Weekly Review — July 13, 2017, 2:59 pm

Weekly Review

Donald Trump Jr. meets with a Kremlin-connected lawyer…

Donald Trump Jr., the eldest child of former vodka salesman and current U.S. president Donald Trump, was reported to have met during his father’s campaign with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with alleged ties to the Kremlin who once referred to liberalism in the United States as a “fucking mental disorder.”[1][2][3] Donald Jr., who once said he prefers “Moscow over all cities in the world,” issued a statement claiming that the meeting was “primarily” about “the adoption of Russian children.”[4][5] White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who previously said conversations between Russian officials and associates of the Trump campaign “never happened,” told a journalist that “nobody said the word ‘opposition research,’” and Donald Jr. tweeted that he went to the meeting with Veselnitskaya in order to “hear information about an opponent.”[6][7][8] White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said the meeting was a “big nothing burger,” an ethics lawyer for the administration of former president George W. Bush said the meeting “borders on treason,” and Donald Jr. hired as legal representation Alan Futerfas, a criminal attorney who has previously represented associates of the Gambino and Genovese crime families, which in the late 1970s sold Trump the overpriced concrete used to build Trump Tower, where the meeting between Donald Jr. and Veselnitskaya occurred.[9][10][11][12] Donald Jr. learned from reporters that emails he had sent about the meeting would be published; issued a second statement claiming that the meeting was organized by “an acquaintance” from the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump once owned, along with the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants and a modeling agency accused by a former employee of practicing “modern-day slavery”; and then revealed that the acquaintance was Rob Goldstone, the agent of Emin Agalarov, an Azerbaijani pop star whose video for the song “In Another Life” featured Trump firing him and whose father is Aras Agalarov, a billionaire who owned the Moscow venue where Trump held his 2013 Miss Universe pageant and who once planned with Trump to build a Trump-branded tower in Russia, a project that according to Goldstone was led by Donald Jr. until it was canceled because “the economy tanked in Russia” as a result of U.S. sanctions, which Trump’s former national-security adviser unlawfully discussed with the Russian ambassador while he was a member of Trump’s transition team.[13][14][15][16][17][18][19] Donald Jr. wrote that his father, who days before the meeting with Veselnitskaya had told the press he would soon announce incriminating information about his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, “knew nothing of the meeting”; and that during the meeting he received “no meaningful information” to help his father, who then did not announce any incriminating information about Clinton.[20][21] Donald Jr. wrote of the meeting that Veselnitskaya’s “true agenda” was to discuss the Magnitsky Act, a piece of U.S. legislation that imposed sanctions on 18 Russian officials believed to be responsible for the death of an accountant who uncovered a $230 million money-laundering scheme; that he “advised” Veselnitskaya that “her concerns were better addressed if and when” Trump “held public office”; and said that he had “no further contact” with Veselnitskaya, who continued after the meeting to represent Denis Katsyv, a Russian businessman who was charged in Manhattan with participating in the money-laundering scheme, until the case was settled out of court after Trump ascended to the presidency and fired the prosecutor.[22][23][24][25] Veselnitskaya said that she never offered Donald Jr. any information on Clinton and denied that she worked for the Russian government, it was reported that U.S. prosecutors had evidence Veselnitskaya told a Moscow lawyer working to expose the money-laundering scheme that he would face consequences from Russia’s intelligence agency if he continued his efforts, and a lawyer who claimed to have discovered new evidence of the money-laundering scheme said that his fall from the fourth-floor balcony of his Moscow home two months before Katsyv’s case was settled was “no accident.”[26][27][28][29] Donald Jr. said that he wanted to be “transparent,” then tweeted copies of his email exchanges with Goldstone, which revealed that Goldstone had offered to set up a meeting between Donald Jr. and a “Russian government attorney”; that the attorney would provide “information” to “incriminate Hillary Clinton,” to which Donald Jr. replied “I love it”; that Goldstone said he would “send the names” of the people attending the meeting ahead of time to Donald Jr., who later claimed he “did not know” Veselnitskaya’s name before the meeting; that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who Donald Jr. had claimed attended the meeting without knowing what it was about, received the emails; and that Donald Jr. attended the meeting about two weeks before he said that the Clinton campaign’s claims that the Democratic National Committee was hacked by Russia were “lies” that were “so phony” and “disgusting.”[30][31][32][33] Republican senator Orrin Hatch said Donald Jr. is a “nice young man,” and Donald Jr. said he was “in the learning curve” when he accepted assistance in writing from the Russian government for his father’s U.S. presidential campaign via an email exchange with Goldstone, who was a former judge for Miss USA and who once wrote that when an “idiotic child” falls into the hands of a 440-pound gorilla, he should be “shot.”[34][35][36][37]

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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.

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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.

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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
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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

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