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Q&A with Walter Pincus on U.S. Nuclear Policies
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
I'm writing a book on the origins of U.S. nuclear policy and the lack of current understanding of what a single nuclear weapon could do. I welcome questions on this topic from the Parlio community!
This Q&A took place between 10/22/15 and 10/28/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
14 questions
The Iran deal attracted an incredible amount of news media commentary. What was more surprising is how much it was at the center of the American public's attention. Everyone had an opinion, usually a quite strong opinion.

In contrast, the Six-party Joint Statement of Sept. 19, 2005, which pledged a path to denuclearization of North Korea received scant public attention. And, the subsequent building of a substantial nuclear arsenal by North Korea receives just as little public attention.

What's your explanation for the different reactions?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
The North Korean joint statement had little of the enormous publicity and debate that the Iran nuclear agreement drew, neither at the run-up to its announcement, nor afterward.

The negotiations with Iran were followed in detail and any agreement was from the start a controversial issue both on substance and for political reasons. Additionally, it had to be voted on in Congress, which focused additional public attention which continues.

The Korean nuclear program also did not draw public opposition from Israel, which has impact in this country. And although we fought a war against North Korea, the regime there has never been taken as the threat within the U.S. as has the regime in Tehran since the taking of U.S. in 1979.
Many thanks for taking the time to answer questions here. My questions are: what are your thoughts on the Joint Plan of Action with Iran and how it will operate after the initial 15 years period? And what is in your opinion the best way to limit North Korea's nuclear programme?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
The first test for the Joint Plan of Action is going on right now as the Iranians have to begin taking steps to reduce their stockpile of enriched uranium, move to change the nature of the Arak reactor, take offline centrifuges and store them and provide access to the IAEA to monitor their actions.
Meanwhile the U.S. and our allies prepare the way to end the sanctions covered by the JPOA.

It's important in this period that is to lead to implementation, that the P5+1 oversee the process, not only make sure the agreement is being met by the letter, but also keeps the public informed so that misinformation does not cause either side to step back.

In many ways this is a harder test that just getting past the Congress, where people should remember, a majority of members, including some key Democrats, voted against implementing the agreement.

As for the 16 year issue, no one can project that far ahead to see what the situation will be. I am more concerned about where we will stand after January 20, 2017 and a new U.S. president takes office. Remember many of the Republican candidates have threatened to tear the deal up their first day in office.

As for North Korea, I have believed for a long time that any country with the desire and the money to go nuclear, and whose leaders want that done, cannot be stopped by outside powers short of using military force.

The North Koreans have gone ahead and apparently have some weapons, but to me there is little chance they will ever be used.

I am much more concerned about Pakistan's nuclear weapons because of the instability of that country's political situation.
How vital was the private sector to this pursuit?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
I am aware that many people in the nuclear disarmament field thinks the push for modernizing our nuclear arsenal and now the three types of delivery systems is the product of the defense industry's seeking profits.

I disagree.

The national laboratories and the rest of the complex are not big money makers. The delivery systems, as we see with yesterday development contract for a new strategic bomber, involves a great deal of money -- but that plane is primarily for conventional use.

The costly now Ohio class submarine is equally expensive but my guess is we will not build all 12 now planned since it is eating up the Navy's construction budget. This is one where keeping the plants in Connecticut and Mississippi may be factor.

Down the road, we may see a new ICBM but more likely it will just be a warhead.

The Triad idea survives because politically it is too dangerous for Democrats to attack and easy for Republicans to push to show they are tough militarily.
Senior Lecturer at Bush School of Texas A&M University
Thanks Walter. During your many years covering DC and international politics, who were the political leaders with the best grasp of nuclear issues? Any current politicians as engaged as during the Cold War?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
I think President Eisenhower, as a military man, grew to understand that nuclear weapons have political power at home and diplomatic stature abroad more than military value. He used a threat of possibly using nuclear weapons in Korea during his presidential campaign but never followed through when elected.

He also pushed nuclear weapons abroad, including tactical ones that were always unusable but their presence for a while served as a boost to our NATO allies and possibly deterred the Soviets.

President Kennedy quickly learned the hard way during the Cuban missile crisis that they were so destructive you had to find ways to avoid using them, even one as then-Secretary Robert McNamara once told me in describing how that crisis was handled.

I don't believe President Reagan fully understood nuclear weapons. On the one hand he went ahead with the MX ICBM, but halved the number President Carter proposed. Then there was his phase where he attempted, with Mikhail Gorbachev, to make a deal to eliminate and but then reduce them.

It was President George H.W. Bush who actually led the way in the largest reduction of nuclear weapons, starting with almost all the tactical ones, and never got credit for it.

Today the most engaged legislators I find are those representing New Mexico, where Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia are located.
International Advisor and Consultant: Peace & Security
Mr Pincus, thank you for answering our questions. A lot of attention has been devoted, of course not without reason, to the Iranian nuclear program. But there are nine countries with a total number of around 15,000 nuclear weapons and some of them are not even part of the NPT. In your opinion, which of these countries present the biggest strategic threat? And, do you see opportunities ahead to strengthen the NPT and pursue not just non-proliferation but also disarmament?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
I don't now see the countries with nuclear weapons presenting a "strategic threat," meaning any one of them plans to use their nuclear weapons against the U.S.
During the Cold War the Soviet "first strike" threat was the bugle used to build up U.S. numbers, but as I wrote in a Washington Post article in 1979 with Robert Kaiser, who had been our Moscow correspondent, that was never a realistic option for a country whose elevators never worked right.

For the most part, most nuclear powers have them for so-called defensive reasons but they have also become political weapons inside their own countries, with their leaders using them to promote their own situations.

Israel's possession of nuclear weapons was initially because they were surrounded by overwhelming Arab military numbers -- but that's no longer the case. Of course they don't have to justify their presence since the don't acknowledge having them -- a myth in which the U.S. has joined.

I believe there might be a way to continue reducing nuclear numbers, but do not believe they will ever be done away with.
Considering your views on Internet privacy issues, what is your take on the encryption debate? Is there a legitimate case for a backdoor for government access?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
The encryption problem is evolving and I am hardly an expert. I basically believe the Internet has no privacy. As with the telephone, you have lost the expectation of some privacy when you place a call because by now you know the number called, time of the call, and its length are being recorded as part of the billing system.

You want to protect what you say by a federal law -- but that only guarantees privacy if somehow you find out someone else was listening.

The Internet allows even less privacy since with the hacker can be thousands of miles away. Ironically again commercial entities are putting together profiles of any of us and little concern is offered.

The government tries to satisfy the public's concern about terrorists and suddenly it's a privacy issue -- although no actual misuse of the so-called telephone data base was shown -- other than the handful that the National Security Agency itself uncovered and eventually disclosed.

The new limitations on collection and holding of telephone data will be in place. If there is another terrorist episode let's see if complaints emerge that the intelligence community failed to connect the so-called dots.
Do you see it as a possibility that the United States will ever have a nuclear energy program that's similar to the scale of France's? Why hasn't more effort been put into that front?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
The short answer is no, the U.S. will never have a major nuclear energy program as does France. The reason rests with the fact that we have too many other alternatives starting with our abundant fossil fuel reserves.

In addition we have the open spaces for wind and places where solar works.

Finally our politics just won't allow it given the anti-nuclear groups and the pro-oil and pro-coal lobbies.
Student at Stanford, former student of Mr. Pincus at Stanford in Washington
A significant amount of defense work is being spent in developing both terminal high-altitude missile defense and hypersonic boost-glide weapons (the latter of which can be used as a undefeatable low-detection first strike weapon). Given this focus on a fast and 'clean' nuclear first strike from an R&D standpoint, what can we infer about future US nuclear policy that isn't being talked about in public at present? Seems like we are building both potent first-strike capabilities alongside a 'true' missile defense infrastructure.
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
We are and have been doing a great deal of work on weapons that would give us a first strike capability -- we have had that capability since the late 1940s.

We have been working on missile defense for a lesser time but we keep on going, but no one I think will ever believe the U.S. could have an impregnable missile defense system.

We also have never accepted the idea of "no first use" of nuclear weapons so that one could argue that first strike is an U.S. accepted policy.

I doubt when it comes to nuclear weapons that a U.S. president would order a first strike, but the capability has always been there.
What advice would you give to young journalists?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
It tell young journalists that I am not a great advisor these days because journalism as I have been lucky to practice it is not satisfactory for today's business model.

The Internet is taking over from print -- wrongly in my mind -- and so today reporters must be concerned with headlines and graphics and short attention spans.

The one piece of advice I give to anyone still wanting to get into this business is pick a subject you are concerned with, like education, and try to become not just the expert on you publication or website, but in your city, state or the country. And stick with it.
I recently heard of Nathan's Myhrvold's proposal that the US should create a unit focused on "Strategic Terrorism" which he defines as attacks that could kill hundreds of thousands or a million people with a single attack. Would you favor a focused organization which is dedicated to strategic terrorism vs. "tactical" terrorism which he argues (and I agree) that we can absorb as long as the government doesn't overreact. Why or why not?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
I fully expect the U.S. is already doing both, within the Defense Department, the intelligence community, the National Nuclear Security Administration and probably Homeland Security.
Having looked at Myhrvold's article, my initial reaction is it looks much like our Cold War effort to prepare for a Soviet first strike outfitting bomb shelters with food and survival materials. Taking into consideration a gigantic biological attack and preparing the entire country for it seem another project that would end up wasting money.

As we have seen, preparing for a lone wolf terrorist is costly enough and a few of them have actually been prevented.
Founder, 10 TRAITS Leadership Institute; UN Virtual Mentor
In 1977, a year before the RAND Corporation funded me to represent public opinion on nuclear energy issues in Washington DC, an article I wrote for the Progressive titled "A Landscape of Nuclear Tombstones" was included in the Top 10 BEST Censored Stories of 1977." The focus was on the lack of *away from reactor* storage sites and the risk of weapons proliferation from processing methods.... Has anything changed on these two HIGH risk areas over the past 40 years?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
I doubt if much has changed. It is amazing how little attention is paid to nuclear waste that the country has accumulated since the Manhattan Project and the political arguments that feature how to get rid of it.
The public hears frequently that the combined nuclear arsenal of the nuclear powers (and even some of them individually) are enough to destroy Earth several times over. How much of this is truly accurate and how much is exaggeration? More to the point, how much damage could nuclear weapons cause should there ever be return fire (knock wood)?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
If all the nuclear weapons were used simultaneously and directed at targets all over the world the result would be what you project.

An exchange of nuclear weapons between two countries with some clearly expected to hit the ground would be catastrophic.
In terms of security around nuclear weapons, do you consider the situation in Pakistan scarier than the one in North Korea?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
Security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons is a continuing worry based more upon the political situation there, since the military controls the weapons and by tradition has been self contained. My understanding is that the weapons themselves are stored in a dismantled state and under the control of different units.

North Korea's security plan for its weapons is something I know nothing about.
Former student in Mr. Pincus's Stanford in Washington course on national security
To what extent do you think the lack of understanding of the danger of even a single nuclear blast is a result of bans on nuclear testing? Does the public underestimate the danger of a non-state actor like ISIL or al Qaeda obtaining a nuclear weapon?
National Security Journalist for The Washington Post
Zach, good to hear from you.
As you probably heard too many times, I believe the 1963 atmospheric test ban treaty, which drove weapons testing underground has had a great deal with reducing the public understanding of what a single weapon can do.

When atmospheric tests took place before the ban, it was front page news with photographs of the explosions. Stories would continue as the fallout from the tests would travel around the world.

Once the tests were underground, test stories would be a paragraph or two inside a newspaper even as more powerful weapons were developed in smaller sizes so they could be delivered by intercontinental missiles rather than bombers.

There is always the danger of a non-state actor obtaining a weapons but depending on whose it is there is always the issue of how to deliver it and even how to make it explode with a nuclear reaction.

We once worried about people building a nuclear weapon in their basement -- it has never happened and probably never will given the danger in handling enriched uranium and plutonium plus the complexity of making work.