I came to Helsinki to ask Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin questions about the threat of nuclear weapons and to distribute an open letter about the need for secure elections and true national security. Instead, I was dragged out of their press conference before it even began and into a Finnish jail. No charges were pressed against me.
Here’s what I would have asked, had I been given the chance.
Your governments pledged in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to conduct good faith efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. But 50 years later, Russia and the United States are nowhere near eliminating them. President Trump, you’ve said that you’d like to get rid of nuclear weapons, but your government is spending over $1 trillion “modernizing” its arsenal. A year ago, 122 nations voted at the United Nations for the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize. Why are both of you not living up to your commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? And why are you blocking the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
And a question for President Trump: Your administration has echoed the line of the Israeli government by refusing to acknowledge the existence of Israel’s clandestine nuclear-weapons arsenal. Will you end that policy by acknowledging it here and now?
But how would I get a chance to ask such questions? Over the years, I’ve worked to increase access to our leaders, asking questions when I could at the National Press Club and questioning politicians at the stakeouts as they depart the big Sunday chat shows. I’ve also recently started attending State Department briefings for The Nation.
I’ve experienced what is obvious: If government officials don’t like your questions, they just won’t call on you.
That’s why—after discussing the matter with my colleague at the Institute for Public Accuracy, Norman Solomon, a long-time journalist in his own right—I came up with the idea of holding up a small piece of paper that might draw Trump or Putin’s attention. We settled on a reference to the treaty that Russia and the United States are blocking: nuclear weapon ban treaty.
I had been encouraged by a news report last week from Reuters: “Asked what would be the best possible result from his meeting with Putin, Trump said: ‘What would be the ultimate? Let’s see. No more nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, no more wars, no more problems, no more conflicts.… That would be my ultimate.’” Of course, Trump has the capacity to completely contradict himself in the span of a minute. Nonetheless, I was hoping to use his own statements to force a serious conversation on the Damocles sword hanging over humanity’s head.
The question about Israel’s nuclear-weapons arsenal is also central. There’s perhaps no greater threat than a weapon that is unacknowledged. Decades ago, Noam Chomsky laid out the possible threat to humanity of “the Samson Option”: An expansionist Israel would use a nuclear threat pointed at the entire world as leverage. It’s not just that Israel could strike Arab and Muslim countries. It could also strike at Moscow, which would retaliate against the United States in a nightmare scenario. Over the years, I’ve asked many officials if they would acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons, perhaps most notably Mike Pence while he was a congressman.
While waiting for the news conference to start, Finnish security asked me to get out of my seat. I asked why, but they would not say. The authorities insisted I come with them. I finally did so after receiving assurance I would be let back in. In case they would go back on the deal, I mentioned that “I am Sam Husseini with The Nation” to the other journalists as I left. In the hallway, Finnish security finally said that someone had told them I had a sign. They seemed afraid I would stage a protest. I told them I had no intention of doing any sort of protest and offered to show them the small sign in my bag.
We went back to main room, where other journalists asked me what was going on. Trying to be transparent, I held up the sign to explain what I had wanted to do. I expected that security would either understand that this did not constitute a protest, or they would say I had violated their rules and ask me to turn over my sign. I would have abided by that decision. But instead, security officers lunged for the sign, knocking my glasses to the floor and dragging me out of the hall. As I was shoved out of room. I think I shouted, “I wanted to ask about nuclear weapons!” and “This is a free press in Finland?”
I was taken to a small room downstairs where I was told that Finnish law allows for police to detain me for 24 hours without charge. They did not allow me access to my phone or other possessions, and they forced me to give up my press badge, which I later got back. I was then taken to a detention facility. As I was moved outside, I hollered to onlookers, “This is freedom of press in Finland!” At that point, officers started tackling me to the ground, and my legs and hands were cuffed. At the detention facility, I was asked more questions and laid out the facts of what had happened. I was released around midnight.
After I was finally able to listen to the news conference, it became evident how important my questions were. Both Trump and Putin attempted to sound like paragons of enlightened rule when talking about nuclear policy. But the emphasis was on nonproliferation. Putin spoke of the pair as being “major nuclear powers” who “bear special responsibility for maintaining international security” so as to ensure “global security and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Similarly, Trump stated: “We also discussed one of the most critical challenges facing humanity: nuclear proliferation.”
But nonproliferation is not disarmament. Indeed, nonproliferation is about ensuring that other countries don’t get nuclear weapons. It is not about getting rid of this all-encompassing threat to humanity. It is an attempt to preserve the nuclear powers’ monopoly on violence rather than actually ensuring security. These are the serious issues I was hoping to raise—and get some answers about—in Helsinki.