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Always in the Last Place You Look…

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This could potentially have been a sitcom-worthy awkward situation. Tom Ricks and Hugh Shelton’s memoirs:

First, he reports, a bit mysteriously, that late in the Clinton administration, the president’s authorization codes to use nuclear weapons strike were lost. He doesn’t really explain what happened or who knew about it, except that the guy who was supposed to make sure once a month that an aide to the president had the codes kept getting the runaround, and putting up with it. It turned out that an aide to the president had misplaced the codes, and had no idea where they were. The situation only came to light when it was time to collect the old codes and replace them with new ones, and the aide apparently confessed. Shelton tells the story a bit oddly — I had to read this section a few times. I am guessing that the story is about the nuclear “football” that a military aide carries. It made me wonder what happened to that aide. Also, what would have happened if the president had decided to launch a nuclear strike? (392-393)

What happens to you after you lose the nuclear launch codes? I appreciate that a President doesn’t need them often, but they seem like the sort of thing that’s really, really important to have on hand.

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  • The Pale Scot

    I have a hard time believing this.I thought the football is in the possession of a military officer. I’m sure there are protocols up the wazoo to authenticate the ID of the guy with the suitcase while transferring it. And he/she is not part of the administration.
    according to wiki

    But this did happen: “On occasion the President has left his aide carrying the football behind. This happened to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush[8] and, most recently, Bill Clinton

    The military didn’t like clinton at all a with all attempts to discredit him going on I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t have been leaked in real time.

  • Warren Terra

    In terms of contemplating whether the responsible people really would unleash nuclear armageddon, I’ve been fascinated by a story about the British. Our cousins have a small submarine-based nuclear deterrent, and apparently one job of the new prime minister is to write, by hand, a letter to the captain of each missile submarine, to be placed in their safe, explaining what the PM thinks the captain should do if there’s a nuclear war and the captain can’t contact higher authority. When the PM steps down, the letters are collected, still unopened, and destroyed. A knowledgeable source apparently revealed that one PM’s letter basically said that it would be immoral ever to actually launch the weapons – a letter created as a tool for the PM to posthumously ask the submarine to avenge London said it wasn’t worth it. Or at least that’s the possibly self-serving claim, decades later.

    • NonyNony

      Jeebus. I can just imagine being the PM trying to write that letter.

      “Well, if you’re reading this, it must mean that the unthinkable has happened and you’re still alive. You poor bastard.”

      I think it would go downhill from there…

      • ajay

        One option is, supposedly, “sail to Australia and put yourself at the disposal of the Royal Australian Navy”, which has a rather On the Beach feel to it.

  • Steve H in SLC

    “This could potentially have been a sitcom-worthy awkward situation.”

    I’m thinking Yes, Prime Minister.

  • Alan Tomlinson

    I suspect I’m in a tiny minority here(I’d love to be wrong) when I say that I can think of no constructive reason whatsoever for launching a nuclear weapon. I’m sure many will accuse me of a. lying, b. naivete, c. being stupid, etc. I don’t believe that I suffer those faults; I simply think revenge is asinine.

    If Clinton didn’t have launch codes for a bit, I’m fine with that. Nuclear weapons are designed to do one of two things: end the world as we know it, or rust. I think there are better uses for limited resources.

    Cheers,

    Alan Tomlinson

    • Murc

      I’d like to agree with what Alan said, with the caveat that there’s value in other people THINKING you’d be willing to okay a launch. If Hypothetical Me had been in charge during the Cold War, I would not have seen the value in obliterating a ton of Russian civilians in an act of revenge, but I sure as hell wouldn’t have let them KNOW that lest they decide that now’s the perfect time for a demonstration strike.

    • dave

      You don’t need a constructive reason, just a destructive one…

  • I thought the codes were permanently set to POE EOP

  • Pingback: Three for Friday « Gerry Canavan()

  • cpinva

    the fact that you don’t know, should be kind of a clue:

    It made me wonder what happened to that aide.

    he never got a star, and probably enjoys sitting at a desk, somewhere in the arctic circle.

    • cleter

      I like to think he was the guy in charge of the pallets full of $100 bills that disappeared in Iraq.

  • LosGatosCA

    Don’t believe everything you read.

  • steverino

    I agree with the Pale Scot. While in the Navy, just turning over a .45 with a couple clips of ammo was a check-each-round-and-sign procedure. I was also an authorized CMS custodian– I forget what that stands for but I helped with the destruction of the superseded TS navigation/launch tapes on my SSBN (punched tapes– my old SSBN). It was a formal affair, to say the least. And a major PITA, cutting into my precious rack-time.

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