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WASHINGTON: The US Senate learned on Tuesday that the president’s order to launch a nuclear weapon can be refused if it’s illegal.

For the first time in 41 years, Congress held a hearing on the US president’s authority to launch a nuclear strike, and lawmakers said they were doing so because they were alarmed by President Donald Trump’s recent statements on North Korea.

“The more people think about this, the more they realise Donald Trump can start a nuclear war,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held Tuesday’s hearing.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, another Democrat, said she was not questioning the president’s authority over nuclear weapons but she wanted to make sure that president was not “act(ing) on a Twitter post.”

President Trump often uses Twitter to announce important decisions, creating the impression in Washington that he does so without consulting his advisers. Senator Shaheen said that “the anxiety that (this practice) produces causes the concern” that forced the panel to hold this hearing.

A former general of the US Air Force, Robert Kehler, however, assured the panel that there’s a legal procedure for launching a nuclear weapon strike and if the president did not follow that procedure, the nuclear command can refuse his order.

“The US armed forces are obligated to follow legal orders, not illegal ones,” said the general who has headed the US Strategic Command, which is responsible for implementing presidential orders for launching a strategic weapon.

Gen Kehler disagreed with the suggestion, from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, that Congress should also have a say in the decision to launch a nuclear weapons.

“The United States now faces far more complex security problems and greater uncertainty than it did during the Cold War. Threats to our security are diverse, can arrive at our doorsteps quickly, and can range from small arms in the hands of extremists to nuclear weapons in the hands of hostile foreign leaders,” he said.

That’s why, Gen Kehler said, the president should have the power to authorise a pre-emptive strike. “To prevent the use of nuclear weapons, the US must remain prepared to use them,” he said.

President Trump’s strong reaction to North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests stoked the fear that he could use the existing law to authorise the deployment of a nuclear weapon on his own.

The US media reported that some Nato allies also have conveyed to Washington their concerns about the president’s command of the US launch system.

The Trump administration, however, dismissed these concerns as unfounded, arguing that the present arrangement has worked for decades and it has sufficient checks in place to prevent an imprudent action.

At Tuesday’s hearing, senators asked Gen Kehler what would happen if the president ordered a nuclear strike.

The general said that under certain circumstances, he would refuse to follow the order, saying: “I’m not ready to proceed.’”

“Then what happens?” asked Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. “I don’t know,” the general replied, causing a nervous laughter in the audience.

Senator Markey said Gen Kehler’s assurance that a commander can refuse to obey a presidential order was not very reassuring.

“Hired people do not offer a real resistance. It should be the congressional prerogative to declare or not to declare a nuclear war,” he said. “Congress does have the constitutional responsibility to have a say.”

The senator warned that under the present arrangement, President Trump could launch a nuclear strike “just as easily as he can use his Twitter account”.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2017