September 16, 2022

ICYMI: At Hearing, Senator Warren Asks STRATCOM Commander on the Importance of Civilian Control in Nuclear Weapons Policy

Warren: “We’re counting on you to give your best military advice to the president, to the secretary, or Congress whenever you’re called on to do so, but it’s wildly inappropriate to try to box in the commander in chief on nuclear policy or to try to undermine his budget.”

Video of Hearing Exchange (YouTube)

Washington, D.C. – At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee today, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned General Anthony Cotton, nominee for STRATCOM commander, on the importance of civilian control in nuclear weapons policy and whether it is appropriate for the military to publicly lobby against the president, the commander in chief. Senator Warren also asked the general about how he would handle so-called “unfunded priorities” that become wish lists to boost the Pentagon’s budget. 

Transcript: Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing to Consider the Nomination of General Anthony Cotton to be STRATCOM commander
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services
Thursday, September 15, 2022

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and congratulations again on your nomination, General Cotton. So if confirmed, you’ll head U.S. Strategic Command, which will place you in charge of our nuclear weapons. 

I’d like to continue the conversation we had in my office about the importance of civilian control. Last week eight former secretaries of defense and five former chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff released an open letter calling for a recommitment to principles of civilian control, which they called and I want to quote them here, “the bedrock foundation of American democracy” unquote. The letter repeatedly emphasizes that policy decisions are ultimately up to the president, civilian political appointees, and Congress.  

So General Cotton, can you start us out this morning by saying a word about your views on whether policy decisions – including ones about nuclear programs – should be made by civilians, rather than generals?

General Anthony Cotton, Nominee to be Commander of United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM): Policy is made by civilians ma’am. 

Senator Warren: And you are committed to that firmly?

General Anthony Cotton: And I am committed to that firmly.

Senator Warren: You know, I appreciate your emphasizing this point. It’s the president’s job to determine the nuclear policy of the United States. But sometimes people who are in the role that you’ve been nominated for seem to get confused on that. For example, your predecessor Admiral Richard stated publicly that he thought the Biden administration should adopt the Trump administration’s nuclear policy. And then he and his office actively lobbied Congress against cuts to the nuclear spending programs contained in the Biden administration’s budget – the budget the President put forth and the Secretary of Defense came to this committee to defend.

So General Cotton, if confirmed, do you think it would be appropriate for you or your office to publicly lobby against the positions of the president and the Secretary of Defense?

General Cotton: No ma’am. And you remember we had this conversation – the caveat that we agreed to was, you know, I would always, especially for this committee, be allowed to offer my best military advice. 

Senator Warren: And your best military advice, but policy is done by the generals?

General Cotton: Policy is not made by generals. 

Senator Warren: Alright, thank you. We’re counting on you to give your best military advice to the president, to the secretary, or Congress whenever you’re called on to do so. But it’s wildly inappropriate to try to box in the commander in chief on nuclear policy or to try to undermine his budget.

Now, one of the big ways that military leaders lobby for more spending – even when it directly contradicts the president’s priorities – is through so-called “unfunded priorities” lists. These are wish lists are required by law, but have grown to be tens of billions of dollars and are being used by the services and the commands to game the budget process. I don’t think they ought to exist at all. 

General Cotton, do you agree that your command’s top priorities should actually be reflected in the budget you submit, rather than in an extras list?

General Cotton: Senator, I think our requirements lists that we present should be included and coverage down and if our budget is short, as the commander, my job is to ensure that I can execute my mission with the dollars that I’ve been given.

Senator Warren: Alright so I want to make sure I understand you because you’re saying your priorities should be in the budget and extras should be just that. Extras, not your priorities. Is that right?

General Cotton: As a MAJCOM Commander today, my priorities are in my budget. 

Senator Warren: Good! I like to hear that. It’s no secret that both President Biden and I want to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. Spending $634 billion just on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years is unaffordable. But I think even my colleagues who disagree with me on nuclear policy would agree we should be asking DoD to write budgets that reflect their actual priorities and that’s what it is that I am driving for here and want to make sure that we do. I look forward to working with you, General. Thank you Mr. Chairman.