Visions

NUKEMAP at 5 years

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 3rd, 2017

Five years ago today I introduced the NUKEMAP. It feels practically like yesterday — how fast that has flown! I occasionally get college students, not even brand new ones, who tell me that they used it in high school to do reports. That makes me feel… well, like I’ve contributed something, along with feeling old. So that’s not bad. I’ve been behind on posting for awhile now, and am behind on several things at the moment (lots of irons in the fire, plus the debilitating power of a news cycle that seems to change by the minute), but I wanted to put up something about the NUKEMAP.

NUKEMAP and NUKEMAP3D page views, exported from Google Analytics and cleaned up a bit, with a few of the "known" moments of virality indicated. Note how the "baseline" had steadily increased over time.

NUKEMAP and NUKEMAP3D page views, exported from Google Analytics and cleaned up a bit, with a few of the “known” moments of virality indicated. Note how the “baseline” had steadily increased over time.

Some statistics: NUKEMAP has been the host of over 99 million virtual detonations, according to its internal logs. Every detonation, except for ones where people have opted-out of logging, is logged. As I’ve said before, I don’t record enough information for it to be non-anonymizing, but it’s interesting to see things like where people nuke, and what they do with the tool. According to Google Analytics, there have been (as of this checking) over 25 million pageviews, over 20 million of those unique pageviews (e.g., not people coming back and using it multiple times in one session). The usage of the site predictably flares up in certain moments of “virality” (for the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima, over 500,000 people used it over two days), and still have sharp moments of heavy traffic every few months. More interesting and important to me is that the site’s “slow days” are now not so slow. When it started, a “slow day” was a few thousand people using it. Today, it’s more like 15,000-20,000 people using it. And, for the most part, people are really using it: the average time on page is 5 minutes, which I think is pretty healthy for a web visualization used by tens of thousands of people a day. That means people are doing more than just clicking and glancing — they’re actually trying things out.

NUKEMAP3D is, for the moment, moribund. Google unceremoniously discontinued support for the Google Earth Web Plugin (the code on their end is just kaput), and no adequate substitute has yet emerged. There are some ways of crudely rendering a 3D planet on the web, but none that support buildings and skylines the way Google Earth did, and that is the whole point of NUKEMAP3D. However, I am developing a temporary substitute which is almost ready to roll out: it will allow you to export any NUKEMAP settings to a KMZ file which you can open in the Google Earths standalone program, and it will support mushroom clouds among other interesting features.

“Alas, poor NUKEMAP3D! I knew him, Horatio…” Don’t worry, NUKEMAP3D isn’t really dead, just waiting for better circumstances…

Some reflections: I still remain surprised that NUKEMAP has been as popular as it was. The idea of drawing concentric circles over a map is not a new one, and mine was not even the first web one. Heck, it wasn’t even the first web one for me — in 2005 or so I made a terrible crude version using MapQuest (remember them?) and PHP, and it wouldn’t have been sustainable to use (it literally used PHP to draw circles over static images from MapQuest, so it was very server-intensive by the standards of the day). But I did try to make a version that was easier to use than any of the other ones that were out there, and gave more intuitive, useful information. And when I upgraded NUKEMAP in the summer of 2013, I really did think it was contributing new possibilities: much more flexible detonation options, casualty estimates, a fallout model.

I still give talks about NUKEMAP all the time, whether to large groups (I was on a panel with Noam Chomsky a few years ago, talking about NUKEMAP), or to individual reporters (I did another interview on it just yesterday), or to small groups of students (I Skyped into a high school class a few weeks ago to talk about it, and how it was made, and how these students should not think of it as something beyond their capabilities to put together, something I don’t mind doing if I can make the time for it). I teach a course regularly (“Visualizing Society,” a sort of anarchistic data visualization/science and technology studies course) where I show students how to build NUKEMAP-like applications for other sorts of social phenomena. I still make updates and plans for updates to it: there are several projects in the works, including “refreshing” the interface a bit (don’t worry, it won’t end up looking painfully “trendy”; the blog could probably use a refresh, too), translating it into other languages (which requires more back-end coding than you might expect), and adding new substantive features (I have almost put the final touches on a nuclear burning model and better support for multiple detonations).

For me, the "holy grail" would be something that would let you see something like the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency made in 1973: a "personalized" view of what different damage looked like, from the street level. The technology for this isn't quite here yet, but it's not that far away, either.

For me, the “holy grail” would be something that would let you see something like the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency made in 1973: a “personalized” view of what different damage looked like, from the street level. The technology for this isn’t quite here yet, but it’s not that far away, either.

I have a very long “wish list” of things that would be interesting to add: EMP features, a dynamic (time-sensitive) fallout model, support for the effect of terrain or dampening by buildings, and so forth. I do have some students who occasionally work for me, especially in the summer, on aspects of these issues, and some of this work may eventually make it into future versions of the NUKEMAP. I’m also interested in translating the NUKEMAP concept — this “personalizing” of nuclear weapons effects — into non-web domains as well. The main difficulty here is time: NUKEMAP is still a mostly one-man operation (imagine me in the salt mines, toiling out Javascript), and this one-man is (to his delight) admirably busy with a lot of things. I am very positively supported in this work by my university, I should say, and the College of Arts and Letters at the Stevens Institute of Technology has been paying the ever-increasing fees associated with running a popular website since I got here, and encouraging me to do even more with it.

I suppose one thing that I’m grateful for is that I’m not yet even slightly bored with any of it — I still find talking about it interesting, I still find it a model of how we might consider science communication to look in our present age. I strongly believe, and will evangelize about to anyone who asks me to (as many have found, probably without realizing what they were getting into), that there is something different about providing a sort of “simulation” to a user and saying, well, you figure out how this works, as opposed to a more didactic mode of education like lecturing. This has strong shades of “active learning,” but I’m not just talking about an approach to the classroom. One nice thing about tools like NUKEMAP is that I can see (through referring links) how people are using them. My favorite example, and this comes up all the time, is when people use it to argue with other people on the Internet. Someone will say, wouldn’t a nuclear bomb do X? And someone says, well, the NUKEMAP says it will be more like Y. And there’s this kind of “calibration” of understanding, as I think of it, that starts to narrow down what these weapons do and don’t do. (And it goes both ways: most people think they are more powerful than they are, but some think they are less powerful.) The NUKEMAP model, as I discuss in its FAQ, isn’t perfect by any means: in some circumstances it probably overestimates the effects (by not taking into account a lot of local variables), in others it probably underestimates them, and the “real world” is much more chaotic than a simple model that can run in your browser can account for, no doubt. But it helps to concretize the experience, the order of magnitude. I think there’s a lot of value in that, when we’re talking about something so removed from everyday human experience (thank goodness) as a nuclear weapon detonation.

And I think this is a model we need to really do more to export to other domains: nukes are one thing in our society that people have trouble really understanding on an intuitive level, but there are plenty more. This is what my “Visualizing Society” class is all about, at its core: finding ways to make interactive data visualizations or simulations that shed light on complex real-world issues. The technical bar for doing these things is lower than most people realize; if I can teach undergraduates (very good and often technically-inclined undergraduates, to be sure, but often ones with no coding experience) the basics of this over the course of a semester, then it can’t be that hard.

The original "NUKEMAP" — Hiroshima, before and after, from the view of a nuclear bombardier.

The original “NUKEMAP” — Hiroshima, before and after, from the view of a nuclear bombardier.

My main frustration with NUKEMAP as a communication tool is that the top-down, concentric-circles approach is the view of the military planner. It’s the view of the nuclear targeteer, or as a friend and collaborator put it earlier this week, it’s the view of real estate. It’s not the view of the person on the ground, it’s not the view of the survivor, it’s not the view of the victim. NUKEMAP3D did provide some aspects of that, but the Google Earth plugin, for its communicative benefits, was clunky to use (the 3D interface was not straightforward), required a special installation, and it was never as popular as the regular NUKEMAP. (I was, however, still impressed that some 3 million people used it over its lifetime.) I’m hoping that some future projects I have in mind (no spoilers, sorry) will address these issues more directly and more intensely.

Anyway, more is on the horizon, as ever, and it is just a matter of figuring out how to get it all done. More NUKEMAP, more NUKEMAP-like creations, more work. I’m grateful for NUKEMAP: what started out a literally two-day coding job (one resting, of course, on a decade of coding experience, and even some actual code that I had written a long time ago, to be sure) has turned into something of a guiding idea for a career. It definitely increased the popularity of my blog (whose traffic is admirably high for an academic, despite the fact that I am greatly remiss in updating it lately), and became a selling-point for the kinds of hybrid technical-historical-analytical projects that I never knew I had wanted to spend my life working on (though I did have some inklings). Anyway, much more is coming. When I go silent, don’t think, “what’s happened to him?” Instead, think, “what’s he getting ready for us, next?” There’s a lot in the pipeline.

Meditations

The President and the Bomb: Redux

by Alex Wellerstein, published December 23rd, 2016

It’s been a busy month; aside from “regular work” sorts of duties (teaching, grading, writing, e-mailing, programming, book reviews, grant proposals, oh my!), I’ve been sucked into various discussions relating to presidential command and control after my last post, which got me a solicitation to write an op-ed for the Washington Post on presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons. I haven’t really gotten around to screening all the comments to my blog post, and Post piece has 1,200 comments that I’m just not going to bother trying to wade into. I thought though that I would post a few quick responses here to common comments I’ve gotten on both pieces.

The print version of my Post article (December 4, 2016). Thanks to my DC friends for sending me print copies — apparently one cannot buy the Post anywhere in Hoboken. You can read the online version here.

The print version of my Post article (December 4, 2016). Thanks to my DC friends for sending me print copies — apparently one cannot buy the Post anywhere in Hoboken. You can read the online version here.

Both pieces are about the history and policy of presidential authorization to use nuclear weapons. In a nutshell, in the United States the President and only the President is the ultimate source of authority on the use of nukes. This is entirely uncontroversial, and the articles describe the history behind the situation.

The trickier questions come up when you ask, can anyone stop nuclear weapons from being used if the president wants to use them? Everything I’ve been able to find suggests that the answer is no, but there are ambiguities that various people interpret differently. For example, there are two separate questions hidden in that first one: can anyone legally stop the president, and can anyone practically stop the president? I will get into these below.

The most curious response that I’ve heard, both in person and second-hand, are people who have heard what I’ve said about this, and say, “that can’t be true, that would be a dumb/crazy way to set things up.” This is often a purely emotional response, not one based on any research or specialized knowledge — a pure belief that the US would have a “smarter” system in place. I find it interesting because it is a curious way to just reject the whole topic, some sort of mental defense mechanism. Again, everything I’ve found suggests that this is how the system is set up, and in both the blog post and the Post article I’ve tried to outline the history of how it got to be this way, which I think makes it more understandable, even if it’s still (arguably) not a great idea.

And, of course, because it featured the name “Trump,” a somewhat hyperbolic headline (which I didn’t write, but don’t really hate — it elides some caveats and ambiguities, but it’s a headline, not the article), and is in the Washington Post, there were a lot of people who wondered whether this was just a partisan attack. And amusingly had a number of people accuse me of being a Post employee, which I am decidedly not. My writing has also been sometimes referred to as “hysterical,” which is an interesting form of projection; to my eye, anyway, it is intentionally pretty sober, but I suppose we see what we expect to see, to some degree.

Interpreting a Trump tweet is no easy matter, and serves as sort of a political Rorschach test. The above is either completely in line with Obama's nuclear modernization plan, or a call for something entirely different. I guess we'll see...

Interpreting a Trump tweet is no easy matter, and serves as sort of a political Rorschach test. The above is either completely in line with Obama’s nuclear modernization plan, or a call for something entirely different. I guess we’ll see…

It’s true that I think this issue is particularly acute with regards to Mr. Trump; if nuclear war powers are vested in the person of the executive, then the personality of the executive is thus extremely important. And I think even his supporters would agree that he has a reactive, volatile, unpredictable personality. He broadcasts his thin-skinnedness to the world on a daily basis. And a president who complains on a weekly basis on his portrayal on Saturday Night Live is, let’s be straight, thin-skinned. To be offended by comedic parody is beneath the station of the job, something that any American president had better get beyond.

But frankly I would be just as happy to have been talking about this in a Clinton administration, and would have been happy to talk about it during the Obama administration. The issue, and my position, still stands: I think that vesting such power in one human being, any human being, is asking a lot. And this has nothing to do with how reliable they seem at election-time: we have historical instances of presidents who had health problems (Wilson), were heavy users of painkillers (Kennedy) or alcohol (Nixon), or who were later discovered to be in the early stages of mental decline (Reagan). There is no reason to suspect that the president you elect one year will continue to be that person two or three years later, or that they will be totally reasonable at all times. And I don’t think anyone of any political party in the USA would go out on a limb to suggest that the US electorate will always elect someone whose can bear all that responsibility. So this doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, a partisan issue, even if Trump in particular is getting a lot of people to start talking about it again.

One of the responses I’ve heard is that no further “checks” on presidential nuclear command authority are needed because any president who wanted to use nuclear weapons unilaterally, against the judgment of their advisors, would be agreed-upon as “insane” and thus could be removed from office under Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. This is, I think, not adequate.

For one thing, the procedures are understandably complex and require a lot of people to participate — it is appropriately difficult for a president to be declared “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” because if it were easy, that would be an easy way to dispose of an unpopular president. So it is not the sort of thing that can be made to go into immediate effect with quick turn-around, which really does not help us much in the nuclear situation, I don’t think.

Secondly, while the “insane president” idea often dominates the discussion here, that is an extreme and not entirely likely case. I am much more worried about the “president with bad ideas” approach, possibly a “president with bad ideas supported by a few advisors” approach. There are many nuclear-use scenarios that do not involve an attempted preemptive attack against Russia, for example. Not all will be “obviously insane.” And even a president who advocated first-use would not necessarily be “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” according to the people who need to agree to such a statement. This is a cumbersome, high-stakes approach; if the only way to stop a president from doing dumb things with nuclear weapons is to kick them out of office on the basis of them being medically unfit, that is a very difficult bar to climb to. (And we can add impeachment under the same objection — that is not a fast nor straightforward process, nor is it any kind of obvious deterrent to the kind of president who might consider using nuclear weapons in the first place.)

Results of a poll taken after the first presidential debate, on whether the candidates could be trusted with nuclear weapons. There are many ways to read this, but I think at a minimum we can say that when substantial percentages of people believe that neither major-party nominee can be trusted with nuclear weapons responsibility alone, it's time to rethink whether we should have a system that invests that decision completely in the president.

Results of a poll taken after the first presidential debate, on whether the candidates could be trusted with nuclear weapons. There are many ways to read this, but I think at a minimum we can say that when substantial percentages (much less a slim majority for one of them) of Americans believe that neither major-party nominee can be trusted with nuclear weapons responsibility alone, it’s time to rethink whether we should have a system that invests that decision completely in the president.

Another objection I’ve gotten is the “maybe there are checks that you just don’t know about, because they’re classified.” Fair enough, and I acknowledged this in my writings. Much about the procedures involved are classified, and there are good reasons for that. If an enemy knew exactly how the system worked, they could potentially plot to exploit loopholes in it. But I have two main responses on this.

First, if complete knowledge in the nuclear realm was necessary to talk about nuclear policy, then literally nobody could or would talk about it. Which means democratic deliberation would be impossible. So those of us without clearances can, and should, talk about what we do and don’t know, openly on both fronts. I try to make very explicit where my knowledge begins and ends. I would be completely thrilled if these discussions led to official clarifications — I think these issues are worth it, and if my understanding is wrong, that would be great.

Second, it strikes me as an act of tremendous optimism to assume that things in the US government are more rationally run than all signs indicate they appear to be. The study of nuclear history is not a study of unerring rationality, of clear procedures, or of systems set up to guarantee wise decision-making. It is easy to document that our command and control systems have been optimized towards three ends: 1. preventing anyone but the president from using nuclear weapons in an unauthorized fashion, 2. reliability of response to threats and attack, and 3. immense speed in translating orders to action. None of that suggests we should assume there are elaborate checks and balances in the system. My view: unless positive evidence exists that a government system is sufficiently rational, to assume it is sufficiently rational requires tremendous faith in government.

Lastly, to get at the strongest of the responses: the president is the only person who can order nuclear weapons to be used, but doesn’t the execution of that order require assent from other people to actually get translated into action? In other words, if the president has to transmit the order to the Secretary of Defense (as some, but not all, descriptions of the process say has to occur), and the Secretary of Defense then has to transmit it to the military, and the military has to transmit it into operational orders for soldiers… aren’t there many places in that chain where someone can say, “hey, this is a terrible idea!” and not transmit the order further?

In thinking about this, I think we have to make a distinction between a legal and a practical hinderance. A legal hindrance would be the possibility of someone being able to say, legally and constitutionally, “I refuse to follow this order,” and that would stop the chain of command. This is mentioned in the 1970s literature on presidential authority as a form of “veto” power. It is not at all clear that this is legally allowable in the area of nuclear weapons — it is, to be sure, an ambiguous issue of constitutional, military, and international law. I have seen people assert that the use of nuclear weapons would be unquestionably a war crime, and so any officer who was given such an order would recognize it as an illegal order, and thus refuse to obey it. I don’t think the US government, or the US military, sees (American) use of nuclear weapons as a war crime (a topic for another post, perhaps), and whether you and I do or not matters not at all.

And from a practical standpoint, we know the system is set up so that the people at the very bottom, the people “turning the keys” and actually launching the missiles, are trained to not question (or even deeply contemplate) the orders that reach them. They are trained, rather explicitly, that if the order comes in, their job is to execute it — not quite like robots, but close-enough to that. The speed and reliability of the system requires these people to do so, and they are not in a position to inquire about the “big picture” behind the order (and would not presume to be qualified to evaluate that). So if we take that for granted, we might ask ourselves, at what level in the hierarchy would people be asking about that? One can imagine a lot of different possibilities, ranging from a continuum of second-guessing that was fairly evenly gradated towards the “top,” or one that was really “band-limited” to the absolute top (e.g., once the order gets made by the president, it is followed through on without questioning).

I suspect that even the military is not 100% sure of the answer to that question, but I suspect that the situation is much more like the latter than the former. Primarily because, again, the US military culture, especially regarding nuclear weapons, is about deference to the authority of the Commander in Chief. Once you get beyond a certain “circle” of people who are close to the president, like the Secretary of Defense, I would be very surprised if the people in the nuclear system in particular would buck the order. The system and its culture was built during the cold war, focused on rapid translation between order and execution. Until I see evidence that suggests it has radically transformed itself since then, I am going to assume it acts in that way still. And again, everything I have seen suggests that this is still the case. As former CIA and NSA head Michael Hayden put it before the election: “It’s scenario dependent, but the system is designed for speed and decisiveness. It’s not designed to debate the decision.

OK, but in practice, couldn’t the Secretary of Defense just refuse to act? Here it really becomes necessary to know how the system is set up, and I just don’t think enough information is out there to be definitive. From what I understand, the main role of the Secretary of Defense is to authenticate the order — to say, “yes, the president made this order.” Are there ways to get around that requirement, or around a stubborn Secretary of Defense? A practical one would be to just fire him on the spot, in which case the requirement for authentication moves down a notch in the Department of Defense succession rank. It could go onward and onward down the line, I suppose. But more practically, I have heard it suggested (from people who study such things) that there are protocols by which the president could bypass the Secretary of Defense altogether and communicate directly with the National Military Command Center to communicate such an order. I am still looking into what we can say about such things with conviction, but it would not surprise me if there were contingencies in place that allowed a president a more direct means of sending such orders, as part of the goal of making the system especially resilient in times of crisis (when appropriate representatives from the Department of Defense may not be available).

There is a famous anecdote about Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger requesting that all nuclear commands from Nixon in the final days of the administration be routed through him. It is not clear that it is true, and may be exaggerated greatly, but it is often cited as a means that a Secretary of Defense could override presidential authority. Even if it were true, it is ad hoc, probably illegal, and a pretty thin “check” to rest one’s hopes upon. And I would suggest that about any assertion that “practical” constraints exist in the form of individuals refusing to follow orders — they’re highly optimistic. Especially since there is a lot of options other than a raving president shouting “nuke them all!,” which would be pretty easy to disobey. There are many more scenarios that do not involve obvious insanity, but could still be terrible ideas.

The Lieu-Markey bill for limiting presidential power regarding nuclear weapon use.

The Lieu-Markey bill for limiting presidential power regarding nuclear weapon use.

In my Post piece, I discussed possible resolutions. None could be completely satisfying; the nuclear age is defined by that lack of total certainty about outcomes. But there have been proposals about requiring positive assent from more people than just the president for any kind of first-use of nuclear weapons. I discuss the Federation of American Scientists’ proposal in my Post piece, and the fact that you could use that as a template for thinking about other kinds of proposals. I am not wed to the idea of getting Congressional approval, for example. Frankly I’d be happier if there were a legal requirement that would codify the Secretary of Defense’s veto power, for example. One can productively debate various options (and I’m still thinking about these questions), and their legality (it is a tricky question), but I still think it would be a valuable thing to give people at the highest levels something non-ad hoc to fall back upon if they wanted to actively refuse to obey such an order. The common objection I’ve heard to such an idea is, “maybe we don’t need it, there might be hidden checks in place,” which is not much of an objection (relying on optimism in the system).

Congressmen Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill last September that would require a Congressional declaration of war before first-use of nuclear weapons would be allowed. I don’t think that’s necessarily the right approach (Congress has not issued a declaration of war since World War II, so this is effectively just a prohibition on first-strike capability, which will lead the military, defense establishment, and most security scholars I know to definitively oppose the idea), but I hope that this might serve as a place to revisit and discuss these issues formally in a legislative setting. I am not convinced I have the perfect policy solution, but for me an idealized law would have provisions that allowed for first-use in emergency circumstances, with at least one other human being (preferably more, though not an impractical number) having to actively agree with the order (and having veto power over it). I think this is a rather modest suggestion. It would not completely rule out first-strike possibilities — nothing would, save lack of nuclear capability altogether, and that’s a separate can of worms — but it would allow the American people, military, and political establishment to know that no single human being would be shouldering that responsibility alone.

Meditations

The President and the bomb

by Alex Wellerstein, published November 18th, 2016

I’m in the process of writing up something more substantial about nuclear weapons and the 2016 Presidential election, but I keep getting asked one thing repeatedly both in person, over e-mail, and online: “Are there any checks in place to keep the US President from starting a nuclear war?”  

What’s amazing about this question, really, is how seriously it misunderstands the logic of the US command and control system. It gets it exactly backwards.

Recent (November 17, 2016) Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: "Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs." Hat tip to Alexandra Levy (Atomic Heritage Foundation) for bringing this one to my attention.

A recent Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: “Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs.” (November 17, 2016) Hat tip to Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation for bringing this one to my attention.

The entire point of the US command and control system is to guarantee that the President and only the President is capable of authorizing nuclear war whenever he needs to. It is about enabling the President’s power, not checking or restricting him. As former Vice President Dick Cheney put it in 2008:

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.

This isn’t new; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This has been discussed since the 1940s. And yet, people today seem rather shocked to hear it, even very educated people.

To be sure, the official doctrine that I have seen on the Nuclear Command Authority implies that the President should be given as much advice as possible from the military, the Department of Defense, and so on. But nothing I have seen suggests that this is any more than advisory — and the entire system is set up so that once the President’s order is verified and authenticated, there are meant to be only minutes until launch.

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

It isn’t entirely intuitive — why the President, and not someone else, or some combination of people? Why not have some kind of “two-man rule,” whereby two top political figures were required to sign off on the use before it happened? The two-man rule is required for commanders to authorize nuclear launches, so why not the Commander in Chief?

To understand why this is, you have to go back and look at the history of how this doctrine came about. Today we tend to discuss this in terms of the speed in which a retaliation would be necessary in the event of a crisis, but the debate wasn’t originally about expediency at all, but about an understanding of Constitutional power and the inherently political nature of the bomb. I see the debate about the (un-)targeting of Kyoto, in mid-1945, as the first place where some of these questions started to get worked out. Presidents generally do not pick targets in war. That’s a general’s job. (Like all things in history, there have, of course, been exceptions.) But when it came to the atomic bomb, the civilian branch of the executive government (personified here by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson), demanded veto power over the targets. The military (here, General Leslie Groves) pushed back, asserting that this was a military matter. Stimson insisted, and eventually got the President’s personal ear on the matter, and that was that. Truman, for his part, while he did not authorize the actual bombing in any explicit way (he was shown the bombing order, but he did not issue it nor was his approval required, though he could have vetoed it), did, on August 10th, re-assert nuclear authority by prohibiting future bombing activity without his explicit permission.

General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) share a moment. Photo by Ed Westcott.

One can tell that the relationship between General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) was not exactly the smoothest. Photo by Ed Westcott.

From that point forward, the President made very explicit that his office was in charge of the atomic bomb and its uses, not the military. It was not a “military weapon,” which is to say, it was an inherently political weapon, one that needed to be handled by that most inherently political office, the Presidency. This became the framework for talking about domestic control over nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the civilian vs. military split. It was believed that only an elected civilian could make the call for this of all weapons. Truman himself put it to David Lilienthal in 1948:

I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that, that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.

In the early days, this civilian-military split was actually enforced at a physical level, with the non-nuclear parts of the weapons kept by the military, and the nuclear parts (the pits) kept by the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, changes in doctrine, technology (sealed-pit weapons), and fears (e.g., a Soviet “sneak attack”) had led to 90% of the nuclear weapons transferred into the hands of the military, making the civilian-military distinction a somewhat theoretical one. Eisenhower also “pre-delegated” the authority to start nuclear war to several military commanders on the front lines, on the idea that they would not have time to call back to Washington should Soviet tanks start pouring into Western Europe. (So while the President is the only person who can authorize a nuclear attack, he can also extend that authority to others if he deems it necessary.)

The Kennedy administration, looking to assert more positive control over the beginning of a nuclear conflict (especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which raised the real possibility of a low-level misunderstanding “escalating” in times of uncertainty), requiring the weapons themselves to have sophisticated electronic controls (Permissive Action Links) that would prevent anyone without a coded authorization to use them. There is more to these stories, but I just want to illustrate a bit of what the “control” debate was really about: making sure the President, and only the President, was ultimately the one making decisions about the bomb.

A retired "nuclear football" suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

A retired “nuclear football” suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been asked: would the officer carrying the “football” actually go forward with a nuclear attack, especially if it seems heedless or uncalled for? (The “nuclear football” is the special computer that, once the nuclear “codes” are inputted into it, somehow electronically starts the sequence of events that leads to the weapons being used.) Which I find lovably optimistic. The entire job of the person carrying the football is to enable the President to launch a nuclear attack. They would not presume to know the “big picture” of why the President was doing it — they are not a high-level military or policymaker. They are going to do their job; it is what they were chosen to do.

Would the military second-guess the President, and override the order? I mean, anything is possible — this has just never happened before, so who knows. But I am dubious. In 1973, Major Harold Hering was fired for asking, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” Not because it is a fireable offensive to imply that the President might not, at all times, be entirely capable of making such an order, but because to start to question that order would mean to put the entire credibility of the nuclear deterrent at risk. The entire logic of the system is that the President’s will on this point must be authoritative. If people start second-guessing orders, the entire strategic artifice breaks down.

So is there any check on the President’s power to use nuclear weapons? Well, technically the US election process is meant to be that check — don’t elect people you don’t trust with the unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons. And this, indeed, has been a theme in numerous US elections, including the most recent one. It is one issue among many, of course.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

There is, of course, no big red button. There are lots of other, smaller buttons, though. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

Do I personally worry about an unhinged, unthoughtful President using nuclear weapons heedlessly? Sure, to some degree. But not as much as I worry about other damage that such a President will do to the country and the world (the environment, economy, social fabric, international order, and human rights are higher on my list of concerns at the moment). Which is to say, it’s on the list of things one might worry about (for any President, but certainly the next one), but it’s not my top worry. Ultimately I do have some faith, perhaps unearned, that even someone who is woefully under-educated about world affairs, strategic logic, and so on, will come to understand rather rapidly that it is in the United States’ best interests not to break the nuclear taboo.

The United States benefits from the taboo disproportionately: should the threshold for nuclear use be lowered, we would be the ones who would suffer the most for it, because we tend to put our cities and military forces and everything else in centralized, easy-to-take-out-with-a-nuke sorts of arrangements, and because we enjoy a powerful conventional military power as well. We have the luxury of a nuclear taboo, in other words: we don’t have to use nukes to get what we want, and indeed in many situations nukes are just not as useful as they might at first appear.

So only a true idiot would think that using nukes foolishly would actually be a useful thing, aside from the collateral damage, moral issues, and so on. Take from that what you will.

I am not interested in having political arguments (one way or the other) in the comments of this blog post — I am burned out on online political debates for the moment. If you want to have a political debate, have it elsewhere. I will only approve constructive, interesting, non-obvious comments. Trolls will be banned and blocked. We will be coming back to this topic again, don’t worry. (Or do.)

Redactions

FDR and the bomb

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 30th, 2016

Franklin D. Roosevelt is one of the most enigmatic figures of the early American atomic bomb program. The four-term US president always features briefly in any story of the Manhattan Project: first, for his creation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium, an exploratory research effort in response to a letter urging government action that was sent by Albert Einstein in August 1939; second, for his approval of a broader expansion of that research into a “pilot” program in late 1941, just before the US entry into World War II, which resulted in more intensive investment into uranium enrichment and reactor design; and third, in mid-1942, Roosevelt approved bringing in the US Army Corps of Engineers to manage a full-scale bomb-production project. This latter action is often subsumed by the attention given the first two, but it is the production program decision that actually resulted in the US getting an atomic bomb by 1945, and is the decision that makes the United States unique among powers in the Second World War, as while several powers had research programs, only the US turned it into a production program. It was the beginning of the Manhattan Project as we tend to characterize it, the kind of program that produces weapons and not just data.

A little history trick I always tell my students: if you see Truman and FDR in the same photograph, that means Truman doesn't know about the atomic bomb. Photo source: History.com

A little history trick I always tell my students: if you see Truman and FDR in the same photograph, that means Truman doesn’t know about the atomic bomb. Photo source: History.com

So Roosevelt looms large, as he ought to. Without Roosevelt’s actions, there would have been no atomic bomb in World War II. And yet… What did FDR really think about the atomic bomb? Did he see it as a true end-the-war weapon? Did he think it was meant to be used in war (as a first-strike weapon) or did he think of it primarily as a deterrent (i.e., against the Germans)? The question isn’t just an idle one, because Roosevelt’s sudden death, on April 12, 1945, left his successor, Harry Truman, with major decisions to make about the future of the war, and Truman, in part, thought he was acting in accordance with FDR’s wishes on this matter. But, as is well known, FDR never told Truman about the atomic bomb work, and never set out his wishes on this matter — so there was a tremendous amount of assumption involved.

I get asked about FDR’s views on a fairly regular basis, and it’s one of those wonderful questions that seems simple but is really quite complex, and quickly gets you into what I think of as “epistemological territory”: How do we know what someone’s views were, in the past? How do we get inside the head of someone dead? Well, you might say, obviously we can’t completely get inside someone’s head (we can barely get inside the heads of people who are alive and in front of us, and a Freudian might argue that we barely have conscious access to our own motivations and thoughts), but we can look at what evidence there is that was written down that might reveal some of their inner thoughts.

But with FDR, this is very tricky: he didn’t write that much down. He didn’t keep a diary or journal. He didn’t send that many letters. He didn’t record phone calls, conversations, write “memos to self,” or any of the other documenting habits that are common to major political figures. He was notoriously secretive and private. He didn’t explain himself. If Truman was comparatively straightforward in his thinking and action, Roosevelt was a grand schemer, trying to out-wit and out-charm the world (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). He could be downright gnomic. At one point, Vannevar Bush (FDR’s top science advisor) asked Roosevelt whether the Secretary of the Navy ought to be included in discussions on the bomb project. He later recalled that FDR “looked at me with one of his strange smiles and said, ‘No, I guess not, not now.'” End of anecdote, no real indication as to what FDR was thinking, other than a “strange smile” that no doubt concealed much.

What approval of a nuclear weapons program looked like under Roosevelt: "VB OK FDR." Report by Vannevar Bush of June 16, 1942, asking to expand the fission work into an all-out effort.

What approval of a nuclear weapons program looked like under Roosevelt: “VB OK FDR.” Report by Vannevar Bush of June 16, 1942, asking to expand the fission work into an all-out effort.

As this example indicates, we do sometimes have accounts, including contemporary ones, by people who met with Roosevelt and talked with him. But even these can be quite tricky, because FDR did not, again, generally explain his full thinking. So people like Bush were left with half-versions of the story, knowing what FDR said but not what he thought, and while this is, to be sure, a common-enough human experience, with FDR the gap between thought and expression was exceptionally large.

Separately, there is another, related issue that complicates our understanding: people who met with FDR would often use tales of his agreement as a form of authority. Vannevar Bush did this repeatedly, and this is no doubt a pretty standard mode of operation regarding advisors and presidents. Bush would go to FDR with an idea, convince FDR to sign off on Bush’s idea, and then claim it was FDR’s idea, because while people might feel free to disagree with Bush, they couldn’t really disagree with FDR. One of the most famous examples of this is Bush’s report on postwar American science policy, Science—The Endless Frontier, which is constructed to look like it is a reply to a letter by FDR for guidance, but was entirely engineered by Bush as a means of pushing his own agenda, with FDR being a complicit as opposed to a driving force.

So what do we know? The number of documents that give insight into FDR’s personal thoughts about the atomic bomb — what it was, what it could be used for, what his plans were — are very slim. Some of this is a function of timing: FDR died right around when they were getting concrete estimates for when the atomic bomb would be ready to use, and had he lived until, say, May 1945, he might have been faced with more direct questions about his plans for it. (The first Target Committee meeting was on April 27, and the Interim Committee was created in early May, just to give an indication of how things rapidly started to come together right after FDR died.) So he wasn’t part of the conversations that directly led to the use of the atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

But there are a few other documents that are useful in assessing FDR’s views. It seems fairly clear that FDR’s approval of the Uranium Committee in 1939 was initially because he was interested in the deterrent quality of the bomb. Alexander Sachs, who had the meeting with Roosevelt, related that FDR had confirmed that the goal was “to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” Again, this wasn’t yet a bomb-making program, it was just a “see if bombs are worth worrying about” program, but that’s still a little insight: it shows, perhaps, that the initial, explicit attraction was not in making a new wonder-weapon, but deterring against another one.

Roosevelt, Truman, and FDR's previous VP, Henry Wallace. Truman is the only one here who doesn't know about the bomb program. Image source: Truman Library via Wikimedia Commons

Roosevelt, Truman, and FDR’s previous VP, Henry Wallace. Truman is the only one here who doesn’t know about the bomb program. Image source: Truman Library via Wikimedia Commons

Between 1939 and 1941 there are big gaps in anything that would indicate FDR’s views on the bomb. This is not surprising, because this was a period of relative lack of movement in the US fission program, which was not yet a bomb program. FDR was occasionally involved in discussions about the program, but there was no “bomb” yet to worry about one way or the other. In late 1941, FDR approved accelerating and expanding the research, at the urging of Bush, James Conant, Ernest Lawrence, and Arthur Compton, and in mid-1942 he approved of a full bomb production program, as previously noted. None of these documents indicate intent for use, however. The June 1942 report by Vannevar Bush and James Conant, whose approval by Roosevelt is indicated only by a scrawled “VB OK FDR” on its cover letter, indicates that a weapon made with 5-10 kilograms of U-235 or Pu-239 (then just called “Element 94”) would have an explosive power of “several thousand tons of TNT.” It goes into great detail on the types of plants to be constructed and the organization of the research. It predicts a “bomb” would be ready by early 1944. But at no point does it indicate what the point of such a weapon was: as a deterrent, as a first-strike weapon, as a demonstration device, etc. There is only point, towards the end, which suggests that a committee be eventually formed to consider “the military uses of the material,” but even this is primarily concerned with research and development for the plants. This is not to say that Bush, Conant, et al. did not have their views on whether it would be a weapon to use or not — but the report does not indicate any such views, and so FDR’s endorsement of it doesn’t tell us much.

Bush met with Roosevelt many times during the war, and sometimes would write down, afterwards, what they talked about. Clearly this is FDR-as-filtered-through-Bush, but we’ll take what we can get. In late June 1943, Bush wrote to Conant with an account of a recent meeting he had with FDR on “S-1,” their code for the bomb work. In it, Bush related that FDR was curious about the progress of the work and the schedule for having a bomb. Bush told him things were going well but still tentative, and that the date of a bomb had been pushed back to early January 1945, but that this could shift in either direction. FDR also wanted to know how the Germans were doing. Bush explained that they didn’t really know, that they were trying to find ways to slow down any German work, and that they were still worried about being behind the Germans. (They would eventually come to understand they had surpassed them.) Then there is this really interesting passage which is worth quoting from the original:

He [FDR] then himself discussed what the enemy attitude of mind would be if they felt they had this coming along, and were inclined to remain on the defensive until it could eventuate. We then spoke briefly of the possible use against Japan, or the Japanese fleet, and I brought out, or I tried to, that because at this point I do not think I was really successful in getting the idea across, that our point of view or our emphasis on the program would shift if we had in mind use against Japan as compared with use against Germany.

After which the conversation then shifted to other matters. Such a tantalizing snippet of discussion, but not as fleshed out as one might want! What did Bush and FDR understand the difference to be between the Japanese versus the Germans? Who initially brought up the possibility of use against the Japanese? What did FDR think about the German “attitude of mind”? This snippet hints at exactly the topics one might care about but doesn’t actually reveal anything about FDR’s views on them! Impressively frustrating!

Most of FDR’s interactions with Bush, Groves, and others during this period concerned diplomatic issues, specifically cooperation with the British (a rather long, drawn-out saga), and even a meeting with Niels Bohr (from which FDR mostly took away a fear that Bohr might alert the Soviets, or others, to the US work). FDR helped, for example, in helping to shut down unionization activities at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, and was kept abreast of efforts made to monopolize global uranium ore resources. He was not “checked out” in any respect; he was dramatically more concerned with the ins-and-outs of the fission work than, say, Truman would later be. But again, very little of this left any record about what he thought they were going to do with the bomb.

Atomic diplomacy: Roosevelt and Churchill at Quebec, in September 1944. Source: NARA via Wikimedia Commons

Atomic diplomacy: Roosevelt and Churchill at Quebec, in September 1944. Source: NARA via Wikimedia Commons

Two of the only documents that reveal any FDR-specific thoughts about the use of the bomb were agreements he made with Winston Churchill. In August 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Quebec, Canada, and hammered out the secret “Quebec Agreement.” It said, among other matters, that the US and UK would pool their efforts at both making the bomb and securing global uranium reserves, that they would never nuke each other, that they would never nuke anyone else without mutual agreement, and they would not reveal the secrets of the bombs without mutual agreement. So this at least provides a framework for using the bomb, but it is a limited one — FDR was willing to deliberately tie the US’s hands with regards to dropping of the atomic bomb to the approval of a foreign power, quite an amazing concession!

Another meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill, in Hyde Park, New York, produced yet another fascinating agreement. The Hyde Park Aide-Mémoire of September 1944 contained the following clause:

The suggestion that the world should be informed regarding tube alloys, with a view to an international agreement regarding its control and use, is not accepted. The matter should continue to be regarded as of the utmost secrecy; but when a “bomb” is finally available, it might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese, who should be warned that this bombardment will be repeated until they surrender.

Here they were explicitly rejecting the appeal by Niels Bohr (which he was able to make personally to both FDR and Churchill, on separate occasions) to alert the world about the atomic bomb. But it is of interest that they were, at this point, specifically thinking about using the bomb against the Japanese (not Germany), but that they thought it would require “mature consideration” before use, and that they were putting “bomb” in scare-quotes. This is one of the few indications we have of FDR’s awareness and acceptance of the idea that the bomb might be used as a first-strike weapon, and against the Japanese in particular.

Lastly, there is one other significant FDR-specific datapoint, which I have written about at length before. In late December 1944, with Yalta looming, Roosevelt and Groves met in the Oval Office (along with Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War). In Groves’ much later recollection (so we can make of that what we will), Roosevelt asked if the atomic bomb might be ready to use against Germany very soon. Groves explained that for a variety of reasons, the most important one being that their schedule had pushed the bomb back to the summer of 1945, this would not be possible. It is an interesting piece, one that simultaneously reveals Roosevelt’s potential willingness to use the atomic bomb as a first-strike weapon, his willingness to use it against Germany specifically, and the fact that FDR was sufficiently out of the loop on planning discussions to not know that this would both be impossible and very difficult. In other words, it reveals that FDR wasn’t aware that by that point, it was expected that the bomb could only be used against Japan, and that is a rather large thing for him not to know — further evidence, perhaps, that he was not completely abreast of these kinds of discussions. At the meeting, Groves gave FDR a report that predicted a weapon ready for use in early August 1945, and specified that it was time to begin military planning, which Groves annotated as having been “approved” by the Secretary of War and the President. But there doesn’t seem to have been any specifics of targets, or even targeting philosophy, agreed upon at this point.

What can we make of all this? Frequently I have seen people take the position that Truman himself took: assuming that Roosevelt would have used the bomb in the way that Truman did, because what else might he have been planning? I would only caution that there were more “options” on the table even for Truman than we tend to talk about, which is just another way to say that dropping two atomic bombs in rapid succession on cities is not the only way to use an atomic bomb even militarily. That is, even if one thinks it was inevitable that the bombs would be used in a military fashion (which I think is probably true), it is unclear what position FDR might have taken on the question of specific targets (e.g., the Kyoto question), the question of timing (e.g., before or after the Soviet invasion; how many days between each strike?), and diplomatic matters (e.g., would Roosevelt be more open to modifying the Potsdam Declaration terms than Truman was?). So there is room for considerable variability in the “what if Roosevelt hadn’t died when he did?” question, especially given that Roosevelt, unlike Truman, had been following the bomb work from the start, and was as a result much less reliant on his advisors’ views than Truman was (he frequently bucked Bush, for example, when it came to matters relating to the British).

Would Roosevelt have dropped the bomb on Japan, had he not died? I suspect the answer is yes. One can see, in these brief data points, a mind warming up to the idea of the atomic bomb as not just a deterrent, but a weapon, one that might be deployed as a first-strike attack. In some ways, FDR’s query to Groves about Germany is the most interesting piece: this was a step further than anyone else at the time was really making, since Germany’s defeat seemed inevitable at that point. But, again, the strict answer is, of course, that we can’t really know for sure. Perhaps if FDR had confided his inner thoughts on the bomb to more people, perhaps if he had written them down, perhaps if he had been more involved in the early targeting questions, then we would be able to say something with more confidence. Unless some new source emerges, I suspect Roosevelt’s thoughts on the bomb will always have something of an enigma to them. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that this may have always been his intention.

Visions

Secrecy, verification, and purposeful ignorance

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 23rd, 2016

The history of nuclear secrecy is an interesting topic for a lot of reasons, but one of the more wonky ones is that it is an inversion of the typical studies that traditionally are done in the history of science. The history of science is usually a study of how knowledge is made and then circulates; a history of secrecy is about how knowledge is made and then is not circulated. Or, at least, its non-circulation is attempted, to various degrees of success. These kinds of studies are still not the “norm” amongst historians of science, but in recent years have become more common, both because historians have come to understand that secrecy is often used by scientists for various “legitimate” reasons (i.e., preserving priority), and because historians have come to understand that the study of deliberately-created ignorance has been a major theme as well (e.g., Robert Proctor has coined the term agnotology to describe the deliberate actions of the tobacco industry to foster ignorance and uncertainty regarding the link between lung cancer and cigarettes).

The USS Nautilus with a nice blob of redaction. No reactor core for you!

The USS Nautilus with a nice blob of redaction. No reactor for you! From a 1951 hearing of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy — apparently the reactor design is still secret even today?

What I find particularly interesting about secrecy, as a scholar, is that it is like a sap or a glue that starts to stick to everything once you introduce a little bit of it. Try to add a little secrecy to your system and pretty soon more secrecy is necessary — it spreads. I’ve remarked on this some time back, in the context of Los Alamos designating all spheres as a priori classified: once you start down the rabbit-hole, it becomes easier and easier for the secrecy system to become more entrenched, even if your intentions are completely pure (and, of course, more so if they are not).

In this vein, I’ve for awhile been struck by the work of some friends of mine in the area of arms control work known as “zero-knowledge proofs” (and the name alone is an attention-grabber). A zero-knowledge proof is a concept derived from cryptography (e.g., one computer proves to another that it knows a secret, but doesn’t give the secret away in the process), but as applied to nuclear weapons, it is roughly as follows: Imagine a hypothetical future where the United States and Russia have agreed to have very low numbers of nuclear warheads, say in the hundreds rather than the current thousands. They want mutually verify each other’s stockpiles are as they say they are. So they send over an inspector to count each other’s warheads.

Already this involves some hypotheticals, but the real wrench is this: the US doesn’t want to give its nuclear design secrets away to the Russian inspectors. And the Russians don’t want to give theirs to the US inspectors. So how can they verify that what they are looking at are actually warheads, and not, say, steel cans made to look like warheads, if you can’t take them apart?

Let's imagine you had a long line of purported warheads, like the W80, shown here. How can you prove there's an actual nuke in each can, without knowing or learning what's in the can? The remarkable W80s-in-a-bunker image is from a blog post by Hans Kristensen at Federation of American Scientists.

Let’s imagine you had a long line of purported warheads, like the W80, shown here. How can you prove there’s an actual nuke in each can, without knowing or learning what’s in the can? The remarkable W80s-in-a-bunker image is from a blog post by Hans Kristensen at Federation of American Scientists.

Now you might ask why people would fake having warheads (because that would make their total number of warheads seem higher than it was, not lower), and the answer is usually about verifying warheads put into a queue for dismantlement. So your inspector would show up to a site and see a bunch of barrels and would be told, “all of these are nuclear warheads we are getting rid of.” So if those are not actually warheads then you are being fooled about how many nukes they still have.

You might know how much a nuclear weapon ought to weigh, so you could weigh the cans. You might do some radiation readings to figure out if they are giving off more or less what you expect a warhead might be giving you. But remember that yours inspector doesn’t actually know the configuration inside the can: they aren’t allowed to know how much plutonium or uranium is in the device, or what shapes it is in, or what configuration it is in. So this will put limitations both on what you’re allowed to know beforehand, and what you’re allowed to measure.

Now, amusingly, I had written all of the above a few weeks ago, with a plan to publish this issue as its own blog post, when one of the groups came out with a new paper and I was asked whether I would write about it for The New Yorker‘s science/tech blog, Elements. So you can go read the final result, to learn about some of the people (Alexander Glaser, Sébastien Philippe, and R. Scott Kemp) who are doing work on this: “The Virtues of Nuclear Ignorance.” It was a fun article to write, in part because I have known two of the people for several years (Glaser and Kemp) and they are curious, intelligent people doing really unusual work at the intersection of technology and policy.

Virtues of Nuclear Ignorance

I won’t re-describe their various methods of doing it here; read the article. If you want to read their original papers (I have simplified their protocols a bit in my description), you can read them here: the original Princeton group paper (2014), the MIT paper from earlier this year (2016), and the most recent paper from the Princeton group with Philippe’s experiment (2016).

In the article, I use a pine tree analogy to explain the zero-knowledge proof. Kemp provided that. There are other “primers” on zero-knowledge proofs on the web, but most of them are, like many cryptographic proofs, not exactly intuitive, everyday scenarios. One of the ones I considered using in the article was a famous one regarding a game of Where’s Waldo:

Imagine that you and I are looking at a page in one book of Where’s Waldo. After several minutes, you become frustrated and declare that Waldo can’t possibly be on the page. “Oh, but he is,” I respond. “I can prove it to you, but I don’t want to take away the fun of you finding him for yourself.” So I get a large piece of paper and cut out a tiny hole in exactly the shape of Waldo. While you are looking away, I position it so that it obscures the page but reveals the striped wanderer through the hole. That is the essence of a zero-knowledge proof — I prove I’m not bluffing without revealing anything new to you.

I found Waldo on the map of Troy. How can I prove it without giving his location away? A digital version of the described "proof": I found his little head and cut it out with Photoshop. But how do you know that's his head from this image? (Waldo from Where's Waldo)

I found Waldo in the Battle of Troy. How can I prove it without giving his location away? A digital version of the described “proof”: I found his little head and cut it out with Photoshop. In principle, you now know I really found him, without knowing where he is… but might that face be from a different Waldo page? (Image from Where’s Waldo)

But a true zero-knowledge proof, though, would also avoid the possibility of faking a positive result, which the Waldo example fails: I might not know where Waldo is on the page we are mutually looking at, but while you are not looking, I could set up the Waldo-mask on another page where I do know he is hiding. Worse yet, I could carry with me a tiny Waldo printed on a tiny piece of paper, just for this purpose. This might sound silly, but if there were stakes attached to my identification of Waldo, cheating would become expected. In the cryptologic jargon, any actual proof need to be both “complete” (proving positive knowledge) and “sound” (indicating false knowledge). Waldo doesn’t satisfy both.

Nuclear weapons issues have been particularly fraught by verification problems. The first attempt to reign in nuclear proliferation, the United States’ Baruch Plan of 1946, failed in the United Nations in part because it was clear that any meaningful plan to prevent the Soviet Union from developing nuclear weapons would involve a freedom of movement and inspection that was fundamentally incompatible with Stalinist society. The Soviet counter-proposal, the Gromyko Plan, was essentially a verification-free system, not much more than a pledge not to build nukes, and was subsequently rejected by the United States.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has binding force, in part, because of the inspection systems set up by the International Atomic Energy Agency, who physically monitor civilian nuclear facilities in signatory nations to make sure that sensitive materials are not being illegally diverted to military use. Even this regime has been controversial: much of the issues regarding Iran revolve around the limits of inspection, as the Iranians argue that many of the facilities the IAEA would like to inspect are militarily secret, though non-nuclear, and thus off-limits.

From the Nature Communications paper — showing (at top) the principle of what a 2D example would look like (with Glaser's faux Space Invader) — the complement is the "preload" setting mentioned in my New Yorker article, so that when combined with the new reading, ought to result in a virtually null reading. At bottom, the setup of the proof-of-concept version, with seven detectors.

From the Nature Communications paper — showing (at top) the principle of what a 2D example would look like (with Glaser’s faux Space Invader) — the complement is the “preload” setting mentioned in my New Yorker article, so that when combined with the new reading, ought to result in a virtually null reading. At bottom, the setup of the proof-of-concept version, with seven detectors.

One historical example about the importance of verification comes from the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972. It contained no verification measures at all: the USA and USSR just pledged not to develop biological weapons (and the Soviets denied having a program at all, a flat-out lie). The United States had already unilaterally destroyed its offensive weapons prior to signing the treaty, though the Soviets long expressed doubt that all possible facilities had been removed. The US lack of interest in verification was partially because it suspected that the Soviets would object to any measures to monitor their work within their territory, but also because US intelligence agencies didn’t really fear a Soviet biological attack.

Privately, President Nixon referred to the BWC as a “jackass treaty… that doesn’t mean anything.” And as he put it to an aide: “If somebody uses germs on us, we’ll nuke ‘em.”

But immediately after signing the treaty, the Soviet Union launched a massive expansion of their secret biological weapon work. Over the years, they applied the newest genetic-engineering techniques to the effort of making whole new varieties of pathogens. Years later, after all of this had come to light and the Cold War had ended, researchers asked the former Soviet biologists why the USSR had violated the treaty. Some had indicated that they had gotten indications from intelligence officers that the US was probably doing the same thing, since if they weren’t, what was the point of a treaty without verification?

A bad verification regime, however, can also produce false positives, which can be just as dangerous. Consider Iraq, where the United States set up a context in which it was very hard for the Iraqi government to prove that it was not developing weapons of mass destruction. It was easy to imagine ways in which they might be cheating, and this, among other factors, drove the push for the disastrous Iraq War.

In between these extremes is the more political considerations: the possibility of cheating at treaties invites criticism and strife. It gives ammunition to those who would oppose treaties and diplomacy in general. Questions about verification have plagued American political discourse about the US-Iranian nuclear deal, including the false notion that Iran would be allowed to inspect itself. If one could eliminate any technical bases for objections, it has been argued, then at least those who opposed such things on principle would not be able to find refuge in them.

The setup from Kemp, et al. The TAI is the Treaty Accountable Item, i.e. the warhead you are testing.

The setup from Kemp, et al. The TAI is the Treaty Accountable Item, i.e. the warhead you are testing.

This is where the zero-knowledge protocols could come in. What’s interesting to me, as someone who studies secrecy, is if the problem of weapon design secrecy were removed, then this whole system would be unnecessary. It is, on some level, a contortion: an elaborate work-around to avoid sharing, or learning, any classified information. Do American scientists really think the Russians have any warhead secrets that we don’t know, or vice versa? It’s possible. A stronger argument for continued secrecy is that there are ways that an enemy’s weapons could be rendered ineffective if their exact compositions were known (neutrons, in the right quantity, can “kill” a warhead, causing its plutonium to heat and expand, and causing its chemical high-explosives to degrade; if you knew exactly what level of neutrons would kill a nuke, it would play into strategies of trying to defend against a nuclear attack).

And, of course, that hypothetical future would include actors other than the United States and Russia: the other nuclear powers of the world are less likely to want to share nuclear warhead schematics with each other, and an ideal system could be used by non-nuclear states involved in inspections as well. But even if everyone did share their secrets, such verification systems might still be useful, because they would eliminate the need for trust altogether, and trust is never perfect.

A little postscript on the article: I want to make sure to thank Alex Glaser, Sébastien Philippe, and R. Scott Kemp for devoting a lot of their weekends to making sure I actually understood the underlying science of their work to write about it. Milton Leitenberg gave me a lot of valuable feedback on the Biological Weapons Convention, and even though none of that made it into the final article, it was extremely useful. Areg Danagoulian, a colleague of Kemp’s at MIT who has been working on their system (and who first proposed using nuclear resonance fluorescence as a means of approaching this question), didn’t make it into the article, but anyone seriously interested in these protocols should check out his work as well. And of course the editor I work with at New Yorker, Anthony Lydgate, should really get more credit than he does for these articles, and on this one in particular managed to take the unwieldy 5,000 word draft I sent him and chop it down to 2,000 words very elegantly. And, lastly, something amusing — I noticed that Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory released a film of Sébastien talking about the experiment. Next to him is something heavily pixellated out… what could it be? It looks an awful lot like a copy of Unmaking the Bomb, a book created by Glaser and other Princeton faculty (and I made the cover), next to him…