the bishops of Ireland, "to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected, and above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes."


To the victims of abuse and their families

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ's own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love -- even in the darkest and most hopeless situations -- to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.