Hugh Shelton was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Bill Clinton‘s second term. In his just published memoir, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior he tells a strange little story about how the top-secret codes needed by the president to launch a nuclear strike went missing for months towards the end of the Clinton presidency.
The codes used by the president to launch a nuclear strike were mislaid for months during the Clinton administration, the former highest-ranking US officer has said.
Ex-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen Hugh Shelton made the claim in a new book.
The codes are usually held by an aide who remains close to the president.
Gen Shelton said there was an incident where an aide said the codes had been lost.
They were immediately replaced, but an internal inquiry was conducted.
Gen Shelton said the incident had taken place “around the year 2000″.
Under the procedures, an official was sent every month to check the codes, and that they were replaced every four months with new codes.
According to Gen Shelton’s book, Without Hesitation, an official had gone to check one month and been told by the aide that the codes were on the president’s person but that he was in an important meeting and could not be disturbed.
A different official went to do the same check a month later and was told a similar story. When it came time to change the codes, an aide admitted they had been missing for months.
Gen Shelton said it was apparent that the president had not had the codes and that he had been unaware that an aide had lost them.
The general described the episode as a “comedy of errors”.
The story is a little short on details. And Ret. Air Force Lt. Col Robert Patterson told a rather similar story in his own book seven years ago, similar but differing in key details:
Shelton claims the story has never been released before, but Ret. Air Force Lt. Col Robert Patterson told a very similar account in his own book, published seven years ago.
Patterson was one of the men who carried the football (note: that’s the briefcase, kept by an aide always near the president, that contains instructions for launching a nuclear attack), and he says it was literally the morning after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke that he made a routine request of the president to present the card so that he could swap it out for an updated version.
“He thought he just placed them upstairs,” Patterson recalled. “We called upstairs, we started a search around the White House for the codes, and he finally confessed that he in fact misplaced them. He couldn’t recall when he had last seen them.”
In Patterson’s telling of the story, the President lost the biscuit (the card with the nuclear codes) in 1998, but according to Shelton, the card went missing in 2000.
Lt. Col Robert Patterson was much closer to the action. He not only places the incident in 1998, but also blames the president for misplacing the codes (and not telling anyone till he was asked). So, given that it is extremely unlikely that the codes were misplaced twice — and if they were, surely the good general would have said so — the veracity of Gen. Shelton’s account is certainly in question. But my point is not to quibble about that.
By both accounts, it was a very big deal when the biscuit was lost. Not because there was any real risk of the codes being misused. The codes are no good without the nuclear briefcase, and the military officers who carry (and guard) the briefcase aren’t going to let anyone other than the president access the briefcase.
It was a very big deal because until the codes were replaced — more than two months by Shelton’s account, and some unspecified shorter period by Patterson’s — if the President needed to launch nuclear missiles for whatever reason, he would have been unable to. Temporarily, we simply did not have nuclear weapons capability.
What baffles me is that we do not seem to have any double redundancy built into the system. Nothing that covers the contingency that the codes get misplaced. It’s not like this possibility has never occurred to anyone either. According to ABC News, the codes were at least rumored to have been misplaced once before:
If the facts seem murky, that’s not unusual when national security matters are involved. Consider the old story that Jimmy Carter left his biscuit in a suit that got sent to the dry cleaners. Today, no one will confirm the story, but no one will deny it either.
Even if the story is untrue, just the fact that the possibility was recognized surely means that someone should have woken up and realized that double redundancy was called for?
Gen. Shelton called his incident a comedy of errors. Actually, it was a lot more than that. It’s unfathomable that the Pentagon officer who’s charged with making “an in-person verification” that the codes were safe was satisfied, two months in a row, with taking someone else’s word for it. Procedures have now been changed to make it clear that’s never supposed to happen again:
Shelton says the president was given new codes within minutes when the previous codes could not be found, and the procedures have since been changed, so that the Pentagon aide who carries out the monthly check is required to wait at the White House until he or she can visually confirm the codes are in the possession of the president or an aide who is with him.
But the fact remains that, till very recently, at least, we safeguarded our nuclear missile launch capability like a bunch of clowns.
And I have it on very good authority that we have the finest military in the world.