The nuclear football (has also been known as the atomic football, the President's Emergency Satchel, the satchel, the button, the Black Bag, 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 communicate and authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers, such as the White House Situation Room or the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. Functioning as a mobile hub in the strategic defense system of the United States, the football is carried by a military aide when the President is traveling.
In his 1980 book Breaking Cover, Bill Gulley, 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 Alert 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 the nuclear football with launch codes for nuclear weapons. A separate 2005 article described the football as a metal Zero Halliburton briefcase. Another 2005 article described it 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 US president (who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces) decides to order the use of nuclear weapons, 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 the launch of a single cruise missile to that of multiple ICBMs. These are among the 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 transmit the currently valid nuclear launch code to all operational nuclear delivery systems. A two-person verification procedure would precede the entering of the codes into 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, 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 the president is killed in an attack). This verification process ensures 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 executive 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. While it is commonly believed that only the president can order a nuclear strike, presidents have delegated this power to lower-level commanders, who, in some cases, were allowed to further delegate.
It has been 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; 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 is unlawful. Several military officials, including General John Hyten, have testified to the US Congress that they would refuse to carry out an unlawful order for a nuclear strike. Yet 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 if the president determined that it was in the national interest. In addition, 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. Furthermore, military servicemembers have been reprimanded in the past for questioning US protocols for nuclear strike authority, notably Major Harold Hering, who was discharged from the Air Force in late 1975 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 (one from each of the six armed forces service branches), whose work schedule is described by a top-secret rota. 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, on Marine One, or in the presidential motorcade with the president.
There are three nuclear footballs in all; two are allocated to the president and vice president, with the last being stored in the White House. The practice of also providing an aide with a football to the vice president, to whom command authority would devolve if the president is disabled, began during the Carter administration. In presidential transitions, the president-elect does not receive the actual nuclear code card until after the nuclear briefing, which usually occurs when "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". TV cameras often show the aide with the football shifting their gaze to the new president at that moment.
In the event 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 – one football is kept with him and remains active until 11:59:59 AM on inauguration day. After that point, the now-former president is denied access to the football, its codes are automatically deactivated, and the aide carrying the football returns to Washington, DC. In the meantime, the incoming president receives one of the spare footballs at the pre-inauguration nuclear briefing, as well as a "biscuit" with codes that become active at 12:00:00 PM.
In his 2017 book, Daniel Ellsberg described the nuclear football as primarily a piece of political theater, a hoax, to keep the public ignorant of the real problems of nuclear command and control. He explained that while working for the RAND Corporation in the 1950s, he pointed out that it was possible for pilots to bypass the entire code authentication process by simply opening the envelopes (against orders) and telling the rest of their squadron that they had received the code.
The nuclear football dates back to the last years of the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, when it became an instrument for White House emergency preparations and presidential control over nuclear weapons. The notion that a designated military aide should accompany a traveling president with a special satchel such purposes was the creation of White House naval aide Edward L. Beach Jr. On 19 January 1961, the day before his inauguration president-elect John F. Kennedy received a briefing from President Eisenhower and his staff secretary General Andrew Goodpaster on emergency procedures in the event of a nuclear crisis. Goodpaster described the contents of the "satchel," which plans for implementing Federal Emergency Plan D-Minus, and a document authorizing nuclear weapons use in a crisis. That was the Joint Chief of Staff Emergency Actions File, which included instructions for U.S. commanders to transfer nuclear weapons to NATO allies and arrangements to enable the President to participate in an emergency telephone conference with the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Goodpaster also showed Kennedy a booklet of instructions for military commanders providing advanced authorization (pre-delegation) for nuclear weapons use in the event that the President had not survived a nuclear attack and communications with Washington, D.C. were cut off.
During his administration President Kennedy routinized the satchel, which was known as the "black bag," but with the Berlin Crisis raising questions about a possible nuclear emergency, in January 1962 Kennedy discussed with White House Naval Aide, Tazewell Shepard, what procedures would be necessary for making a nuclear response during a military confrontation and how he would direct the Pentagon to do so. Shepard formulated questions that Kennedy could use during a meeting with the Joint Chiefs on methods for communicating and authenticating presidential instructions in a crisis. The questions concerned procedures for contacting the Joint War Room at the Pentagon in the event the president believed it necessary to "launch an immediate nuclear strike against the Communist Bloc." If the President used the "red button" on the telephone to contact the War Room what would he say to make such a request and how would the instructions be verified.
A record of the Kennedy-Joint Chiefs of Staff conference has not been disclosed, but according to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, one takeaway from the discussion was that the president expected to be able "to initiate, as well as participate in, an emergency conference with the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff." Bundy expected the Pentagon to cooperate by holding practice drills so that that War Room staff could handle a presidential request. Another administrative response may have been the inclusion in the "Black Bag" of a card, later known as the "Biscuit," with the codes needed to authorize launches of nuclear weapons. According to William Manchester's account, by the time of Kennedy's assassination, the "Black Bag" included such codes, as well as contact details for communicating with the British Prime Minister and the President of France in a nuclear crisis. It also included several dozen Emergency Action Papers, later known as Presidential Emergency Action Documents (PEADs), including proclamations for martial law.
A major component of the "Black Bag" was the "SIOP Execution Handbook," also known as the "Gold Book," with details on the Single Integrated Operational Plan attack options available to decision-makers. Kennedy had received several briefings on the SIOP, which acquainted him with its basic features. To protect such sensitive contents by November 1963, the "Black Bag" was a "thirty-pound metal suitcase with an intricate combination lock." There was some consideration during 1965 of finding ways to reduce the weight, apparently to no avail because recent accounts describe the weight as 45 pounds.
During the Eisenhower administration, Vice President Richard Nixon had an emergency satchel assigned to him. When Kennedy became president, one of the White House military aides sent a satchel to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, but his office returned it for unexplained reasons. According to JCS Chairman General Maxwell D. Taylor, Johnson knew about the satchel, but never received a briefing on it before he became president.
By the time of President Kennedy's assassination, if not earlier, the "Black Bag" was also becoming known as the "Football." General Chester Clifton stated in his 1986 interview that the term was used "jokingly", and he described how warrant officers, who were on a twenty-four hour schedule, would regularly hand-off the "black bag" to the next person. That routine could have inspired the football metaphor, which dovetailed with the Kennedy clan's penchant for touch football. Various sources claim, often mentioning Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as a source, that the term "football" was derived from a nuclear attack plan codenamed "Dropkick." When and where McNamara made such a statement has not been cited nor is there an original source for the "Dropkick" reference. That claim may have a fictitious premise because "Dropkick" appears distinctively in the film Dr. Strangelove when the character General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) informs President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) that the wayward B-52s headed to the Soviet Union "were part of a special exercise we were holding called Operation Dropkick."
As President Johnson possibly found stressful the presence of the military aide carrying the football, on one trip during his 1964 campaign, the aide flew on a separate plane. During 1965 Johnson discussed with Robert McNamara an arrangement to eliminate the "need for an aide to be in constant attendance upon him." Word of that proposal began to circulate in the media prompting White House aide Jack Valenti to deny that it had been under consideration. The newspaper article citing the denial, the syndicated "Allen-Scott Report," is perhaps the earliest public reference to the "football," quoting Valenti as saying that "The 'black bag' or 'football', as we call it, goes wherever the President travels."
As the football became a routine element of the presidential entourage some information about it appeared. A 1965 Baltimore Sun article reported on how the launch codes could be transmitted in a crisis and on the systems that were in place at the Pentagon to verify presidential orders. Public officials hosting presidents sometimes noticed an aide carrying the Football. When President Richard Nixon attended the ceremonial opening of the BART in September 1972, his hosts were aware of a "peculiar briefcase" carried by a U.S. Marines officer. Mishaps could occur. At Camp David in 1973, when Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev spontaneously drove off with Nixon in a Lincoln Continental that the President had given him, Nixon was separated from the Secret Service and presumably the bagman. One president may have been unwilling to accommodate the Football holder when traveling from the White House. Reportedly, Jimmy Carter refused to let the military aide stay in a trailer at his Plains residence, although Carter later denied the allegation.
When Jimmy Carter was president, he began to carry the "Biscuit" in a jacket pocket. Carter supposedly lost the card in a suit that went to the dry cleaner. The "biscuit" was separated from a severely wounded Ronald Reagan immediately after the 1981 assassination attempt when the George Washington University hospital emergency department trauma team cut into his clothing. It was later discovered lying unsecured in one of his shoes on the emergency department floor. During the incident, 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.
As the nuclear 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 Pukguksong-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 conceded that the situation was strange.
On November 8, 2017, when President Trump made a 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 chamber. While the vice president was sheltering with his team and family, the football came 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 were unaware of the danger to the football 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 exact 12:00 PM EST transition time, the codes in Trump's and Pence's (who did attend the inauguration) footballs 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 structure.
The 1986 Goldwater–Nichols Act 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 in the unified combatant commands.
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