The nuclear football (also known as the atomic football, the president's emergency satchel, the Presidential Emergency Satchel, the button, the black box, or just the football) is a briefcase, the contents of which are to be used by the President of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers, such as the White House Situation Room or the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. It functions as a mobile hub in the strategic defense system of the United States. It is held by an aide-de-camp.
In his 1980 book Breaking Cover, Bill Gulley, the former director of the White House Military Office, wrote:
There are four things in the Football. The Black Book containing the retaliatory options, a book listing classified site locations, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System, and a three-by-five-inch [7.5 × 13 cm] card with authentication codes. The Black Book was about 9 by 12 inches [23 × 30 cm] and had 75 loose-leaf pages printed in black and red. The book with classified site locations was about the same size as the Black Book, and was black. It contained information on sites around the country where the president could be taken in an emergency.
According to a 2005 Washington Post article, the president is always accompanied by a military aide carrying a "football" with launch codes for nuclear weapons. A separate 2005 article described the football as a metal Zero Halliburton briefcase. Another 2005 article described the football as a leather briefcase weighing about 45 pounds (20 kg), and included a photo of an aide carrying such a case. A small antenna protrudes from the bag near the handle, suggesting that it also contains communications equipment of some kind.
If the president (who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces) decides to order the use of nuclear weapons, they would be taken aside by the "carrier" and the briefcase would be opened. A command signal, or "watch" alert, would then be issued to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president would then review the attack options with the secretary of defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and decide on a plan, which could range from a single cruise missile to multiple ICBM launches. These are preset war plans developed under OPLAN 8010 (formerly the Single Integrated Operational Plan). Then, using Milstar, the aide, a military officer, would contact the National Military Command Center and NORAD to determine the scope of the pre-emptive nuclear strike and prepare a second strike, following which Milstar/Advanced Extremely High Frequency or Boeing E-4Bs and TACAMOs would air the currently valid nuclear launch code to all operational nuclear delivery systems. Where a two-person verification procedure would be executed following this, the codes would be entered in a Permissive Action Link.
Before the order can be processed by the military, the president must be positively identified using a special code issued on a plastic card, nicknamed the "biscuit". The United States has a two-man rule in place at nuclear launch facilities, and while only the president can order the release of nuclear weapons, the order must be verified by the secretary of defense to be an authentic order given by the president (there is a hierarchy of succession in the event that the president is killed in an attack). This verification process deals solely with verifying that the order came from the actual president. The secretary of defense has no veto power and must comply with the president's order. Once all the codes have been verified, the President "may direct the use of nuclear weapons through an execute order via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commanders, and, ultimately, to the forces in the field exercising direct control of the weapons." These orders are given and then re-verified for authenticity.
It is argued that the president has almost sole authority to initiate a nuclear attack because the Secretary of Defense is required to verify the order, but cannot veto it. However, the President's authority as Commander-in-Chief is not unlimited and US law dictates that the attack must be lawful and that military officers are required to refuse to execute unlawful orders, such as those that violate the Laws of Armed Conflict. Therefore, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other servicemembers in the chain of command must refuse to issue the execute order if such an order would be unlawful. Several military officials, including Gen. Hyten, have testified to Congress that they would refuse to carry out an unlawful order for a nuclear strike. If the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were to refuse to issue the execute order as directed by the President, the President could reassign or fire the Chairman and appoint a replacement, including waiving the required credentials if all other qualified officers refused the appointment or the President determines that it is in the national interest. Further, off-the-shelf strike packages are pre-vetted by lawyers to confirm that they are legal and, thus, such a strike would be presumed to be a lawful order. Further, military service members have been reprimanded for questioning, notably Major Harold Hering, who was discharged from the Air Force in late 1973 for asking the question "How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?"
The football is carried by one of the rotating presidential military aides, whose work schedule is described by a top-secret rota (one from each of the six service branches). This person is a commissioned officer in the U.S. military, pay-grade O-4 or above, who has undergone the nation's most rigorous background check (Yankee White). These officers are required to keep the football readily accessible to the president at all times. Consequently, the aide, football in hand, is always either standing or walking near the president, including riding on Air Force One, Marine One, or the presidential motorcade with the president.
There are three nuclear footballs in total; two are allocated to the president and vice president, with the last being stored in the White House. The practice to also provide an aide with a football to the Vice President, to whom command authority would devolve if the President is disabled, began with the Carter administration. In presidential transitions, the president-elect does not receive the actual nuclear code card until after the nuclear briefing, when normally "he meets with the outgoing president at the White House just before the actual inauguration ceremony. The code card is activated electronically right after the president-elect takes the oath at noon".
In the event that the outgoing president is not present at the inauguration – as happened in 2021 when Donald Trump did not attend the inauguration of Joe Biden but stayed in Florida – they keep one football, which remains active until 11:59:59 AM on inauguration day. After that point, the now-former president is denied access to the football and the codes are automatically deactivated. The aide carrying this football returns to Washington DC. In the meantime, the incoming president will receive one of the spare footballs at the pre-inauguration nuclear briefing as well as a "biscuit" with codes that would become active at 12:00:00.
The football dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but its current usage came about in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when John F. Kennedy was concerned that a Soviet commander in Cuba might launch missiles without authorization from Moscow. Kennedy asked several questions related to the release of US nuclear weapons. These were:
An Associated Press article stated that the nickname "football" was derived from an attack plan codenamed "Dropkick". The nickname has led to some confusion as to the nature—and even the shape—of the device, as the leather bag or "jacket" in which it is carried appears large enough to contain an actual football.
During their presidencies, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan preferred to keep the launch codes in their jacket pockets. Among those who carried the football for Carter and Reagan was a future U.S. congressman, John Kline, who served as a colonel in the United States Marine Corps before representing Minnesota in the United States House of Representatives from 2003 to 2017.
The coded card (sometimes called the "nuclear biscuit") was separated from Ronald Reagan immediately after the 1981 assassination attempt against him, when his clothing was cut off by the emergency department trauma team. It was later discovered lying unsecured in one of his shoes on the emergency department floor. This led to an urban legend that Reagan carried the code in his sock. Reagan was separated from the rest of the football as well, because the officer who carried it was left behind as the motorcade sped away with the wounded president.
On occasion, the president has left his aide carrying the football behind. This happened to Nixon in 1973; after Nixon presented Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev with a Lincoln Continental at Camp David, Brezhnev unexpectedly drove with Nixon off the retreat onto a highway while leaving Nixon's Secret Service personnel behind, separating Nixon from the football (and his security detail) for nearly 30 minutes. Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have also been separated from the football.
As the football is required to be near the president at all times, the aides carrying it frequently appear in press photographs. In February 2017, a guest at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort posed for a photo with the military aide carrying the football, posting the image to Facebook and identifying the aide by his first name. The photo was posted while Trump was hosting Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, around the same time as news broke that North Korea had fired a nuclear-capable Pukkuksong-2 ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan. U.S. military officials clarified that it was neither illegal nor against proper procedure for the officer to appear in such a photo, although they admitted that the situation was strange.
On November 8, 2017, when President Trump made an official state visit to China, U.S. military aides carrying the football were reportedly involved in a "short scuffle" with Chinese security officials, after the latter tried to bar the former access to the Great Hall of the People auditorium. Political correspondent Jonathan Swan, who reported the incident, wrote "I’m told that at no point did the Chinese have the nuclear football in their possession or even touch the briefcase. I’m also told the head of the Chinese security detail apologised to the Americans afterwards for the misunderstanding."
On January 6, 2021, during the storming of the United States Capitol by rioters, security footage, displayed during the subsequent Trump impeachment trial, showed Vice President Mike Pence along with the aide carrying the backup football being hastily evacuated from the Senate chambers. While the Vice President was sheltering with his team and family, the football was within 100 feet (30 m) of the approaching rioters. Its capture during the event could have resulted in the loss of sensitive intelligence surrounding pre-planned nuclear strike options. It was later reported that military officials did not know about the danger that the football was in during the riot.
Following President Trump's failure to secure a second term, he did not attend President Biden's inauguration, when the football is normally handed over. Instead, Trump's football remained with him while a second one accompanied Biden. At the 12:00 PM EST transition time, the codes in Trump's and Pence's (who did attend the inauguration) football were deactivated, and those in Biden's and incoming Vice President Kamala Harris's were activated.
In February 2021, a group of 31 Congress members signed a letter requesting that President Biden give up sole authority to use the nuclear launch codes. The letter asked Biden "to install checks [and] balances in our nuclear command-and-control structure" and proposed alternatives to the existing command structure.
Goldwater–Nichols streamlined the military chain of command, which now runs from the president through the secretary of defense directly to combatant commanders (CCDRs, all four-star generals or admirals), bypassing the service chiefs. The service chiefs were assigned to an advisory role to the president and the secretary of defense and given the responsibility for training and equipping personnel for the unified combatant commands.