Two vignettes and an organizational chart:

I.

In August 1991, I was part of a group of maybe fifteen Americans who visited with Gennady Yanayev in the Kremlin. Yanayev was a big deal at the time — the Vice President of the Soviet Union. Our visit to his well-appointed suite of offices was part of a series of Track II meetings that bracketed the deep freeze of the early Reagan years and the thaw resulting from the selection of Mikhail Gorbachev to become General Secretary of the Communist Party. (For the lighter side of the Forum for U.S.-Soviet Dialogue, see my 10/5/10 post, “Cold War Secrets.”)

Yanayev was clearly not on the same wavelength as Gorbachev. He was an old-school Communist apparatchik who made his way up through the ranks into the Politburo. As far as I could tell, the only thing he and Gorbachev had in common, besides Party membership, was the habit of inviting guests to engage in dialogue and then taking twenty minutes to answer the first question.

Well, there we were, sitting around his conference table, when the strangest thing happened: the phone on Yanayev’s desk rang. And rang. And rang some more. No one picked up the phone. There was no one else in his suite of offices. No secretaries. No staff. The phone rang for what seemed like two agonizingly long minutes until the caller hung up.

Our host pretended nothing was amiss, but clearly, the lines of communication inside the Kremlin were a bit strange. A week later, Yanayev participated in a failed attempt to remove Gorbachev. The Vice President was second in the line of succession, so he presumably had a seat on the National Command Authority to make planetary-level life-or-death decisions to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. Yanayev was not always sober, however, and was unreliable, even to his fellow plotters. During the coup attempt, as Nikolai Sokov has written in an unpublished paper,

The Cheget (the nuclear “football” providing access to the authorization codes) had become the ultimate symbol of political authority. Vasilii Grossman called the bomb the “scepter of state power,” and that was even truer of the Cheget. Depriving Gorbachev of the Cheget, therefore, should be seen primarily as a move to divest him of political authority by removing his regalia, as it were. The possibility of launching nuclear weapons or even raising their alert status seems to me to be secondary. Isn’t it significant, then, that the Cheget was not handed over to Yanayev? The Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff kept control of nuclear weapons…

II.

In April 1995, Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao convened a small group of defense scientists to work out a more detailed command-and-control system. Years later, a member of this group recounted the meeting at which these recommendations were conveyed. According to this account, the Prime Minister thanked the group for their service, told them not to make any copies of their report, and to lock the original in the safe. Perhaps this was merely a security precaution, but at least some members of the group didn’t think so. They urged Prime Minister Rao to make copies and circulate them to the chain of command.

Assuming this story is somewhat embellished, it still has a ring of truth. India is all about hierarchy and diversity. As a consequence, hard decisions can take time, while consensus is sought and ruffled feathers smoothed. It probably wasn’t easy for the Prime Minister to work out the line of delegated succession among the Home, External Affairs and Defence Ministers.

III.

Organizational charts can be revealing – or beside the point. A civilian sits atop Pakistan’s NCA. After Pervez Musharraf’s exit, President Asif Ali Zardari nominally chaired the NCA until November 2009, when he passed this baton to his Prime Minister, Yusuf Reza Gilani, partly to demonstrate the transition from a Presidential- to a Prime Ministerial-led government. The current, newly confirmed Prime Minister is Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who, in a previous stint as Minister of Water and Power, personified the reasons behind Pakistan’s severe energy crisis.

The person chairing Pakistan’s all-important Employment Control Committee of the NCA is the country’s Foreign Minister, a position now held by Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar. Three civilian Cabinet Ministers also serve on the Employment Control Committee: the Minister for Defence; the Minister for Interior, and the Minister for Finance.

This organization chart bears little resemblance to reality. While notional authority now resides in the office of the Prime Minister, and while civilian Cabinet Ministers have seats at the NCA table, decision-making authority relating to nuclear weapons development and use are made by very few men in uniform.

What do these sketches add up to? The literature on first use, escalation, and escalation control short-changes the personalities and composition of the core decision-makers. What cannot be known is not written. In deep crises, National Command Authorities — even those with publicized organizational charts — will be black boxes to the outside world.