Security Of President’s ‘Nuclear Football’ To Be Reviewed

Photo Credit:  Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

The security measures for the U.S. President’s nuclear football are under review by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General six months after the Capitol was stormed by rioters in January 2021. The football accompanies the president and Vice President wherever they go, in the hand of a specially selected aide. However, the Capitol riots at the start of the year highlighted how vulnerable the nuclear football really is when it came within feet of rioters.

This situation has prompted a review of the football’s security by the inspector general. Also, some in Congress have expressed their wishes for an entire restructuring of the process for launching nuclear weapons.

The football is actually formally called the Presidential Emergency Satchel, and it contains the president’s instructions on how and to what extent a nuclear attack is initiated. The exact contents of the case are classified.

In an announcement, the inspector general said: “The objective of this evaluation is to determine the extent that DoD processes and procedures are in place and adequate to alert DoD officials in the event that the Presidential Emergency Satchel is lost, stolen, or compromised.”

“This evaluation will also determine the adequacy of the procedures the DoD has developed to respond to such an event. We may revise the objective as the evaluation proceeds, and we will also consider suggestions from management for additional or revised objectives.”

A time frame for the review has not been given, nor a reason why it is being conducted. However, it is likely related to the Capitol riots at the start of this year, when the football’s security came under scrutiny.

Each U.S. president has had a so-called nuclear football nearby since John F. Kennedy, who had concerns about the actual procedure of launching a nuclear strike against a foreign nation. In combination with the football, the president carries a plastic card containing codes to identify themselves to the National Military Command Center. The card is nicknamed the “biscuit.”

Washington, DC. 1992 US Marine Corps Major serving as a Military Aid at the White House carries the "Nuclear Football".
Photo Credit: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

In the event of a nuclear strike, the president will open the football, where they are presented with multiple attack options. Once they have selected their option, the aide will reveal the launch codes on the president’s biscuit. These codes are used to verify that the order indeed comes from the president. Once the president has been successfully identified, the orders are sent to the correct military units to carry out the launch. The orders are then verified for authenticity and the launch is carried out.

The Capitol riots took place during a session of Congress, of which the Vice President at the time, Mike Pence, and his football were in attendance. If the football had been taken, the U.S. nuclear strike procedure would have been exposed, opening up a serious hole in the nation’s security.

Democrat Representatives Jim Cooper and Stephen Lynch have recently made a joint proposal that asked the DoD to investigate the security of the football after the rioters came into close proximity to it. They have already pressured the DoD on whether they themselves understood how close the football was to being compromised.

An Air Force aide carries the 'nuclear football' out of the White House as he accompanies U.S. President
Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

They said, “U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for U.S. strategic deterrence and nuclear operations, was reportedly unaware that Vice President Pence, his military aide, and the nuclear football were all potentially in danger and only came to understand the gravity of the incident several weeks later when security camera footage was played as a video exhibit during the Senate impeachment trial.”

After the inspector general’s review announcement, the two representatives thanked him for looking into the issue.

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They said: “It is imperative that we fully understand the processes and procedures that are in place to protect the Presidential Emergency Satchel — especially when its custodians might be in danger — and we applaud the [inspector general] for accepting our request to initiate this evaluation.”

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE