Note: This story was updated at 3:54 p.m.
KNOXVILLE—A former U.S. attorney general who said he has been involved in many cases that address the legality and wisdom of the nation’s nuclear arms policy on Tuesday said he supported the mission of the three protesters who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in July, splashing blood and spray-painting slogans on a building that stores most of the country’s bomb-grade uranium.
“I agree absolutely with their purpose, which is to eliminate nuclear weapons,” said Ramsey Clark, who was U.S. attorney general from 1967-1969.
The three protesters—Greg Boertje-Obed, Megan Rice, and Michael Walli—face a May 7 trial in U.S. District Court in Knoxville. Clark could testify for them.
During 1.5 hours of questioning by government and defense attorneys at a Tuesday hearing in Knoxville, Clark said the United States is in clear violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, or NPT. He said the country has an obligation under that treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons.
“The conduct of the government in this nuclear weapons program is a violation of important treaties that we initiated and signed,” Clark said.
He alleged that the nuclear weapons work at Y-12 is unlawful. He said nuclear weapons are illegal as well.
“They are illegal because the power of destruction is so great,” Clark said. “You’re inherently going to destroy lives that are protected under the rule of law, the rules of war.”
The three protesters haven’t denied that they broke into Y-12 on July 28 in an unprecedented security breach. But they have said their intrusion was reasonable and justified.
Clark said the defendants, whose charges include one under the Anti-Sabotage Act, committed minor infractions to prevent grave injury.
“It was justified and intended to preserve society from destruction by nuclear weapons,” Clark said.
Still, under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey E. Theodore, Clark seemed to acknowledge that the NPT didn’t explicitly call for relinquishing nuclear weapons.
Theodore said a 1996 international court opinion said there is no universal prohibition on the use or threat of nuclear weapons under international law.
Theodore asked whether the protesters could have opposed Y-12’s work in other ways, such as through the political process.
Clark said there could be other alternatives, but they may not be adequate.
U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar asked Clark a few times whether civil disobedience can be honorable and lead to change, but still be illegal under federal law.
“Just because it may be morally just doesn’t make it legally justified,” Thapar said.
Thapar said he will issue an order within a week.
Robert Booker, a second witness who had been expected to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, was not available.