Clinton, Trump, Nukes, and Classified Emails

I write this in the heat of the Presidential Campaign, where Trump and his supporters are attacking Secretary Clinton about her emails, about classified information handling, and Trump is being attacked as too dangerous to possess the nuclear codes.

For background information I served in the USAF a number of years and had access to missile silos and command posts but was not in the chain of command for launching them. I knew of some of the training crews received.

I also spent substantial time dealing with Top Secret / Special Intelligence and Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence (SCI) including work under the NSA; worked in Air Force Special Security Offices; and received very extensive training in the handling of classified material. Much has doubtless changed but the basics seem to be pretty much the same.

Can President Trump Launch Nukes All By Himself?

As Trump has been attacked for his lack of composure and judgement and looking like a loose cannon, one defense has been offered that if he tried to launch nukes others in the chain of command would act to stop him from doing so rashly. Unfortunately there is not even a little truth to that.

Can Any President Launch nukes all by himself?

That’s a little complicated.

Legally the answer is yes.

The President has the legal authority; the 1986  Goldwater-Nichols Act, made the chain of command for conducting military operations go from the President to the Secretary of Defense directly to the commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands and thus bypasses the Joint Chiefs of Staff completely.

Practically, the answer is no, not quite. He needs a little help.

Only the President can direct the use of nuclear weapons. While the President does have unilateral authority as commander-in-chief to order that nuclear weapons be used for any reason at any time, the actual procedures and technical systems in place for authorizing the execution of a launch order require confirmation by the Secretary of Defense If the Secretary of Defense does not concur, then the President may in his sole discretion fire the Secretary. The Secretary of Defense has legal authority to approve the order, but cannot veto it.

All of the systems used in authorization are kept away from hands of any one person, the concept of “No Lone Zone” or “the two man rule” means that no one can be unaccompanied in an area that contains these systems for example or launch without the assistance and concurrence of a second person. So in a silo both the commander and his deputy commander must turn their launch keys more or less simultaneously for example.

As respects the President he has a military aide who is nearby at all times and has physical custody of the launch codes and the systems needed to communicate them. But for the President to use them the Secretary of Defense must be the second person authorizing.

If an unbalanced or rash or rogue President orders the Nukes Launched, can people in the chain of command — or anyone — stop those orders?


If the Secretary of Defense refuses the President can fire him on the spot and get an Assistant Secretary to do the job. As long as the President has hired the right yes men they will agree. He can keep firing people as did Richard Nixon in the Justice Department until he finds a Robert Bork who will act even if he disagrees with the launch.

Once the President has entered the order and it is confirmed what happens after that is automatic. The orders are sent through multiple redundant communication systems to every silo, ship, and aircraft that is involved. No single person is in the chain at a point where they could intercept or stop those orders.

The recipients may hesitate. But be not deceived, most of them are well trained to take and follow those orders. Every month or perhaps more often there are drills in which they simulate launching. Personnel are observed and graded and tested in this; and never at any point are they led to think or permitted to advocate for the idea that they have any legitimate role in blocking, stopping, or delaying that launch as long as the orders are authentic. Anyone who does might be retrained, reprimanded, or removed from their positions. They take pride in following the toughest orders any human could get. If the President orders a strike they will execute to the best of their ability.

They don’t need to, or expect to, know why the order was issued, they will do it anyway. They are trained to execute and not to question. You may indeed find someone who does delay or question or refuse, but the vast number will comply, at the most checking to be sure the order is authentic.

Secretary Clinton’s Classified Emails

The topic of her emails is so wide ranging; I’ve not been interested enough to read most of it since I think it’s mostly a tempest in a teapot; what they show is normal if not admirable political behavior, not corruption, and if we looked at the RNC emails we’d see the same things IMHO.  President Bush destroyed 22 million emails from a private server owned by the RNC and illegally used that server to conduct official business as President.

I will focus only on the security aspects because my knowledge can add to that discussion. But there’s a lot to that and it requires attention to details.

Early on Secretary Clinton claimed that she never used her private server system for sending or receiving classified material. While the FBI has shown that is not completely correct, it is my opinion that she honestly believed it. The FBI says she was extremely careless in handling the material and that it appears she did not recognize “obvious” markings of classified material –and that she did not lie to the FBI about this.

Surely many will take issue with aspects of those claims; I will simply apply my knowledge to my understanding of the events and show why I believe she could be honest and did not deserve more than a reprimand.

I have not studied all there is to know here; but at the end of the investigation it was stated that a relatively few classified documents among tens of thousands of emails  were in fact received and/ or forwarded through her email. I have excluded here any emails that contained information which was classified AFTER the fact, after it was sent.

Who it was sent to could matter. If it is sent to someone without a clearance that’s a bigger issue than sending it to a person with clearance but no authorization. And sending it to a person with clearance and authorization is an issue only because the system was not a secure one.

I have not heard the FBI spoke of any unauthorized or uncleared recipients. So she may have sent classified material to people allowed to see it but not through a secure system; the security breach is that it was sent via a non-secure system.

Secure/Non Secure System

When I say non-secure system I am using government speak. It does not mean that the system lacked security measures or would or necessarily could have been penetrated. It simply means that the equipment, software, hardware, and techniques were not approved by NSA for the storage or transmission of classified information.

Secure systems typically use encryption that is devised and approved by the NSA generally. They have technical features that make it difficult to intercept stray signals before they are encrypted.

Given that her premises were protected  by the Secret Service it is unlikely that they were physically insecure, subject to physical invasion or theft.

I was intimately familiar with the systems and procedures a few decades back. The principles have not changed much even though the hardware and software have.

For someone to be guilty of compromising information (what we called a “security violation” in my day) they must know that material is classified. They don’t necessarily need to intend to disclose it but it has to be that they knew it was a classified.

Ms Clinton has claimed that she did not receive much or any training on the handling of classified information. That is at odds with my experience but (a) I was in the Air Force, Department of Defense not State; and (b) I had almost a year of training before I actually worked in my career field, during which I received much classified handling training and then was later given follow up and additional training pertinent to the types of duty and the information I had access to.

I doubt that the government affords the Secretary of State weeks months or even days for training on the job. Most people who get to that office probably have had some background in handling and seeing such material. But formal training being zero is not hard for me to imagine. It’s a mistake but it is quite likely in my view. I suspect the same is true of her work as First Lady which would have involved some access; and as a Senator —  there, perhaps, I would expect some real training but the Congressional agencies that handle such things have not said a word.

Classification Levels and Markings

Usually one recognizes classified information because it is clearly marked as such. So the actual marking of documents becomes pretty significant in this story. I have provided as examples some actual declassified documents to help illustrate my points.

Most documents are mixtures of classified and unclassified material. Classified material itself is designated as Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret in ascending order of importance.

The classification of a document is the highest level of any information in it. The classification of a page, likewise.

In addition to classifications the distribution of and access to material is often restrictd by special designations, commonly “Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)” is identified with a specific codeword for that “compartment” and a special background investigation is needed for people to have access.

For example (and I make this up, it may or may not be a codeword; often the codeword itself is classified), I might have intelligence from a specific agent, and that information may be given the codeword “Atlas”. People in the know understand whether or not to depend on “Atlas” to provide reliable information.  Only persons authorized to see SCI designation “Atlas” can see it regardless of their clearance level. To see it you must be ‘read into’ the Atlas program (given an orientation about the codeword and special procedures) and can only talk or share Atlas information with other Atlas cleared personnel. You may see the info but not be told who Atlas is. You only get to see items for which you’re both cleared, and by duty, have a need to know.

Marking of classified material is significant to this issue.

Every document is supposed to be marked with the highest classification prominently on its cover. Each page must be marked with its highest classification at the top, bottom or both. A page with mixed information may have a designation on every paragraph showing that paragraph‘s classification so (C) or (S) or (TS) [actually I’m not sure it’s T or TS] shows the classification level; or (U) for unclassified information.

Many documents would not use and some would not need the paragraph markers.

While I know in theory about the paragraphs I don’t recall the practice in my day. It is actually not uncommon for documents not to have them.

Let’s Look At Examples

I offer two examples.

The first is a multi-page document about encryption equipment and planning its deployment for the US Navy; click the link to see the document.   TSEC/KG-13 Pontus

The document was overall SECRET – CRYPTO  (Crypto means something do with codes and requires a separate special authorization to access) as is marked on its front cover.

Page B-2 is marked top and bottom as Unclassified, the next two pages are marked Confidential and the last three are Secret. The document as a whole is Secret; parts of it are correctly and explicitly marked. No paragraph markings are given and it is possible that some of the items on a particular page are classified and others are not. The classifying authority didn’t show us that.

The second document is now declassified and was also Secret; I only provide one page:


Note that the markings on this document are the word SECRET stamped top and bottom. This is how most classified documents are marked. This is doubtless what Ms. Clinton would have looked for to see if something was classified.

Also note that every paragraph on this page is marked (U) for unclassified. So the marking on the page is actually wrong. This page is not and never was Secret classified info. It is and was Unclassified.

Secretary Clinton

In a relatively few emails FBI found paragraphs with (C) or higher markings. Some were not classified at the time, but have been classified since.

I have the impression the emails are longer documents with a  few classified paragraphs presenting the risk.

I can’t be absolutely sure because of course being classified they are not published; I haven’t (and most of the critics haven’t) seen them.

What is clear is that she only had paragraph markings available to guide her (because the FBI specifically referred to them, not to page markings which would as you can see are much more obvious) and she says she was unaware of their significance.

Did she type those paragraphs, markings and all, into an email? Unlikely; if she added the info to an email she probably cut and pasted from something else, perhaps a document or an email or a memo sent to her. The document or  page classification probably was not visible or present in the source at all. We don’t know. They may have been part of a longer email chain she got and added to.

Indeed she may have not have noticed markings at all and if she did she could easily have not understood them. If she had little or no training, that is quite possible; if the emails were long it is possible there too that she didn’t notice them.

If she cut and pasted from unclassified sections and didn’t realize she was also taking classified sections it is easily possible. If it was sent to her it is probable.

I myself would have looked for page markings and might not have noticed the paragraph markers.

She said she did not know, and I have no reason to think she is being dishonest, that these were classified documents. Without the header or footer it’s easy to overlook. Without training it is easy to not know.

Mishandling Error or Crime?

Finally, much has been made of the observation that the law does not require specific intent to mishandle classified information. If you accidental compromise information you could theoretically be prosecuted.

But it doesn’t work that way in the real world.

Security violations, sadly, are commonplace.

Failing to lock your stuff up, cover it when you have visitors, take proper inventory, change combinations when someone transfers out of an office, take it someplace it isn’t supposed to be, saying the wrong thing or saying it in the wrong place; happen every day in the Air Force and probably every security location.

If you do that you can get a range of consequences. Typically you will get yelled at, a verbal reprimand.

Your boss can do more but your security violation reflects badly on him and is his responsibility and he can get in trouble too, so he is not inclined to make a bigger deal than necessary.

If it is a serious compromise where substantial info gets into unauthorized hands (and remember for Sec. Clinton we are not told it went to uncleared personnel, only that it was sent via an insecure system) and your screw-up was big you might get a letter of reprimand, or even non-judicial punishment (you agree to a fine, rank reduction, etc. without trial). Those can be career ending. The exact details will vary and is a commander’s decision normally. If you screwed up big and he has to report it, call in investigators, your career will be ruined. But that’s pretty much it.

In the normal course of events no one gets a court martial who has not intentionally compromised classified material and knowingly disclosed it to an uncleared person. I never saw that happen even once. I saw lots of security violations but I newer saw a court martial for it.

Secretary Clinton got her admonishment, her reprimand. That’s what usually happens.


About philipem1000

I am a retired businessman with 35 years in high tech industries.
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