Why Clinton's Losing the Nuclear Biscuit Was Really, Really Bad

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Former President Clinton's office declined to comment today on reports that he managed to lose the personal identification code needed to confirm nuclear launches and never told anyone about it.

Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the last few years of Clinton's term, writes about the episode in his new autobiography. Shelton is especially sensitive to the proper authentication procedures, having served as deputy commander of the National Military Command Center (NMCC), through which all nuclear launch progression action chains are processed. The National Command Authority (NCA), as the process and the person of the commander in chief is called, passes from the President to the Vice President to the Secretary of Defense. (In the absence of the SecDef, the Deputy Secretary of Defense can stand in.)


In effect, without Clinton's "biscuit," as the personal identifier is called, the President would not have been able to initiate a launch order or confirm a launch order executed by someone else. The football itself, which contains code authenticators, a transceiver, targeting menus, and continuity of government options, was always with the military aide. 

A former military officer with knowledge of NCA procedures helps fill in some of the details.

Let's say that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) detects an inbound air warning; the NMCC immediately calls the Sit Room or the military aide, which plugs in the President, who then provides an alpha-numeric code to verify his identity. Once verified, the President can (to invoke ICBM language) execute or terminate sorties. The military aide--known as the Milaide--goes everywhere with the President. Even when the President travels in a hotel elevator, the Milaide (and the president's doctor) accompany him. (Yes, every POTUS elevator trip is monitored.)

So what happens if the President doesn't have his identifier?

The commander in chief of NORAD resorts to the next person the NCA list, the Vice President.

This is a survival mechanism built in during the Cold War, in the event that Washington was decapitated without warning in a nuclear strike. NORAD continues down the list until it finds a capital P-Principle, who provides that identifier and assumes the duties of the Commander in Chief. 

Sounds like no big deal, right?

Here's the reality: Losing that identifier card had the potential to create a vast disruption in nuclear command and control procedures.

So Al Gore gets "the call" because Clinton can't properly ID himself. Gore is confused, lives in Washington, knows the President is fine. He tells NORAD to hold while he tracks down the President, who can't verify his own identify anyway. Precious minutes (and I do mean precious, seconds count in the nuke business) are lost while civilian and military leadership sort things out. 

And that says nothing of the fact that the President would be in gross violation of his duties by allowing the VP to execute an order that is lawfully the President's to make. Once a strike is authorized by the NCA, the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pass the order to the U.S. Strategic Command through the NMCC, or through an alternate command site, like Site R in Liberty Township, PA, or through an airborne platform known as TACAMO, which stands for "Take Charge and Move Out."

TACAMO's fleet, operated by the Navy, consists of tricked-out Boeing E6-B aircraft pre-positioned at six locations across the country. They're on constant stand-by, ready to fly within 10 minutes of an alert. During the Cold War, the code name for these missions was "Looking Glass," and at least one airplane was in the air at all times. TACAMO planes are in 24/7 contact with America's fixed ballistic missile silos, its nuclear subs, and its nuclear-weapon-equipped airplanes.

Don't confuse these aircraft with the NAOC, or "Kneecap," four Air Force planes designed to physically transport the NCA -- POTUS or whomever -- to safety in an emergency. Wherever the President travels, a Boeing E4 is not far behind. The planes also ferry other members of the NCA, including SecDef, to international locations where they know they can secure their communications if they need them.

If there's a catastrophic attack on the seat of the United States government, the planes, their crews, and special mission units are responsible for ensuring that the surviving constitutional officer "becomes" the NCA until the emergency is over. The NAOC planes keep in constant contact with the NMCC, the White House's Presidential Emergency Operations Center, the HMX-1 squadron that the President uses for helicopter traffic, and various classified alternate command and control centers worldwide. (Yes, worldwide.)

On 9/11, according to Shelton, a NAOC plane was in the air, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was evacuated to Site R, and various other continuity of government measures were put into effect in case they were needed. That day, they were not.

But the emergency would convince the Bush administration to significantly retool and expand the secret programs designed to ensure constitutional government.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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