General Milley promising to tip off China in advance if America planned to attack: OPSEC violation?

This is more of a GQ question, but I suspect mods will shift it over to Great Debates sooner or later, so I might as well put it here:

In January, during Trump’s last days, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley promised a Chinese general that he would tip off China in advance if the U.S. were about to attack Chinese forces.

Now, on the one hand, Trump was mentally unhinged in his last days - just like Nixon in his last, and just as unhinged as Trump has always ever been - and nobody wants a needless war. But for an American military officer to secretly promise an adversary to warn them in advance if an American attack was coming seems quite disconcerting, from a protocol or regulations standpoint.

Can some military Dopers clarify whether this violates OPSEC?

This is really far above what my pay grade was; but yes. Yes it violates what anyone in the military should do according to military regulations.

If he felt that such a notification would in the end save lives, especially American lives, then perhaps he was morally doing the right thing.

I imagine Milley was thinking that if Trump did something batshit, he would warn the Chinese, not if he was responding to a Chinese incursion or something. Note, I’m not saying that Milley was right to take over this responsibility. Rather than working with the Chinese, he would have been better off working within the US government to have Trump taken out of the loop.

Anyway, promising to tip off China might not have been an OPSEC violation. Actually tipping them off must be, right?

Note: I’m completely clueless about this stuff.

So, it is a little ambiguous given the context. Gen. Miley was reportedly in conversation with Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army to assure him that joint naval exercises in the South China Sea were not a prelude to an attack that might be feared because of Trump’s general belligerence toward the PRC and upcoming election. Normally, such conversations would take place through diplomatic channels between the US Department of State and corresponding organ of the PRC government with full cognizance of the executive but for obvious reasons that kind of communications were not occurring. For the US to engage in an unprovoked attack upon the forces of another sovereign nation (versus responding to an attack upon US forces) would technically require a declaration of war but of course that expectation has been diluted to meaninglessness by the actions of presidential administrations going back to the Korean War.

Operational Security (OPSEC) is policy governing control of information and exposure to possible foreign agents but is not statute or case law, so ‘violating’ OPSEC is subject to administrative discipline but is not some kind of legal prohibition in and of itself (although OPSEC violations can result in losing security clearance or other penalties involving access to information). Obviously, providing any information about military plans or observations to a potential opponent, even in a general manner, is a violation of OPSEC, although whether it constitutes a legal violation would depend upon the specificity of the infiormation. If Milley actually provided actionable intelligence upon US plans regarding a presumptive attack upon a foreign adversary, it would almost certainly be considered espionage and potentially treason as well as violations of numerous elements of Uniform Code of Military Justice, which are legally actionable violations that could result in both court martial and prosecution in federal court.

What Milley actually did is just offer assurance that any aggressive action by the US military would be conveyed prior to hostilities, which is kind of outside the wheelhouse of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but isn’t illegal per se unless it is done with some motive to compromise the security of the United States or in exchange for personal favoritism, e.g. (to use a term which may still be resident in the minds of some) “quid pro quo”. That Milley felt compelled to do both this and delay exercises speaks to a rather disturbing state of mind that a senior US military officer would feel the need to undertake diplomatic affairs of state, but again this is an issue of policy and not laws as long as no actionable intelligence was conveyed.

What is more disturbing is further down in the article:

Milley also summoned senior officers to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons, saying the president alone could give the order — but, crucially, that he, Milley, also had to be involved. Looking each in the eye, Milley asked the officers to affirm that they had understood, the authors write, in what he considered an “oath.”

That Gen. Milley felt he needed to remind senior military officers of both the chain of command and imply their responsibility to the country vice fealty to a lame duck political leader who speaks volumes to his concern about the mental stability of Trump and willingness of his supporters to bolster any action, even one as self-destructive as launching a nuclear strike. It argues for a need to curtail executive authority to unilaterally invoke military action and specifically to restrict the frame of ordering the use of nuclear weapons without Congressional review to specifically verified counterstrike actions, if that. But then, there have long been good reasons to be concerned about Trump’s statements regarding nuclear weapons.


Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!

I’d say that promising to do it does not violate OPSEC, actually doing it? Of course.

I think Stranger has nailed it. I do recall hearing about the nuclear launch conversation before. At the time, I thought it was great that Milley was taking that precaution. In almost any situation, I am not in favor of the military making that call. In retrospect, it makes me uncomfortable. Trump should have been removed from power before it ever came to that.

It seems that people are throwing around the term “OPSEC” without a clear understanding of what it means:

What Milley did wasn’t some kind of inadvertent publication of compromising information; it was a deliberate effort to assure another nation that the US would not engage in an unprovoked attack. You could certainly consider this to be some kind of violation of operational security if the US were actually planning on attacking China but in this context it was quite obviously Milley feeling as if he needed to engage in what would normally be Department of State-type communications to ensure that misunderstandings did not lead to conflict.

Whether he should have done this or not is certainly a question that could be debated but this clearly wasn’t some accidental release of information that China could use to blackmail him or uncover secret military operations.


If anything has proven that the 25th Amendment will NEVER be invoked on a conscious president, it’s the Trump Presidency.

Quite seriously, the man was diagnosable—by every professional measure we have—with textbook disorders making him unfit to serve. Any number of well-respected professionals could have been empaneled to examine him closely and thoroughly, and that would have been the result.

But: if a President is conscious, it will not matter if he runs through the White House with his underwear on his head screaming about nuking talk-show hosts.

It will not matter. Unfettered access to our entire nuclear arsenal will still be given to him.

Good post, but I’d amend your first sentence to “… the 25th Amendment will NEVER be invoked on a conscious Republican president”.

Of course, if you actually went through our list of presidents with the jaundiced eye of a clinician and eliminated everyone with a pathological disorder as being unfit to hold office, I don’t think you’d be left with very many suitable candidates. In the last seventy-five years, I’d argue that at as many as half display clear symptoms of sociopathy, narcissism, dementia, and other mental defects to a pathological degree. Trump certainly falls into the extreme in multiple categories, but the distinction is one of degree rather than of kind.


If Milley did that* (and also suggested that he could override the President on nuclear launch), then that is a violation of the principle of civilian control of the military, and a violation of his oath to respect the chain of command.

I don’t think he did anything illegal, but I also think a President would be well supported if he asked him to resign over it. If you don’t have faith that the military will do what they are ordered to do, it’s totally appropriate to find a new military leadership that will.

Personally, I’d fire him just for the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle. Even if it wasn’t totally his fault, America suffered so much reputational damage over it that it would be good optics to shake up the military command and force some resignations to signal to China and others that such a mistake wouldn’t be happening again, and that you were taking it seriously.

(*) This information comes from Bob Woodward’s new book, and Woodward has a history of getting some facts and contexts wrong. I’d like to see a second source of corroboration.

In relation to that, the U.S. has been engaged in military expansionism in the region and beyond for decades:

We’ll be sure to take your advice for every cent it is worth.


The US Department of State is (was?) much less important and influential than Defense. It was a complaint of the Department of State, that when they had a couple of people in hotel rooms conducting diplomatic relations in some foreign country, the Department of Defense would have a senior general with staff in a whole wing of a nicer hotel, conducting military relations, and the hosts would know which group was closer to the center of power.

General Milley didn’t act until after the Jan 6 insurrection. It was apparent the situation in the WH was dangerously out of control. General Milley’s concerns were expressed to the Speaker of the House. That office is 3rd in line to succeed power if the President and VP can’t carry out their duties.

Ensuring that orders for missile launches were reviewed is a sensible precaution. Reassuring the Chinese military was obviously intended to avoid an international crisis. Does anyone want to risk another Cuban Missile crisis?

The President cannot declare war without approval from Congress.

There is historical precedent for Milley’s action. Gen. Milley feared Trump might launch nuclear attack, made secret calls to China, new book says

IOW, “When we go to war with you, we’ll tell you we’re doing it.”

It’s like Trump repeatedly ran over America’s reputation with a steamroller and then Biden accidentally stepped on its still-twitching fingers and some people started screaming “Look at all the damage Biden did!”

Sometimes oaths and duties and such conflict with each other. If the president has gone nuts, then hopefully generals will revert to their oath to support and defend the constitution and defend the country, over their duty to follow orders from the president.

This. IMHO, assuming things went down as reported, General Milley did a great service to the country. He should be honored for doing his part in preventing Trump from going rogue, not asked to resign.

Probably should be both. If he was exceeding what a General is suppose to do, he should resign. But in this case resign and be feted for protecting the American soldiers and people from a crazed wanna-be dictator.

Recently we had the Captain of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) relieved for making the right decision to buck the Sec Nav and sound the alarm that the crew of the TR had Covid ripping through it.

He made that decision knowing he would probably suffer for it, but saved lives and preserved the readiness of one of our Air Craft Carriers.

You can do both. Most people that know about this salute him, but what he did was against Navy Regs.

Of course in reality we had a terrible and unqualified acting Sec Nav doing a terrible job to please his master.