The Administration

Of biscuits and footballs: The perils of presidents and the nuclear codes

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It was a line Hillary Clinton used on the campaign trail dozens of times as she sought to raise as an issue her rival’s fitness to command America’s atomic forces and his temperament and judgement on matters of war and peace. Would you want Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button?

“This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes. It’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin,” HRC said at the Democratic party convention.

{mosads}Left unsaid, of course, was how for several months her husband when in the White House wouldn’t have had the ability to have launched a first strike — or respond to an attack on the U.S. — having lost the laminated plastic card that he was meant to have carried with him at all times with the codes needed to unlock the nuclear football and authorize a launch.

According to a 2010 memoir by Gen. Hugh Shelton, who served under Clinton as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Biscuit, as the card is nicknamed, went missing in 2000. In his book, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, Shelton wrote: “At one point during the Clinton administration the codes were actually missing for months. That’s a big deal – a gargantuan deal.”

For all of the security apparatus surrounding a president — all the formal protocols and reviews of policy — it isn’t the first time a U.S. commander-in-chief has been in the position of being unable to defend America or strike first. The history of the nuclear football, formally known as the Presidential Emergency Satchel, and the Biscuit is littered with mishaps, says Christopher Andrew, a British intelligence academic and official historian of Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5.

As Trump was being sworn in on Friday, three thousand miles away, Andrew was recouping the story of footballs and biscuits before the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar, a high-powered forum of academics specializing in espionage and spycraft and former spooks. “Like most presidents, Trump will probably keep his credit card-style Biscuit in a suit pocket,” he said.

And that is just the start of the problem. “We all have lost a credit card at some time or other,” he muses.

As far as Andrew is concerned, the Biscuit arrangement is testimony to how very clever planners miscalculated human nature from the start — how the architects of the largely unchanged system since Eisenhower failed to anticipate the high probability that presidents would misplace the all-important nuclear codes.

“The card was designed by people who just do not understand how human beings operate,” says Andrew, author of the book For the President’s Eyes Only. “The mere idea that the most sacred object of Presidents of the United States would look like a credit card just shows you are dealing with people who work in the mathematical sciences,” says Andrew.

Presidents in a mournful procession of forgetfulness have misplaced the nuclear codes as well as their bag-carriers repeatedly.

Jimmy Carter forget to retrieve the card from a suit jacket before it was dispatched to the dry cleaners. Bill Clinton dashed off unexpectedly on April 24 1999 from a NATO meeting in downtown Washington, leaving dumbstruck on the sidewalk his ballcarrier. The aide-de-camp carrying the 45 pound satchel took an anxious half-an-hour to catch up with the commander in chief after hoofing it across town.

Gerald Ford on a trip to Paris for a summit left inadvertently his fuming satchel carrier aboard Air Force One.

There was chaos also in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. His Biscuit was discarded by medical staff at George Washington University Hospital as they cut up his custom-made suit to his anger and thrown into one of his shoes. The FBI bagged it later along with the wounded President’s clothes in an evidence bag, despite the protests of Secret Service agents.

The FBI reluctantly returned it to the White House two days later.

The bloody-mindedness of presidents — and vice -presidents — has featured also in the nuclear history. Jimmy Carter (again) refused to let the football carrier sleepover on his Plains, Georgia peanut farm. When the President was on home visits, the aide was made to sleep 10 miles away.

And it was Lyndon Baines Johnson’s stubbornness that added another layer of panic on the day JFK was assassinated. He had refused to be briefed on the workings of the nuclear football and the procedures for authorizing a launch after being sworn in as Vice-President. So there wasn’t a smooth transfer of nuclear authority in the hours after JFK was slain, says Andrew.

“By the far most fraught handover of the football from one President to another followed the shooting of John F. Kennedy,” says Andrew. “LBJ had refused briefings on the football and he had no Biscuit before Kennedy’s death.”  

Much of the forlorn flight from Dallas to Washington DC was taken up with indoctrinating a blanching Johnson and briefing him on nuclear authorization procedures. “Immediately after taking the oath of office, he was taken to the other end of the plane and told there was a problem and that for the first time in American history in the nuclear age he was the first commander-in-chief who could not respond to an attack. The flight was taken up explaining to him how to use the football and the Biscuit.”  

“No Vice-President has refused the nuclear briefing since Johnson,” according to Andrew.  

Including Mike Pence, who got his briefing on Friday — and not because of HRC’s fears about Trump’s judgment, but because of the need for the continuity of nuclear authority, a continuity that’s been broken time and again.

Jamie Dettmer is an international correspondent for Voice Of America. Most recently he was reporting from the front lines on Mosul.   

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

Tags Bill Clinton Democratic Party Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Mike Pence Nuclear Codes Republican Party United States Washington D.C.

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