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Bill Clinton Lost President’s Nuclear Codes, and Nobody Found Out

A military aide carries the “football,” a leather briefcase holding classified nuclear war plans, onto Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, April 7, 2010. Cliff Owen/AP

The codes needed to launch a nuclear strike are never far from the president’s side — at least they’re not supposed to be.

  • The codes needed to launch a US nuclear strike are supposed to be kept close to the president at all times.

  • A department within the Defense Department is tasked with overseeing all aspects of the nuclear-launch process, including the codes.

  • During Bill Clinton’s presidency, officials from that department discovered the codes had gone missing.

Christopher Woody reports: The process the president has to go through to launch the US’s nuclear weapons isn’t as simple as pressing a button, but the key component of that process — the codes needed to authorize the launch — are never far from the president.

At least they’re never supposed to be.

According to Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1997 to September 2001, the number of redundancies in the nuclear-launch process “is staggering.” All of steps are “dependent on one vital element without which there can be no launch,” he wrote in his 2010 autobiography, “Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior.”

That element, the president’s authorization codes, is supposed to remain in close proximity to the president at all times, carried by one of five military aides, representing each branch of the military. The codes are on a card called the “biscuit” carried within the “football,” a briefcase that is officially known as the “president’s emergency satchel.”

Bill Clinton William Cohen Hugh Shelton

President Bill Clinton, with Defense Secretary William Cohen, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry “Hugh” Shelton, in Washington, DC, September 15, 1998. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

However, around 2000, according to Shelton, a member of the department within the Pentagon that is responsible for all pieces of the nuclear process was dispatched to the White House to physically look at the codes and ensure they were correct — a procedure required to happen every 30 days. (The set of codes was to be replaced entirely every four months.)

That official was told by a presidential aide that President Bill Clinton did have the codes, but was in an important meeting and could not be disturbed.

The aide assured the official that Clinton took the codes seriously and had them close by. The official was dismayed, but he accepted the excuse and left. Read the rest of this entry »

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