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Moniz (L) and John Kerry testify before Senate Foreign Relations about the Iran nuclear deal. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Ernest Moniz, President Obama's former energy secretary and now CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), believes “the risk of a nuclear weapon being used is now higher than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Driving the news: In a lengthy interview, Moniz told Axios he is particularly concerned about the erosion of the U.S.-Russia arms control regime, which could collapse entirely if the Trump administration declines to renew the New START treaty.

  • Moniz says a move like that would remove the transparency that exists between the nuclear powers. He also says arms control has been “an enormous part of sustaining — even in dark periods — dialogue between the U.S. and the Soviets, and now the U.S. and the Russians.”
  • He raised a frightening scenario: A cyberattack on command and control systems (from either a state or non-state actor) that leads to a false warning of an incoming attack. Given the broken state of U.S.-Russia communications, a president would have just minutes to decide whether to respond, and limited information to act on.
  • Beyond the potential for miscalculation, Moniz said current debates in the U.S. and in Russia are "reviving the idea of nuclear weapons as battlefield weapons" rather than tools for deterrence.

On North Korea, Moniz said that if the Trump administration sticks to its all-or-nothing approach to denuclearization, "the chances of success are miniscule."

  • He said North Korea’s testing freeze does enhance U.S. national security while it lasts, because Kim Jong-un hasn’t demonstrated he can strike the U.S. with an intercontinental ballistic missile.
  • But he added: "We frequently forget that there are ways of delivering nuclear weapons that don’t involve missiles." An example would be "a ship going into a harbor."

Nine countries currently have nuclear weapons, including North Korea. NTI’s long-term goal is the elimination of all nuclear weapons, but Moniz conceded that the nuclear club could actually grow in the next decade or so.

  • He said the primary short-term risk is an arms race following the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, which he helped negotiate. "That has to be a proliferation concern in the region, with a couple countries being the obvious focus of concern," he said.
  • Moniz said the other area of concern is East Asia: "If some of [North Korea’s] neighbors lose confidence in our military backing for them, then there is a risk there as well."

The bottom line: Moniz cited geopolitical uncertainties, asymmetries in conventional strength between nuclear powers and the introduction of new risks, particularly in the cyber realm, as factors that make a nuclear strike more likely. And he said the behind-the-scenes work to mitigate those risks is falling far short of what is needed.

Go deeper

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House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

Photo: Stephen Maturen via Getty Images

The House voted 220 to 212 on Wednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Republicans plan to exact pain before COVID relief vote

Sen. Ron Johnson. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republicans are demanding a full, 600-page bill reading — and painful, multi-hour "vote-a-rama" — as Democrats forge ahead with their plan to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.

The new grifters: outrage profiteers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As Republicans lost the Senate and narrowly missed retaking the House, millions of dollars in grassroots donations were diverted to a handful of 2020 congressional campaigns challenging high-profile Democrats that, realistically, were never going to succeed.

Why it matters: Call it the outrage-industrial complex. Slick fundraising consultants market candidates contesting some of their party’s most reviled opponents. Well-meaning donors pour money into dead-end campaigns instead of competitive contests. The only winner is the consultants.