Sunday night, one of the oldest and most respected names in TV news, 60 Minutes, ran what was effectively a 14-minute infomercial for the US military and weapons contractors, hyping the threat of a Russian nuclear strike on Europe without an ounce of skepticism or context. In “Risk of Nuclear Attack Rises,” correspondent David Martin populates his segment primarily with fawning interviews with US military brass and Western think tanks, namely super-hawk and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove, who–after Martin lets the Air Force show off the big shiny nuclear bombs–kicks off the segment with this shocking pseudo-revelation:
David Martin: Was there ever any indication that Vladimir Putin was prepared to use his nuclear weapons in any way?
Phillip Breedlove: Vladimir Putin said himself that he would considered raising the alert status of his nuclear force.
David Martin: He had considered it?
Phillip Breedlove: He said it himself.
It’s unclear what “consider raising the alert level” means exactly, but Breedlove would go on to explain–citing a publicly available documents from the Putin government—that Russia would use nuclear weapons “when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Martin suggests, but never explicitly says, this is somehow a radical new policy that threatens the fabric of the post-WWII nuclear order. This is a frightening claim, and one uncritically echoed to the program’s 15 million viewers.
Since Martin never bothers to get any side other than the US military and its satellite think-tank industry, The Nation reached out to nuclear-policy expert Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a public grant-making foundation focused on nuclear weapons, for some perspective.
“Focusing on the threat from Russia minimizes the actual threat by downplaying the provocative posture we have and are pushing in newly threatening directions,” Cirincione told The Nation. “The B-52 exercise depicted in the episode [Martin flies along with an American nuclear bomber as it flies deep into the North Atlantic] is one example of the nuclear saber-rattling that we are doing that in actually more provocative than the similar behavior we condemn in others.”
In other words: 60 Minutes was right to raise awareness of the threat of nuclear war, especially as tension between the two countries grows, but by only highlighting Russian “aggression” the piece passes off policies both countries share as something unique to the Kremlin.
“The statement that Russia would use weapons when ‘the existence of the state is in jeopardy’ is actually more restrictive than our policy, as expressed in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review,” Cirincione added. He highlighted this section that affords the US far broader latitude when deciding where and who to attack with nuclear weapons: