Nuclear Skepticism in the Age of Trump: Jon Wolfsthal’s Claims about Secretary Mattis and the Nuclear Launch Process

 

 Bottom Line Up Front:

     In this post I argue that we should be skeptical of Jon Wolfsthal’s claims about Secretary of Defense James Mattis having attempted to insert himself in the US nuclear launch process. Reasons for skepticism include a lack of evidence such as documents or corroborative witnesses as well as the inherent unlikelihood that Mattis could or would have done so.[1] [2] Extraordinary claims require proof—usually extraordinary proof—and that has not been provided here. In addition, Wolfsthal has failed to provide or work to make available information that would allow the public to judge the truth of his claims. This includes not having worked with the news media to allow independent verification of his assertions and refusing to meaningfully engage with skeptics (such as myself) publicly. I close with a brief reflection on these events and why I feel that Jon Wolfsthal and others have been irresponsible in their handling, dissemination, and discussion of this information.

MATTIS DID WHAT?!? How do you know?!?
     In this section I begin by providing the reader with an overview of the relevant events and claims made by Jon B. Wolfsthal. I then go on to discuss why skepticism is warranted. I conclude by briefly discussing my personal opinions about these events.

The Claims
     Jon B. Wolfsthal describes himself thusly in his Twitter bio: “I know a lot about nuclear weapons. Director, Nuclear Crisis Group. Former Obama Special Asst, Sr. Dir NSC.” He is regarded by numerous people I know as a prestigious and serious voice on nuclear weapon issues and he has, as he noted on December 20th, been involved in nuclear weapon issues for decades including in the Obama administration.

Wolfsthal Tweet of his Credentials Desember 20 2018
Picture 1: @jbwolfsthal, 20 Dec 2018, 8:57pm (MST)[3]

In other words, Wolfsthal should know what he is talking about and have the experience and wherewithal to both consider the ramifications of his claims and to act strategically in his making of them. On December 20, 2018 he posted on Twitter a number of attention grabbing Tweets about Secretary Mattis working to circumscribe Trump’s ability to order the use of nuclear weapons:

Wolfsthal dec 20 249pm this should scare everyone beginning of threadPicture 2: @jbwolfsthal, 20 Dec 2018, 2:49pm (MST)[4]

At 3:15pm (MST) Wolfsthal posted a similar comment that also makes reference to the extra-legal nature of the actions Wolfsthal alleges Mattis has taken:

Dec 20th 315pm Mattis has been a check beyond lawPicture 3: @jbwolfsthal, 20 Dec 2018, 3:15pm (MST)[5]

     Subsequently (beginning at 6:00pm MST), perhaps in response to having encountered public and private questioning about these claims, Wolfsthal began an extended Tweet thread building off his of his first tweet on the subject (made at 2:49pm) and self-described as an effort to “expand on this complex issue” [6]; I have included below a screen capture of the first four of those tweets as they are the most relevant.

Wolfsthal extended thread picture onePicture 4: @jbwolfsthal, 20 Dec 2018, 6:00pm (MST)[7]

     These are extraordinarily serious allegations given that that they touch on nuclear launch authority and extra-constitutional mechanisms allegedly taken by the Secretary of Defense to involve themselves in, or even to circumscribe, Trump’s authority. Furthermore, Wolfsthal claims that multiple US Senators/Congressional Leaders are aware of these efforts. Finally, Wolfsthal’s elaboration that “Mattis has asked/told Strategic Command that he wants to be informed of any issue…” as a “professional courtesy” stikes me as a different presentation of Mattis’s supposed actions than Wolfsthal’s original two Tweets of 2:49pm and 3:15pm. As evidence for these claims Wolfsthal makes vague reference to “colleagues and sources in the Senate have told me that…”.[8]

    On December 23, 2018, the Washington Post printed a piece co-authored by Bruce Blair and Jon Wolfsthal titled “Trump Can Launch Nuclear Weapons Whenever He Wants, with or without Mattis.”[9] This piece included the following allegation which is astounding both in its content and that it was printed as fact with zero textual discussion of sources or supporting evidence:

Wolfsthals claims in the WaPO piecePicture 5: Excerpt from the December 23, 2018 Washington Post Opinion piece co-authored by Bruce Blair and Jon Wolfsthal[10]

Reasons for Skepticism

The primary reasons for skepticism are Wolfsthal’s failure to provide supporting evidence for his exceptional claims as well as consideration of the how the US nuclear weapons launch process is structured. The claims Wolfsthal makes are, quite frankly, extraordinary. To sum up, I understand them as follows: that over the last year the US Secretary of Defense has had conversations with multiple members of Congress about the Secretary’s efforts to intervene in, or to circumscribe, President Trump’s Constitutionally and statutorily provided authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. On its face this allegation demands significantly more evidence than a single man recounting their recollections and understandings of what “colleagues and sources in the Senate have told me…”.[11] When journalists make use of anonymous sources there is a process of editorial supervision, fact-checking, and corroboration. None of that appears to have been done here despite the involvement, according to Wolfsthal, of Congressional Leaders and at least some of their staffs. As Blair & Wolfsthal rightly note: “[p]ersonal relationships and back channels are no way to manage a nuclear arsenal.”[12] I would add that unverified and unsubstantiated conversations held through personal relationships and back channels an also an unacceptable evidentiary basis to make the allegations that Wolfsthal has. If Wolfsthal wants to make his claims more credible then I would suggest he cooperate with one or more journalists so that his allegations can be subjected to fact-checking, investigation, and corroboration.

As a secondary and related argument, it is prima facie unlikely that Mattis could or would have taken the actions Wolfsthal describes; that multiple members of Congress would just kind of shrug or give a tacit thumbs up; and that this would not have leaked to a media outlet and been subject to investigation and reporting at some point in the last year. As Wolfsthal himself notes, the Secretary of Defense has no formal position in the process through which the President would order the use of nuclear weapons.[13] It would be almost unprecedented for a Secretary of Defense to take such steps as Wolfsthal alleges that Mattis has and if he had done so in the way Wolfsthal describes then it seems unlikely that they would have remained quiet until this moment.[14] Again, if Wolfsthal wishes these claims to be accepted as factual then he must provide evidence. They may be true but Wolfsthal has refused to provide the necessary information through which they can be validated or falsified.

     In an unsolicited (and impressively unpleasant) Direct Message conversation initiated by Wolfsthal on Twitter on December 23, 2018, Jon Wolfsthal wrote me the following: “I am not going to engage your accusation in public. I have confidence in my sources and reputation. If you don’t that is up to you.” (see Picture 6):
Wolfsthal to me on DMPicture 6: @jbwolfsthal to @nuclearanthro, December 23, 2018. Direct Message on Twitter.

     To me, this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding or mischaracterization of the process by which claims—especially extraordinary claims about a topic like nuclear weapons—are made and vetted in public life and discourse. I cannot think of a single person, short of Secretary Mattis himself, who could say what Wolfsthal has said and whom I would trust without the provision of corroborating evidence.

I have doubts and you should too.

My Personal Opinions: Wolfsthal and Others Irresponsible

I feel very strongly that those of us who study and work on nuclear weapon topics have moral obligations regarding what we do with the information we gather. We are talking about instruments of destruction capable of scouring cities from the face of the Earth, darkening the skies, and killing hundreds of millions to billions of innocent people. Therefore, I feel that it is important that we—as nuclear weapon scholars, academics, policy makers, and wonks—always act with our obligations to the public in mind.  It is my personal opinion that Jon Wolfsthal has acted irresponsibly in the ways that he has made his claims, disseminated them, and discussed them. His actions, in my opinion, have resulted in a further polarization of this issue, a decreased chance that meaningful action will be taken by those with the power to do so, and an eroding of public trust in the judgment and integrity of the nuclear weapon epistemic community.

Those errors can be partially rectified by Wolfsthal working with the media to ensure that his allegations are rigorously investigated. Or,  Wolfsthal can name names and offer to the public any records that he himself holds (chat logs, emails, etc.) that would substantiate his account. What Wolfsthal has not done, as far as I can see, is create the conditions under which his allegations can be substantiated or demonstrated as factually true. This would be a key step in articulating his allegations to meaningful and impactful processes of public awareness and pressure that could result in lawful and Constitutional oversight by Congress.

 

Works Cited

Blair, Bruce, and Jon Wolfsthal. 2018. “Trump Can Launch Nuclear Weapons Whenever He Wants, with or without Mattis.” Washington Post, December 23, 2018, Online edition, sec. Perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/23/trump-can-launch-nuclear-weapons-whenever-he-wants-with-or-without-mattis/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.11898ebaef0e.

Cutler, Stanley. 2014. “The Imaginings of James R. Schlesinger.” Huffington Post, June 1, 2014, Online edition. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-imaginings-of-james-r_b_5066130?ec_carp=7161326241804413397.

Wellerstein, Alex. 2017. “The President and the Bomb, Part III.” Restricted Data, April. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2017/04/10/president-bomb-iii/. Accessed December 24, 2018.

Tweets Cited

@jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 2:49pm (MST). “This should scare everyone…” [beginning of thread]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/JBWolfsthal/status/1075885907050418178. Accessed December 20, 2018.
@jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 3:15pm (MST). “Mattis has been a check…” Twitter. https://twitter.com/JBWolfsthal/status/1075892529416024069. Accessed December 20, 2018.
@jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 6:00pm (MST). “So to expand on this complex issue…” Twitter. https://twitter.com/JBWolfsthal/status/1075934085921562624. Accessed December 20, 2018.
@jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 8:57pm (MST). “Yeah. What would I know?” Twitter. https://twitter.com/JBWolfsthal/status/1075963345910554626. Accessed December 20, 2018.

Endnotes

[1] Yes, I am aware of Schlesinger’s claims to have acted to restrict Nixon’s nuclear launch authority and they are questionable for many of the same reasons. See Cutler, Stanley. 2014. “The Imaginings of James R. Schlesinger.” Huffington Post, June 1, 2014, Online edition. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-imaginings-of-james-r_b_5066130?ec_carp=7161326241804413397.

[2] As Jon Wolfsthal has blocked me on Twitter, I am basing my discussion on screen captures of his Twitter account (@jbwolfsthal) made on or prior to the afternoon of December 24, 2018 and on the opinion piece he co-authored with Bruce Blair and that was published online by the Washington Post on December 23, 2018. I make no judgment as to Wolfsthal’s honesty or integrity and for the purposes of this post I assume that he has been acting in good faith and believes what he has said.

[3] @jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 8:57pm (MST). “Yeah. What would I know?” Twitter.
https://twitter.com/JBWolfsthal/status/1075963345910554626. Accessed December 20, 2018.

[4] @jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 2:49pm (MST). “This should scare everyone…” [beginning of thread]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/JBWolfsthal/status/1075885907050418178. Accessed December 20, 2018.

[5] @jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 3:15pm (MST). “Mattis has been a check…” Twitter. https://twitter.com/JBWolfsthal/status/1075892529416024069. Accessed December 20, 2018.

[6] @jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 6:00pm (MST). “So to expand on this complex issue…” Twitter. https://twitter.com/JBWolfsthal/status/1075934085921562624. Accessed December 20, 2018.

[7] @jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 6:00pm (MST). “So to expand on this complex issue…”

[8] @jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 6:00pm (MST). “So to expand on this complex issue…”

[9] Blair, Bruce, and Jon Wolfsthal. 2018. “Trump Can Launch Nuclear Weapons Whenever He Wants, with or without Mattis.” Washington Post, December 23, 2018, Online edition, sec. Perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/23/trump-can-launch-nuclear-weapons-whenever-he-wants-with-or-without-mattis/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.11898ebaef0e.

[10] Blair & Wolfsthal 2018 “Trump can Launch Nuclear Weapons…” Washington Post.

[11] @jbwolfsthal. 2018 Dec 20. 6:00pm (MST). “So to expand on this complex issue…”

[12] Blair & Wolfsthal 2018 “Trump can Launch Nuclear Weapons…” Washington Post.

[13] Blair & Wolfsthal 2018 “Trump can Launch Nuclear Weapons…” Washington Post.. See also Wellerstein, Alex. 2017. “The President and the Bomb, Part III.” Restricted Data, April. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2017/04/10/president-bomb-iii/.

[14] Yes, I am aware of Schlesinger’s claims to have acted to restrict Nixon’s nuclear launch authority and they are questionable for many of the same reasons. See Cutler, Stanley. 2014. “The Imaginings of James R. Schlesinger.” Huffington Post, June 1, 2014, Online edition. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-imaginings-of-james-r_b_5066130?ec_carp=7161326241804413397.

 

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