Q: Did Hillary Clinton disclose classified information when she said it takes four minutes to launch a nuclear missile after a presidential order?
A: The U.S. Strategic Command said it does not “disclose operational timelines.” But it is common knowledge that it takes about four minutes.
Hillary Clinton mentioned in the third debate that there is a 4 minute nuclear response time. Is that true and is that considered common knowledge or a government secret?
During the third and final presidential debate, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton warned that her opponent, Donald Trump, cannot be trusted “to have his finger on the nuclear button.” To make her point, Clinton said that it takes “about four minutes” for the U.S. to launch a nuclear weapon after a president’s order is issued.
Clinton, Oct. 19: The bottom line on nuclear weapons is that when the president gives the order, it must be followed. There’s about four minutes between the order being given and the people responsible for launching nuclear weapons to do so. And that’s why 10 people who have had that awesome responsibility have come out and, in an unprecedented way, said they would not trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes or to have his finger on the nuclear button.
Her response triggered a debate over whether she divulged state secrets. She didn’t. In fact, there has been a public debate for decades, since the end of the Cold War, about taking ground-based U.S. and Russian nuclear missiles off “high alert” to prevent an accidental or unauthorized launch — precisely because of the short time needed to launch an attack.
However, the U.S. Strategic Command — which maintains the readiness of the nation’s nuclear arsenal — declined to confirm that it takes just four or five minutes to launch a nuclear missile after the president issues the order. When we asked, we were told: “‘We do not disclose operational timelines.”
Nuclear Weapons on High Alert
The fact that Russia and the United States have land-based nuclear weapons capable of being launched within minutes of a president’s order is hardly news. The high level of alert — sometimes called “hair-trigger alert” — is a remnant of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, when both sides armed themselves to counter a nuclear attack on a moment’s notice.
The Minuteman, in fact, is named after its ability to launch quickly when on high alert. “From the time keys were turned to execute a positive launch command, until the missile left the silo, only took about a minute. Hence the name Minuteman,” the National Park Service says.
“De-alerting” — that is, taking nuclear missiles off high alert — is something that arms-control experts have been advocating for decades.
In 1997, three nuclear arms experts wrote an article for Scientific American that made the case “to end the practice of keeping nuclear missiles constantly ready to fire.” The article, “Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert,” cited a 1995 incident in which Russian President Boris Yeltsin had just minutes to determine if a “mysterious rocket” fired from off the coast of Norway was a U.S. nuclear attack on Russia. It turned out to be a false alarm, but it was the first time that the “nuclear briefcase” was activated, and it illustrated the dangers of Russia and the U.S. being on high alert, the authors wrote.
“Although international relations have changed drastically since the end of the cold war, both Russia and the U.S. continue to keep the bulk of their nuclear missiles on high-level alert,” the authors wrote. “So within just a few minutes of receiving instructions to fire, a large fraction of the U.S. and Russian land-based rockets (which are armed with about 2,000 and 3,500 warheads, respectively) could begin their 25-minute flights over the North Pole to their wartime targets.”
The article included a “timeline for catastrophe” that showed the launch of land-based nuclear missiles just five minutes after a U.S. president issues an order.
One of the authors of that article, Bruce G. Blair, was a U.S. Air Force Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile launch control officer who is now a professor at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. In September, Bloomberg Politics consulted with Blair on a graphic illustration of the step-by-step nuclear launch process that is similar to what the Scientific American article described nearly 20 years ago for land- and sea-based missiles.
“About five minutes may elapse from the president’s decision until intercontinental ballistic missiles blast out of their silos, and about fifteen minutes until submarine missiles shoot out of their tubes,” Bloomberg Politics wrote.
We found several instances of similar language used by other nuclear-arms experts.
A 2013 report by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research said that ICBMs are “capable of launching within five minutes” of a president’s order.
“We estimate that the United States deploys approximately 920 warheads on alert, split almost evenly between intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs),” the U.N. report said. “Yet the two legs of the US alert nuclear forces are postured very differently. Of the ICBM force, nearly all (98%) of the 450 missiles are on high alert at any given time, capable of launching within five minutes of the president issuing the launch codes.”
In a 2016 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists also said that the ICBMs “can be launched within a couple minutes of a presidential decision to do so,” and the submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) can be launched “within 15 minutes.”
So, Clinton was talking about land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles when she said that nuclear weapons can be launched “about four minutes” after a president’s order is issued.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, was a co-author of the U.N. report. He told us in an email, “I don’t have access to classified information so my assessment and writings are entirely based on public material and conversations.”
He added that “what Clinton said appears to reflect what has been said in public for years by various experts and analysts.”
While that seems abundantly clear, it still doesn’t answer the question of whether what Clinton said was classified.
Fox News quoted military experts after the third debate saying the length of time it takes to launch a nuclear attack is classified information and that the former secretary of state has now confirmed what the media and academics have written.
The Washington Post in 2007 also reported that nuclear launch times are classified, citing an unnamed “senior U.S. official” in the Bush administration. The Post article was about a statement made by Christina Rocca, the U.S. representative to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, who told U.N. delegates that “U.S. nuclear forces are not and have never been on hair-trigger alert” – which arms-control experts described then and now as inaccurate.
Washington Post, Nov. 1, 2007: A senior U.S. official said the claim that thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons can be launched within minutes is incorrect, but added that the information on launch time is classified. “The idea we are on Cuban-missile-crisis posture, sitting on the silo ready to push the button, is false,” said the official, who was unauthorized to speak publicly. “The essence of deterrence strategy is having some element of ambiguity.”
We sent an email to the U.S. Strategic Command and asked if it could confirm that intercontinental ballistic missiles are capable of being launched within five minutes of a president’s order, as stated in the U.N. report. Initially, we did not get a response, so we called and spoke to a woman in the U.S. Strategic Command media office who told us, “We would not give out security information such as the length of time.”
A short time later, we got an official response from the Strategic Command. “I would refer you to the reported comments of our chief spokesperson, U.S. Navy Capt. Brook DeWalt: ‘We do not disclose operational timelines, but we do work to provide the President as much decision space as possible.’”
The Clinton campaign told us that the information on the short time for a nuclear launch came from Clinton’s debate prep material, which was gathered from publicly available information — not from classified briefings. But Clinton did have access to such information as secretary of state.
Obama Administration Rejects ‘De-Alerting’
As secretary of state in the Obama administration, Clinton was involved in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which among other things considered whether to take land- and sea-based nuclear missiles off high alert. “De-alerting,” as it is known, would increase the amount of time needed to prepare the missiles for launch and, arms-control experts argue, would reduce the possibility of accidental launches.
But in an NPR report issued in April 2010, the Defense Department rejected “de-alerting” — concluding that it could escalate a crisis as both sides race to “re-alert” their missiles.
“The NPR considered the possibility of reducing alert rates for ICBMs and at-sea rates of SSBNs [strategic ballistic missile nuclear submarines], and concluded that such steps could reduce crisis stability by giving an adversary the incentive to attack before ‘re-alerting’ was complete,” the report said.
In making that decision, Obama was breaking a promise he made during the 2008 election, said Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.
During his 2008 campaign for president, then-Sen. Obama criticized President George W. Bush for breaking a promise made in the 2000 Republican platform, which said the U.S. should “remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status.” Obama vowed to keep the promise that Bush had broken.
“Finally, if we want the world to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia must lead by example,” Obama said in an April 23, 2007, speech in Chicago. “President Bush once said, ‘The United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status — another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation.’ Six years later, President Bush has not acted on this promise. I will. We cannot and should not accept the threat of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. We can maintain a strong nuclear deterrent to protect our security without rushing to produce a new generation of warheads.”
Kristensen told us in an email that Obama quickly “abandoned” that campaign promise.
“The de-alerting goal was present on the White House website for the first few months of 2009 as part of the new administration’s policy. But it disappeared in the spring of 2009 around the New Prague speech,” Kristensen wrote, referring to an April 5, 2009, speech in which Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons. “Since then, the Obama administration has not only abandoned that part of its policy but also argued forcefully against it.”
In fact, the Obama administration has even rejected the use of the term “hair-trigger” that Obama used during the 2008 campaign. A 2015 State Department fact sheet argued that U.S. nuclear forces “are not on hair-trigger alert,” calling the term inaccurate — just as the “senior U.S. official” in the Bush administration had done in 2007, as we noted earlier.
“A hair trigger is deliberately calibrated to fire a weapon with only the slightest pressure applied to the trigger. This is not an accurate description of U.S. nuclear forces,” the fact sheet says. “U.S. ‘alert’ posture simply means a portion of our forces (those on ‘alert’) are ready to launch upon receipt of an authenticated, encrypted, and securely transmitted order from the President of the United States.”
Kristensen said, “The administration’s attempt to describe alert as different than ‘hair-trigger’ seems more like an attempt to [put] a human face on the uncomfortable fact that the administration has gone back on its word.”
To recap: The U.S. Strategic Command does not disclose nuclear launch timelines, and Clinton was in position to know the launch times as secretary of state in the Obama administration.
But it is common knowledge that it takes about four or five minutes, and other presidential nominees — including the last two presidents — have campaigned on the need to take nuclear weapons off “hair-trigger status,” a reference to the short time that it takes for the U.S. to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles after the president issues an order.
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