The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, says in his just-published memoir, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, that President Bill Clinton’s White House lost the "presidential authorization codes" for launching a nuclear strike, and they were missing "for months." Shelton writes, "This is a big deal—a gargantuan deal -- and we dodged a silver bullet.”
Shelton says the system "failed" and asks "how in the hell could we have lost the codes and not known it?"
It sounds quite alarming, but there's a big gap here. Shelton’s account is oddly imprecise about a process that is supposed to work like clockwork.
According to Shelton, a Pentagon checker routinely went to the White House once a month to see what Shelton calls the "nuclear authorization codes." Shelton describes these codes as absolutely essential to the launching of nuclear weapons. He writes:
Without those, it doesn't matter if we’ve got a thousand missiles verified inbound to the United States, we would be unable to launch a retaliatory strike. If our survival depended on launching a preemptive strike, without the President's having those authorization codes, such a strike would be impossible. That's how crucial it is to maintain the integrity of those nuclear-authorization codes -- which are to remain within very close proximity to the President at all times."
Shelton goes on to say that when the Pentagon checker went to the White House to verify the codes, he was supposed to lay his eyes on them, and make sure all was in order. Every four months, the checker would rotate the codes.
On one visit, the checker was told he could not see the codes; a White House aide claimed that Clinton had them personally, but was in a meeting and could not be interrupted. Shelton says the checker accepted that answer, and went away. Then, the next month, a different checker went to the White House, and got the same line: the president was busy, the codes are fine, but he can't be disturbed. Again, the checker just went away. According to Shelton, this "comedy of errors" went on without Clinton's knowledge until it came time to rotate the codes, when "we learned that the aide had no idea where the old ones were, because they had been missing for months." This was sometime in 2000, Clinton's last year. The codes were replaced, swiftly.
If Shelton is to be believed, then, due to some White House error, Clinton didn't have the essential codes for command and control of the nuclear weapons for months, and, even though these codes are absolutely critical to the security of the nation and the world, he lost them and didn't even know that he had lost them, because it was an aide who lost them. Oh, the Pentagon didn’t know either.
It doesn't add up.
The president does not possess the actual codes to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons. What the president does carry (or an aide) is a small laminated card which is used to authenticate the president's identity in the event of an emergency. The cards contain date-time groups and alphanumeric codes in columns and rows, according to Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute who has written several books on nuclear command and control. In an emergency, a president would use this laminated card to verify that he is the commander in chief making decisions.
Is this the "code" that the Pentagon checker was looking for, and was somehow lost? Well, if Clinton misplaced one, or an aide did, then it would not have been difficult to replace -- immediately, not months later. The Defense Department was the custodian of the system.
Were things so confused in the Clinton White House that an aide could lose the authenticator card for months, keep the military in the dark, and keep the president in the dark too?
No question, if the card was lost for months, that's reason for worry. A nuclear alert would involve intense decision-making stress, and potential chaos; this is one glitch that no one would want to see in a system that must be fail-safe. That's why I find it hard to believe that the card went missing for months.
If the president could not authenticate in an emergency, then the military commanders would speed dial to the vice president, and down the list of successors, according to Blair. But in a sudden alert, this process is guaranteed to get confused.
In addition to the laminated card, the president is also accompanied by a military aide carrying the "football," the briefcase which contains war plans and decision guides for a president in the event of an alert. The football is carried everywhere a president goes. It is a symbol, and a potent one, of the nuclear age. Shelton knows about the football, and describes it earlier in his book. Is this what he means by the lost codes? The device is a critical link in our system of command and control, is handled by a military aide, and if it were missing, I am certain it would have been noticed -- immediately, not months later.
So, what was actually lost? Shelton may have a story to tell here, but so far, it does not hold together.
There is one lesson to be taken away from this, relevant today. Both Russia and the United States still keep nuclear-armed missiles poised on launch-ready alert. The land-based U.S. missiles can be launched within four minutes of an order from the president. Keeping missiles on such high alert may have provided an extra edge for deterrence in a time of intense superpower confrontation, but it is not needed today, nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War. Both countries should find a way to de-alert those land-based missiles, building in some kind of pause, say hours or days before the missiles could be launched, giving a president some extra time to avoid a mistake, such as a launch based on a false alarm. In a crisis, finding the president's authenticator card ought to be the least of his concerns.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.