No Comment — March 1, 2008, 7:46 pm

How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the (Ticking) Bomb

In the last eighteen months, Antonin Scalia, one of the most influential judges in American history, has twice suggested that he would turn to a fictional television character named Jack Bauer to resolve legal questions about torture. The first time was in a speech in Canada, and the second, only three weeks ago, in an interview with the BBC. This is evidence of the unprecedented influence of a television program on one of the most important legal policy issues before our country today. And it is, or should be, very troubling.

Most of our discussion of torture has focused on the arena of policy formation and debate. We have seen the issues tackled from the perspectives of the law, of ethics and from a utilitarian stance. That is, we have had a focus on the discussion which has occurred in Washington, within the upper echelons of Government, the courts, Congress, major think tanks and the academy. But in this process we are ignoring the forum in which public opinion on these questions may well be settled: namely, in the broadcast media.

Of course, one of the most pervasive memes of our modern political experience has been the notion of the “liberal media,” namely that key figures in broadcast and print media are more liberal than the average American, and that news and entertainment reflect their “liberal” bias. The torture issue provides an interesting opportunity to test this thesis. My view is that the Administration has had tremendous impact on coverage of the issue. It was able to transform well-settled media views.

There are two aspects to this industry that I want to address today—first, news and second entertainment, though there is a rather nebulous middle ground of infotainment. But I want to come to a focus on the entertainment side, where the most serious issues exist.

Torture in the News
News coverage of the torture issue began in proper terms after the publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs. There were a handful of reports that predated this, such as notice of the first two deaths in Bagram Air Base. At the time that the Abu Ghraib photographs appeared, I had completed a major study for the NYC Bar Association looking into legal standards governing interrogation practices. This study had been directly inspired by information the Bar had received from its JAG members to the effect that unlawful torture techniques were being used. Specifically, the following techniques were the focus of our concern: waterboarding, long-time standing, hypothermia, sleep deprivation in excess of two days, the use of psychotropic drugs and the sensory deprivation/sensory overload techniques first developed for the CIA at McGill University. Each of these techniques has a long history. Each had historically been condemned as “torture” by the United States when used by other nations. Each was clearly prohibited under the prior U.S. Army Field Manual. And each was now being used.

I discovered that when I gave interviews to major media on this subject, any time I used the word “torture” with reference to these techniques, the interview passage would not be used. At one point I was informed by a cable news network that “we put this on international, because we can’t use that word on the domestic feed.” “That word” was torture. I was coached or told that the words “coercive interrogation technique” were fine, but “torture” was a red light. Why? The Administration objected vehemently to the use of this word. After all, President Bush has gone before the cameras and stated more than three dozen times “We do not torture.” By using the T-word, I was told, I was challenging the honesty of the president. You just couldn’t do that.

In early 2005, I took a bit of time to go through one newspaper—The New York Times—to examine its use of the word “torture”. I found that the word “torture” was regularly used to described a neighbor who played his stereo too loud, or some similar minor nuisance. Also the word “torture” could be used routinely to describe techniques used by foreign powers which were hostile to the United States. But the style rule seemed very clear: it could not be used in reporting associated with anything the Bush Administration was doing.

In response to the scandal that Abu Ghraib produced, the Administration attempted a new gambit. It could be simply summarized as “scapegoat the grunts.” Unnamed Defense Department spokesmen spoke on a not-for-attribution basis to Pentagon reporters in the weeks after the New Yorker’s and 60 Minutes’ publication of photographs. The unit involved was, we were told, a bunch of uneducated hillbillies from Appalachia, and economic circumstances led the Army increasingly to reach down low to bring in people with dubious backgrounds. A formal review was prepared by a team headed by former DOD Secretary James Schlesinger, which stated that all of the trouble was due to “animal house on the nightshift,” a phrase which mysteriously cropped up several days before the release of the report on a number of right-wing radio talk programs.

Of course, Schlesinger’s formulation which was spread all across the media, was at odds with the report itself, which clearly linked the problems to policies authorized and implemented by the Secretary of Defense. Schlesinger was being used as part of a formal disinformation campaign which was aggressively peddled in the media. By and large it was not believed, but it provided a sufficient cover for the Administration to hold on to it’s “base” of the most Conservative 40% of American voters, and saw Bush and Cheney through the 2004 elections.

I worked with Alex Gibney, Sid Blumenthal and others in the preparation of “Taxi to the Dark Side” and I appear in the film. The objective of this exercise was to clarify in a definitive way how policies which were settled in the secretive inner sanctum of Washington defense and national security establishment were implemented in the field, and how the Administration attempted—largely through a series of rather staggering deceits—to cover this up. “Taxi” intentionally does not start with Abu Ghraib, but rather with the case of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who was falsely arrested, imprisoned and brutally tortured to death. His handling was start to finish in accordance with formally approved Bush Administration policies. The film then traces the flow of these practices to and from Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper and Guantánamo, and the flood of official disinformation about them. This film was prepared at the highest levels of objectivity and professionalism and the key figures who carry the dialogue are Bush Administration actors – Alberto Mora, Larry Wilkerson, John Yoo and the prison guards themselves, for instance. In one video segment, a senior U.S. officer in Afghanistan speaks candidly about the orders from the Pentagon to use the brutal techniques, and to mislead about their use. We also see how a fake death certificate was issued for Dilawar and then we slowly develop the actual course of events leading to his death. More than one hundred detainees have now died in U.S. captivity, and a large part of those deaths are linked to the use of torture and other brutal interrogation techniques.

When “Taxi” was done, it was shown to broad acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was recognized as best documentary. Discovery expressed a strong interest in the product and stepped up to acquire it. Then strange things started happening. The MPAA raised objections to the poster for the film because it showed a prisoner who was hooded, which is of course the standard practice for the US in transporting prisoners. MPAA said it had ethical reservations about showing a prisoner with a hood, that this suggested torture or abuse, and was inappropriate. Of course, that was the exact point. This was a documentary, not an entertainment piece. After weeks of wrangling the MPAA receded. Then we learned that Discovery, which had talked about transmission of the film in the spring, had decided to simply put it on the shelf. The film was “too controversial,” they said. What they meant was that the White House would take offense from it.

There was a loud public outcry over this act of censorship, and the film was flipped to HBO, which will now broadcast it. When this is transmitted, American audiences will see for the first time, comprehensively, how the Bush Administration consciously introduced torture techniques in American prisons – and how it consciously lied about what it did.

The story of “Taxi” shows the sort of problems faced by anyone who wants to present an accurate and candid portrait of the Bush Administration’s policies of official cruelty. But the entertainment side of the ledger is even more disturbing.

The Legacy
We should start by taking a step back in time. The theme of torture is nothing new to Hollywood, of course, it has appeared in many forms, frequently in romanticized historical settings. But when it makes its appearance in connection with contemporary settings there are some consistent themes. As the World War II era propaganda poster says “Torture—The Tool of the Enemy.” We used torture to define the enemy and to separate the enemy from us. The use of torture by the enemy marked them. They were evil, intrinsically evil, because of their use of these techniques. Conversely, the victims were Americans or American allies. Torture killed or maimed, but it did not work. It was a sign of weakness. A good example of these themes and their development can be found in a series of World War II films, such as “13, rue Madeleine,” which was of course the address of the Gestapo in Paris during World War II.

This thematic approach held through the Cold War, when torture became more exotic and was presented as a still greater threat to the human spirit. Torture was an effort to crush the individual, to destroy the personality, to bend its victim to the will of the totalitarian state.

Still, torture scenes were relatively infrequent.


This graph shows the number of scenes appearing over a ten-year period 1995-2005. Notice the spike that occurs after 9/11.

Transformation from 2002
The entertainment industry latches on to the events of the day and tries to take a ride from them. That is the simple nature of things. So the reintroduction of torture as a theme in the broadcast world was to be expected. But something happened beginning in 2002 which was a bit surprising, and that was the fairly dramatic transformation of the way in which torture was addressed by Hollywood. I will be generalizing here, and there are exceptions to every statement, but I will focus on one single program: Fox’s “24,” which takes an easy first place in this process—if offers 67 torture scenes in the first five seasons—so it is responsible for a large part of the total number of incidents shown here.

Whereas before, torture was the “tool of the enemy,” now torture is the tool of Jack Bauer. Its use is a heroic act of defiance, often of petty bureaucratic limitations, or of conceited liberals whose personal conscience means more to them than the safety of their fellow citizens. While Bauer is presented as an ultimate heroic figure (and also a figure with some heroic flaws), those who challenge use of the rough stuff are naïve, and their presence and involvement in the national security process is threatening. We see a liberal who defends a Middle Eastern neighbor then under suspicion, and who winds up being killed because the neighbor is in fact a terrorist.

We’re looking at a Hollywood specialty: a “reality” show which is divorced from reality. It grossly simplifies necessarily complex facts, and it pares away critical factors which a responsible citizen should be thinking about. But more importantly, perhaps, it is a head-on attack on morality and ethics. The critics of torture are shallow figures, self-serving politicians—vain, arrogant, indifferent to the harm they are doing to society. But in fact the arguments against torture are profound and informed by centuries of human experience and religious doctrine. Torture has in the course of the last two hundred years emerged as an intrinsic evil in Christian teaching; the teaching of most churches – Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical – rejects the idea that a state can ever legitimately employ torture.

Key to “24’s” success is the ticking bomb scenario—indeed you hear it with all the introductions, breaks and trailers—the seconds ticking off. The myth of the ticking bomb is the core of the program. Torture always works. Torture always saves the day. Torture is the ultimate act of heroism, of defiance of pointy-headed liberal morality in favor of service to the greater good, to society.

We should start with a frank question: has “24” been created with an overtly political agenda, namely, to create a more receptive public audience for the Bush Administration’s torture policies? I think the answer to that question is now very clear. The answer is “yes.” In “Whatever It Takes,” Jane Mayer has waded through the sheaf of contacts between the show’s producer, Joel Surnow, and Vice President Cheney and figures right around him. There is little ambiguity about this point, namely, if the torture system introduced after 9/11 can be traced back to a single person, it is Vice President Cheney. He pushed relentlessly for use of the tools of the “dark side,” and he ruthlessly took out everyone who stood in his way. He also worked feverishly to disguise or cloak his intimate involvement in the entire process. I take it as a given that Surnow is working to develop public attitudes which are more accepting of torture and to overturn centuries-old prejudices against torture. He is a torture-enabler.

The key to achieving this objective consists of two steps. The first is to reduce the issue to something simple: Does torture work? If it does, why should we ever rule it out? Any other question will be dismissed as a moralizing quibble, not something that virile men would worry about. I call this the “Rambo approach.”

The Missing Elements
We should all be focused on the gap between reality and the world of “24.” Here are the major points I would make:

• The irreality of the ticking-bomb. For one thing the fact that the ticking-bomb scenario upon which they build has never occurred in the entirety of human history. It’s a malicious fiction. The facts posited will simply never occur. But beyond this, while we are asked to keep our eye on the ticking-bomb scenario, it has nothing to do with the cases in which highly coercive techniques are actually used—look at the testimony of Steven Bradbury before the Judiciary Committee. He cited three instances in which waterboarding, an iconic torture technique, was used. None of them involved the ticking-bomb or anything like it.

• The reliability of torture. The Intelligence Science Board looked at the question extensively and came to clear conclusions in December 2006. Torture does not work, they said. Indeed, one passage of their report was clearly a swipe at “24” which they said rested on a series of absurd premises. The belief that a person, once tortured, speaks the truth is ancient and very false. Torture, when applied, seems very likely to produce false intelligence upon which we rely to our own detriment. Ask Colin Powell. He delivered a key presentation to the Security Council in which he made the case for war against Iraq. The keystone of Powell’s presentation turned on evidence taken from a man named al-Libi who was tortured and said that Iraq was busily at work on an WMD program. This information, of course, was totally wrong. Al-Libi fabricated it because he knew this is just what the interrogators wanted to hear, and by saying it, they would stop torturing. It was a perfect demonstration of the tendency of torture to contaminate the intelligence gathering process with bogus data.

• Containment. Can torture be introduced and used only in a highly limited set of cases, usually against cold-hearted terrorists, the worst of the worst? Is there not instead an inevitable rush to the bottom that results in any limitations being disregarded? The corrosive effects of culture on a society altogether.

• For another, the nation’s reputation in the world. Generations of Americans have fought and sacrificed to build a system of alliances around the world that provide our security bulwark. What has happened to those alliances? In country after country—including many of the nations which have historically been our tightest allies–our government’s approval level is, as now in Turkey, within the margin of error. That’s right. The percentage approving may actually be zero. In nation after nation and even among our own allies, we are outstripped by the world’s last Stalinist power, China. This is a very heavy price, and most of it has to do with torture policy. So torture policy erodes confidence of our community of allies in us, makes them hesitant to share intelligence, and to support us in counterterrorism and other operations. I have studied in some detail the consequences of U.S. torture policies for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it is clear that allies are dropping out and loosing enthusiasm for supporting operations, and torture policies provide the single most important motivator in this process.

• Damage to military morale and discipline. George Washington was famous for his opposition to torture. He came to his views not for idealistic but for practical reasons. During the French and Indian Wars he observed brutal tactics being used in the wilderness, and he saw that the soldiers who used them were bad soldiers—disorderly, poorly disciplined, impossible to control. He concluded that torture destroyed morale and discipline. And that continues to be the accepted wisdom of the military today, and the force behind the historically unprecedented opposition of military leaders to Bush Administration policy that we saw in the winter of 2006-07. The dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, BG Patrick Finnegan, visited the writers of “24” to present a complaint. This program was actually corrupting military intelligence and discipline. Soldiers in the field reach to the techniques employed by Jack Bauer—if he can use them, why can’t we?

• And the weightiest link in this chain tied around our national neck should be considered last. As my friend Mark Danner writes, if you assembled a team of Madison Avenue’s most brilliant thinkers in a room and asked them to concoct a recruitment plan for al Qaeda and its allies, we’d never come anywhere close to the one that the Bush Administration delivered up to them with the torture program. It’s the major reason why today, six years after the start of the war on terror, the National Intelligence Estimate tells us that al Qaeda is back up or has exceeded the strength it had on 9/11, and the Taliban has also been able to regroup and recharge, destabilizing a friendly government in Afghanistan.

The current season of “24” set to begin shortly features a senate investigation looking into Jack Bauer. A Senator is out after our hero, but he defends himself brilliantly and in the end, the senate committee, we are told, sees the light and comes to understand Bauer’s heroic qualities, including his willingness to use torture.

America today is witnessing something like the experience of France during the Algerian conflict. Albert Camus noted and developed this carefully over a period of many years in his Chroniques algériennes. He saw a polarized society in France, between conservatives, traditional liberals and the Left. But there was no constituency to oppose torture. The Right embraced the cause of the colonials, and justified their reach to harsh tactics. First this was justified by arguments that the barbarity of the people justified treating them in ways that in Europe could not be countenanced. (This was an echo of arguments that Tocqueville examined a century earlier in the first Algerian war). But this wasn’t a satisfying basis for a society built on liberty, equality and fraternity. So the second justification was more appealing, and it was the ticking-bomb. Camus notes that the Left also could not muster arguments against torture. It was then still in the embrace of Stalinism, which had taken with relish to the same techniques. Who remained to make the moral and social argument? Camus did. He puts it powerfully near the conclusion of that book.

Though it may be true that, at least in history, values, be they of a nation or of humanity as a whole, do not survive unless we fight for them, neither combat (nor force) can alone suffice to justify them. Rather it must be the other way: the fight must be justified and guided by those values. We must fight for the truth and we must take care not to kill it with the very weapons we use in its defense; it is at this doubled price that we must pay in order that our words assume once more their proper power.

This is the fundamental dilemma that “24” dodges. What are the values for which Jack Bauer is fighting? Is he not abdicating them by his conduct? I am not advocating censoring of “24.” But it is critical that “24” begin to present this vitally complex and important social issue in a mature, responsible way. Right now, it is multiplying our problems.

Remarks delivered at the University of Chicago School of Law, Chicago, Illinois on March 1, 2008.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Minimum cost of a “pleasure palace” being built for Vladimir Putin:


Israeli researchers claimed to have identified a ruthlessness gene.

Trump and Putin puzzle out cybersecurity in Helsinki, John Kelly didn't like his breakfast in Brussels, and a family of woodchucks ate the wiring in Paul Ryan's car

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today