What Kind of Nuclear Attack Would be Legal?

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US general says order to launch nuclear weapons can be refused if illegal

—Chicago Tribune, Nov. 18

US nuclear commander would balk at any “illegal” order

—MSNBC, Nov. 18

General heading Strategic Command says illegal nuclear launch order can be refused

—NBC News, Nov. 18

Top general says he would resist “illegal” nuke order from Trump

—CBS News, Nov. 18

Top US general says he would resist illegal nuclear strike order from Donald Trump

—The Independent, Nov. 18

All these headlines give the direct impression that a nuclear attack could be legal in some circumstances. But is this possible?

Air Force General John Hyten, commander of Strategic Command, told the Halifax International Security Forum Nov. 18, that an order from the president to launch nuclear weapons can be refused if that order is determined to be illegal. In the face of an unlawful order, Gen. Hyten said, he would tell Trump he couldn’t carry it out. “If it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen?” Hyten asked the gathering. “I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’”

Four days earlier, retired Gen. Robert Kehler, who previously held Gen. Hyten’s top job at Strategic Command, testified likewise to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying that nuclear war commanders could “ignore any unlawful order by the president to launch a nuclear strike.”

Generals Hyten and Kehler both said in their unprecedented…

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