The United States faces terrifying threats from foreign countries, but Chuck Hagel, the nominee for defense secretary, wants to close up our nuclear shop, says Americans for a Strong Defense, a group formed to oppose Hagel’s nomination.
"We live in a dangerous world," says the narrator in an ad that ran shortly before the Jan. 31 hearings were set to begin. "Iran. North Korea. Even Russia." Ominous news coverage mentions "brand new threats from Iran aimed squarely at the United States," North Korea launching a "long-range missile" and Russia "test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile."
The narrator continues: "But Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense wants America to back down. An end to our nuclear program. Devastating defense cuts. A weaker country."
We wanted to explore whether Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, supports "an end to our nuclear program."
Americans for a Strong Defense launched the ad to run in five states: Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana and North Carolina, where Democratic senators are up for re-election in 2014. The group has Republican ties; board members include Romney advisors Brian Hook and Danny Diaz. Maurico Claver-Carone, author of the Capitol Hill Cubans blog, is also a board member.
The group is one of a handful of conservative groups attacking Hagel. We have previously fact-checked other claims about Hagel’s positions on Iran and sanctions, including one by the Emergency Committee for Israel and by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.
Many of the attacks on Hagel’s positions about nuclear weapons relate to a May 2012 report he co-wrote for Global Zero, which describes itself as an "international movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons." It has drawn support from hundreds of world leaders, including President Barack Obama. (Hagel doesn’t have a paid job with Global Zero.)
This is not a peacenik report from the tie-dye set advocating getting rid of the defense department or all weapons. The co-authors included high-level security and international experts: General James Cartwright, a former commander of the U.S. nuclear forces under President George W. Bush; Richard Burt, a former U.S. chief nuclear arms negotiator; Thomas R. Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia; and Gen. John J. Sheehan, who held senior NATO positions.
The report called for nuclear weapon reductions in the United States and Russia and negotiating with other countries to reduce their arsenals. It outlines a goal of having no more than 900 nuclear weapons within 10 years in the United States. That would be an 80 percent reduction, said Bruce Blair, co-founder of Global Zero and study director, in an interview with PolitiFact.
The authors argued that the United States’ large nuclear stockpiles aren’t a reliable way to deter or defeat terrorists. An example: 9/11. Our stockpile "proved utterly powerless" to deter or respond to the attack.
"In fact, strong conventional forces and missile defenses may offer a far superior
option for deterring and defeating a regional aggressor," they wrote.
The report does mention the long-term goal of "total elimination" of nuclear weapons -- a 2010 Global Zero plan identified that goal for the year 2030.
The 2012 report mentions the option of pursuing elimination of nuclear weapons unilaterally but calls that "the less good approach."
The report focuses more on working together with Russia and pursuing a multilateral approach: "Nuclear arms regulation must become comprehensive and universal."
The report also criticizes the current "launch-ready" postures, which give the president potentially mere minutes to decide about launching an attack, and calls for waiting 24 to 72 hours to strike.
Blair told PolitiFact in an interview that the goal is to "ensure that no other country has nuclear weapons to threaten us or any of our allies. ... The goal is really to set the bar at zero for everyone."
Global Zero sent us a statement by Hagel’s co-authors emphasizing that they called for bilateral reductions with Russia and multilateral negotiations.
"The suggestion that we naively believe that the elimination of nuclear weapons can be achieved easily or in short order is likewise false. We, again, have clearly stated in our many reports and statements that this cannot be achieved quickly nor easily. It will take decades of painstaking work, including the establishment of a verification regime with universal, intrusive inspections," the statement said.
Americans for a Strong Defense also cited additional, similar comments of Hagel’s, urging the United States to move toward world elimination of nuclear weapons.
The experts we interviewed about reducing nuclear weapons said that Hagel’s views represent the bipartisan mainstream among nuclear and security experts, and that the United States can safely reduce its nuclear arsenal.
The Global Zero report’s recommendations would lower nuclear risks to the United States, said nuclear proliferation expert and Harvard professor Matthew Bunn in an email to PolitiFact. "Why that isn't something to be celebrated in a Secretary of Defense is beyond me. It mentions the possibility of elimination of nuclear weapons only briefly, as a long-term objective; every President since Eisenhower (except George W. Bush) has embraced the goal of prohibition of nuclear weapons in a similar way — ironically, Ronald Reagan was perhaps even more of an enthusiast for nuclear disarmament than Barack Obama."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that the ad creates a misleading impression about the threat the U.S. faces.
"What the ad is not explaining is that North Koreans have no more than 10 nuclear bombs and don’t have the capability of delivering those bombs across the Pacific U.S.," he said. "The Iranians at this point thankfully don’t have any nuclear weapons. It implies those counties have something they could hit us with -- something nuclear -- and they don’t."
The ad paints a picture of a "dangerous world" in which countries including Iran and North Korea are ready to attack the United States, while Hagel wants to back down and put "an end to our nuclear program." The ad leaves viewers with the false impression that Hagel wants to quickly shutter our nuclear program -- regardless of the nuclear ambitions of other countries, including our foes.
Hagel has called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, but with some major caveats the ad ignores. He is a supporter of Global Zero, which has called for worldwide elimination by 2030. The report he co-authored calls for reducing the U.S. stockpile to 900 nuclear warheads by 2022, but it says that the best way to achieve that reduction is together with Russia and other countries.
We rate this ad Mostly False.