Like many Americans, I was taken slightly aback when Hillary Clinton mentioned that it takes four minutes from the time the President decides to launch nuclear weapons to the time that the missiles fire from their silos and submarines in a war that is thankfully hypothetical at this time. Information surrounding America’s nuclear warfare capabilities are amongst our most closely guarded secrets, the details being highly classified.
As part of a rebuke to the notion of having Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in command of America’s nuclear deterrent, Hillary said, “There is about four minutes between the order being given and the people responsible for launching nuclear weapons to do so.”
Was Hillary referencing publicly available information? Was this stuff published in an old Rand Corporation white paper? Nuclear isn’t my field so I had to ask a few people and poke around a bit. Social media is already abuzz today about the incident, which is likely to be covered in the evening news later today. Snopes, a website that is often derided as part of a liberal conspiracy by conservatives, said that the claims of Hillary leaking classified information about nuclear response times is categorically false. Snopes is usually much more accurate than what you find in social media, but this time they jumped the shark.
The source citations that Snopes uses to debunk the classification angle are publicly available news articles. However, it is important to note that just because something is public information does not mean that it has been declassified by the government. For instance, all those State Department wikileaks documents? Yeah, those are still classified even though they have been made public. Definitively proving that the launch response times are classified is somewhat difficult as those who know are not going to talk, however it is almost impossible to believe that this information is not classified as Top Secret. It doesn’t appear to be published in any publicly available documents by the US government.
We can begin to understand how long the nuclear launch times are from reading the works of Bruce Blair and NTI. If the Russians launched their nuclear weapons, America would have thirty minutes to launch our own prior to the United States going up in a nuclear fireball. Looking at the timetables involved, the four minutes that Hillary referred to appears to be accurate or at least in the ballpark plus or minus a minute. Because this information has been published by Foreign Policy and Politico, it is certainly open source at this point even if it is still classified by the US government.
This allows Hillary Clinton to claim that she got the four-minute launch time information from reading an article on the internet (or having an aide read it for her) rather than from a classified document or briefing. This may be skirting the edge, or borderline illegal if she simply used open source information to parallel what she knew was classified, but allows enough flexibility for her to get away with the comment. Still, it seems reckless for her to make such a cavalier statement about launch times while her entire candidacy has been involved in a e-mail scandal centering around the transmission of classified information over unsecured networks.
It appears that nuclear experts have cited the four minute window in the past numerous times so making the case that Hillary leaked classified information becomes rather asinine and probably impossible to prove. Pundits on television news and overnight Twitter experts on nuclear weapons, classification authorities, and US law will be shouting loudly but to little avail.