Hell in a Handbasket

It looks like an average briefcase, except that it’s made of titanium, carried by a military officer with a license to kill, and holds the launch orders for Armageddon. It’s the nuclear football.

Maxim, Jan 2001 By Colonel David H. Hackworth, U.S. Army (Ret.)


Where the hell was the president? The military aide frowned. Cuffed to his wrist was the nuclear football, but the quarterback was nowhere in sight. The orders were burned in the aide’s brain. Don’t get out of the president’s protective envelope. Yeah, Roger that. But what do you do if the commander in chief changes the game plan?

Just moments earlier on this morning of April 24, 1999, President Clinton had been closeted in the International Trade Center in downtown Washington, D.C., with the cream of NATO. The aide had stood nearby, all but unnoticed in the cavernous atrium. All was going well, until the president decided to make an unscheduled early departure. He piled into his limo, and the motorcade tore off for the White House. One man didn’t scramble fast enough. For just a second, the officer stood there on the sidewalk, dumbstruck. Then, in spite of the official plan-call for backup-the officer did what any normal man might do. He pushed the panic button and took off on foot through the streets of high-crime D.C., where muggers and guns are a dime a dozen and armed robbery is a blood sport. He hotfooted it across town, sweat soaking through his shirt, the paranoia oozing out of every pore. His mind raced. Who’s that son of a bitch crossing against the light? Is he scoping the football? If he gets any closer, do I grease him? It was just a paper pusher admiring the bag. The officer forced himself to calm down. It was his job to be suspicious, but now he had to concentrate on getting the football home. Hey, why not hail a cab? Jesus. What am I thinking? The guy behind the wheel looks like Osama bin Laden! Finally, at the White House main security gate 20 minutes later, the guard blanched and quickly waved him through. He knew that if anyone found out, the aide’s ass was grass.

But the word was already out. White House press secretary Joe Lockhart quickly tried to do damage control, telling reporters, “These things happen. We’re safe.” They do-and we’re not. This story isn’t made up. After Bill Clinton ditched out of the NATO meeting, it took the ballcarrier nearly half an hour to catch up with the commander in chief. As it happens, the chances of a nuclear strike being launched against the U.S. during that time were virtually nonexistent. But in the game of nuclear football, there is a zero margin for error. As it also happens, it would take just ten minutes for a Russian sub in the Atlantic to launch a strike that would transform the nation’s capital into a radioactive crater. For the next 250,000 years. MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION “The Cold War isn’t over in the nuclear business,” says Gene Carroll, a retired admiral and nuclear analyst at the Center for Defense Information in D.C. Despite the death of the Evil Empire, despite the fact that the best strategic thinkers all say it’s nuts, the U.S. and the Russians still have thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other’s head and belly. The centerpiece of this nightmare is the nuclear football, a.k.a. the Presidential Emergency Satchel. Inside this innocuous-looking satchel are attack plans to destroy Russia, China, and other peripheral enemies of the U.S.-a playbook for doomsday and all the codes the president needs to order the kickoff.

It all started back in the years after World War II, when the United States had only a handful of atomic bombs, all under the control of the Air Force. The boys in blue were more than a bit arrogant about their mission. To rein in intramural rivalry among the military services for control of our nukes, President Eisenhower created the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff and charged it with developing a centralized command system for all nuclear targeting. Out of this era of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) came the Single Integrated Operations Plan-a streamlined, etched-in-stone launch protocol. The code word for the first SIOP was Dropkick, and in this high-stakes game, where the toe met the leather you had to have a football. THE DEADLIEST PIGSKIN To look at it, you’d never think the football could work so much destruction. At first it seems to be just another lawyer’s briefcase-black leather, measuring about 18 by 15 by 10 inches and secured with a hefty combination lock. But beneath the outer skin is an impenetrable titanium case. And attached to its handle is a quick-release security wristlet worn by a soldier, sailor, flier, or Marine armed with an M9 Beretta 9 mm pistol and a license to kill anyone crazy enough to make a grab for it. Current ballcarriers handpick their successors from a pool of top officers, who are then approved by the White House. The recruits must sign a secrecy agreement, and they report to the White House Military Office. Five aides, one from each of the armed services and one from the Coast Guard, work in shifts and are responsible for the satchel at all times. Retired Marine colonel Pete Metzger carried the ball at the height of the Cold War. He was a major back then, and while on duty Metzger ate, went to the can, and slept with that thing right next to him. To protect it, he had a hidden holster pocket sewn inside his uniform. “It’s like this,” he says. “If you stand next to the president with a loaded weapon, you want to make sure you have your act together.” When Metzger was hauling the ball around Europe, China, and every state in the union, he worked out a standard response for the pests who couldn’t resist coming up and asking, “What’s in that thing?” His answer: “A Playboy and a tuna fish sandwich.” A NATIONAL SECRET What’s really in the briefcase? Metzger, a true Cold Warrior, refuses to discuss the contents or any other related national security aspects of the football. But from other sources we’ve determined that the football contains four nasty little puppies. The first is the SIOP Decision Handbook. It’s a series of flip charts laying out various ways to launch nuclear first strikes or retaliatory actions. The book runs to about 30 pages and is constantly revised and updated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The directions, short and unmistakable, are printed in red ink by a classified press in the Pentagon and illustrated with simple cartoons for quick and easy understanding. Call it World War III for Dummies.

The second item in the satchel is a list of classified secure bunkers where the president can go during a nuclear attack. The third is a communications booklet-instructions on how to contact military leaders and access civilian broadcasting networks during an emergency. The fourth item is a package sealed in foil. Inside it, doubly sealed within a plastic strip, is a device called an Authorizing Tablet. When the president cracks it open, he can see the authorizing codes written out in letters and numbers and give the orders to launch. Protruding from the top of the current briefcase is what appears to be a seven-inch-long black antenna. Experts speculate it may support a wireless laptop or be a part of an explosive fail-safe device that could be detonated remotely. If someone in Mother Russia loses his mind and pushes the button, the president has only moments to react. “His decision is whether to use ’em or lose ’em,” says a retired Marine colonel who pulled duty in the Pentagon’s War Room. If he decides to cut loose, he’ll issue an EAM (Emergency Action Message) through the War Room. That’s the dreaded fire-when-ready order sent to the launch sites. Then it’s just two twists of the keys and the bad guys are radiated toast. So, of course, are we. So is the planet. KEEPING AN EYE ON THE BALL Oddly enough, American presidents have shown little interest in the football. Upon taking office, each new commander in chief is supposed to receive a 15-minute chalk talk on how to use it. But Bill Gulley, director of the White House Military Office for every president from JFK to Reagan, has written that none of them ever asked for or received a follow-up briefing. This neglect places awesome responsibility on the officers who carry and protect the ball. They’re the ones with the combination to the lock, the ones who take out the Handbook, fold it to the right charts, and place it in the president’s hand when it’s time to go ballistic. “If the guy with the football had a heart attack or got shot on the way to the president, they’d have to blow the goddamn thing open,” observed Gulley. President Kennedy never paid much attention to the football. Even during the Cuban missile crisis he never considered reaching for the briefcase. After LBJ took office, Bill Gulley took a peek around and found that no one had updated the authenticator codes for six months. The missing stuff was found in the White House basement.

Years later Gulley wrote, “If the balloon ever went up, it would be pure pandemonium.” For every president from JFK on, there seems to be at least one horror story involving the football. During the final days of Watergate, when Nixon was drinking hard and wandering the White House at night talking to the pictures on the walls, there were stories that the chief of staff and the secretary of defense had taken away his football. That wasn’t true. Al Haig and James Schlesinger were able to exercise nuclear control throughout the Watergate crisis not because they had recovered the football but because they could dominate the MAC-the conference call ordering a strike. When Gerald Ford took over, he flew off to Paris for a summit and left his ballcarrier aboard Air Force One. Two years later, Ford’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, turned up to give Jimmy Carter his briefing. When Scowcroft opened the football, he found a condom and an empty can of beer inside. Someone had planted them there as a practical joke. In 1980, Jimmy Carter issued controversial Presidential Directive 59, which stated that in the event of a nuclear war, the U.S. would aggressively target Soviet political leaders and mobile missile forces. However, during his down-home retreats, Carter refused to let the Pentagon house the football carrier on his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia. The aide had to bed down 10 miles away. Jimmy dodged a calamity when he once left his authenticator ID in the pocket of a suit. It went to the dry cleaner. Ronald Reagan lost his ID, too, but it wasn’t his fault. When he was shot, it disappeared into an FBI evidence bag along with his pants. Pete Metzger picked up the ball four months later. He says that in contrast to Carter, Reagan welcomed a DOD trailer on his Santa Barbara ranch. Metzger had custom-made saddlebags to carry the football and weapons so he could keep up when the Gipper went for a ride.

In D.C., Pete and the doctor were always close to him, which rankled some of the bigger egos. But when they beefed to chief of staff James Baker, he’d say, “Unless you can do what those two guys can do, they get in the elevator first. You take the next one up.” Mike Deaver, Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, taught Metzger the kind of lesson that would have helped Clinton’s aide avoid the fumble last spring: “Always stand between the president and his transportation,” he said. “It’s waiting for him, not you. When his rear end hits the seat, it goes-limo, chopper, Air Force One-it goes, and you better be there.” Metzger followed the advice and never lost his man or the ball. The Navy commander who took his place during the Bush administration wasn’t so lucky. After a hot tennis match in Los Angeles one day, President Bush took off with his racket but not the football. It took the Navy pigskin carrier 15 minutes of hightailing it to hook up with him on Sunset Boulevard. TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT A while back I made a count of the times we came close to using the football. Between the end of World War II and the Reagan administration, we escalated toward the brink of nuclear use no fewer than 24 times. On one of those occasions, the brigadier general of the War Room came on duty, looked up on the screens and saw what he thought was a full Russian attack. He threw us into DEFCON 4, grabbed the red phone, and called the White House for the football and QB. Then an old sergeant walked in, said, “What the fuck’s going on?” and flicked off the video machines that were running the training tapes simulating an attack. That’s how close it can get. The more missiles we have and people we have running them, the greater the likelihood of a miscalculation, accident, or act of twin madmen. But if the new president and Congress would only sit down and review the instant replays of all we now know about the nuclear football, maybe we could work up a better game plan.