The Department of Defense inspector general is reviewing the military’s plans for securing the “nuclear football” in an emergency.
The Pentagon watchdog is looking into 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,” according to a memo sent Monday.
The memo added that this review is also looking into “the adequacy of the procedures the DoD has developed to respond to such an event.”
The inspector general’s decision to review the security of the “nuclear football” follows the Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol, where the rioters came alarmingly close to the vice president and the military aide carrying his backup football. Video footage from the Capitol siege shows Pence being rushed out, with the emergency briefcase close behind.
Officially known as the president’s emergency satchel, the nuclear football is a mobile nuclear command-and-control asset that a president can use with other tools to wage nuclear war should such extreme action be deemed necessary.
The president, as the commander in chief of the US armed forces, has sole nuclear-strike authority, and the football follows him wherever he goes. A duplicate briefcase also accompanies the vice president, just as it did Mike Pence on Jan. 6., a grim reminder that the VP is second-in-command should the president die or be incapacitated.
During the riot at the Capitol, some of the rioters came within 100 feet of Pence, according tomultiple reports. Some were chanting “hang Mike Pence” in fury that the VP did not attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election and in turn drew criticism from then-President Donald Trump.
Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and an expert on the football, previously told Insider that the rioters, assuming they made it past Pence’s security detail, would not have been able to use the satchel.
That said, if they had somehow gotten their hands on it, it would have been a “massive and unprecedented security breach, disclosing some of the most sensitive and therefore highly classified information generated by the government,” he said.
He said that “a violent domestic insurrection was almost certainly not part of the DOD and Secret Service threat matrix until six months ago,” adding that “it’s the only recent known event putting the ‘football’ in significant potential danger to provoke this level of concern.”
Massachusetts Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, who serves as chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security, and Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, chairman of the Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, responded positively to news of the security review, which they requested in March in response to the Capitol riots.
“The insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, was not only an unprecedented attack on our democracy, but it also put our national security in grave danger,” they said in a statement.
The lawmakers added that “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 DOD OIG for accepting our request to initiate this evaluation.”
Wherever a US president goes, a military aide carrying a heavy black briefcase follows. The case is always close by, just in case the president needs to unleash the devastating and destructive power of the US nuclear arsenal while out of the White House.
The briefcase is officially known as the president’s emergency satchel, but it is more commonly called the “nuclear football” or simply the “football.” The case starts following the president the moment they take the oath of office.
One, the briefcase “is the physical representation of the presidential authority” to order the use of nuclear weaponry, Schwartz said. Two, it exists because “we’ve been afraid that a surprise nuclear attack could catch us off guard and preclude any sort of retaliation.”
Schwartz explained that the strategic thinking behind the “football” is that “if you have the ability for the president to act quickly, you can forestall that and therein deter that from ever happening.”
‘Atomic weapons in an emergency’
Born from Cold War fears that the Soviet Union might launch a surprise attack that could cripple the critical US nuclear capabilities were the president unable to launch an immediate retaliatory strike, the “nuclear football” has been around since the Eisenhower administration.
The “football” was invented by Capt. Edward “Ned” Beach, Jr., a submarine officer who served as a naval aide to Dwight Eisenhower during his presidency, according to a 1991 Newsweek article.
The bag has been handed off from presidency to presidency, and every incoming president since Eisenhower peacefully transferred power to John F. Kennedy has been briefed on their nuclear responsibilities and the “nuclear football” prior to or upon taking office.
The day before Kennedy’s inauguration, Army Brig. Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, a defense liaison to the president, and Eisenhower met with the president-elect and “showed Mr. Kennedy the ‘satchel’ and the book of emergency documents therein,” a memo from Jan. 25, 1961 reads.
The memo says that the general “also told him of the extra document … included in the satchel which would authorize the use of atomic weapons in an emergency.”
The first known photograph of the briefcase, which can be seen in the first black-and-white photo in the collection of “football” photos below, was taken on May 10, 1963, when Kennedy traveled to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts to meet the Canadian prime minister.
Army Maj. Gen. Chester Clifton was tasked with carrying the satchel that day, just months before the president’s life suddenly and violently ended in November 1963.
Nicknamed the ‘football’
It is unclear where exactly the nickname “football” came from, but one of the first known public appearances of this term was in a November 1965 article by Associated Press reporter Bob Horton on Kennedy’s death two years earlier and the transfer of the presidential nuclear command authority.
Horton wrote that as Kennedy was dying at a hospital in Dallas, Texas after being shot, Ira Gearhart, a US Army warrant officer, “sat outside in the lobby unobtrusively guarding a brown leather briefcase someone had nicknamed the ‘football.'”
When Kennedy died, the man “picked up the case and strode past the emergency room desk into a surgery suite where, behind drawn shades, sat Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson,” Horton wrote, explaining that “with those few steps came the first real, if not formal, transfer of power.”
Burr further explained that the only reference to “dropkick” that he has been able to find is in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. There were, however, real plans code-named “dropshot” and “offtackle,” the latter being a football term.
Regardless of where the nickname came from, it stuck, and people continue to call the briefcase the “football” today. That even includes the aides that carry the case and US presidents who might need to use it.
The aide with the briefcase is the president’s constant companion, not only at home, but also overseas as well. During the later years of the Cold War, the briefcase was photographed in Red Square in Moscow. It is one among many places the case has traveled.
Russian leaders are accompanied by a briefcase similar in function to the American “nuclear football.” The case, which is an important part of the command and control of Russia’s nuclear forces, is known as the “cheget” or more generally “chemodanchik.”
The Russian briefcase was created during the tense early 1980s, when the Soviets were becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of a US nuclear strike that would require immediate retaliation, according to a 1998 Washington Post report.
US and Russian leaders have talked about the possibility of eliminating the nuclear briefcases, though nothing has ever come of those discussions.
The issue was raised repeatedly during meetings between Bill Clinton and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, declassified confidential memos on the meetings show.
“Let us say we get rid of the nuclear footballs,” Yeltsin remarked during a 1994 meeting. Yeltsin said that it was “too much” to have a military aide “drag around one of these briefcases.” Clinton said he would need to think about it, telling Yeltsin he hadn’t given the matter any thought.
“I’ll have to think about this,” Clinton replied. “All we carry, of course, are the codes and the secure phone.”
There is a little bit more to the contents of the “football” than Clinton’s short response during that meeting suggests. Reports from military aides and others throughout its history have offered some insight into what is in the bag. The specifics are classified though.
‘Things in the Football’
Warren “Bill” Gulley, the former director of the White House Military Office that oversees the “nuclear football,” wrote in his 1980 book Breaking Cover that “there are four things in the Football.”
These things include “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 card with authentication codes.”
The briefcase is also suspected to contain communications tools because what appears to be an antenna is visible in some photos of the “football.”
The black book in the briefcase explains US nuclear war plans, previously called SIOPs but later renamed, and contains a collection of pre-approved preemptive or retaliatory strike options the president could choose from in an emergency.
A simplified summary of the nuclear war plans and strike options was added to the briefcase during the Carter administration at the request of the president, according to the AP.
The simplified summary has been described as somewhat cartoonish. A former military aide who carried the “football” said it is a little bit like “a Denny’s breakfast menu.”
Gulley, the AP reported, described the options as “Rare, Medium, or Well Done.” It is unclear if this remains unchanged.
The card with the authentication codes, which are not the same as the launch codes maintained by the US military, is known as the “biscuit,” and it is an important part of the process a president would go through to order a nuclear strike.
If the president decided to use nuclear weapons, the “football” would be opened, and the president would be presented with strike options. The commander in chief may choose to consult with senior advisors and military leaders before proceeding, but that is not a requirement.
Using the “biscuit,” the president would identify himself to a military official in the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, who would then receive and transmit strike orders once it was clear that the nuclear strike orders were coming from the commander in chief.
Within just a few minutes, nuclear weapons aboard strategic bombers or carried by land-based or submarine-launched missiles would be in the air.
While it may have once been carried inside the “football,” presidents later began carrying the “biscuit” on their person. That development has led to more than one alarming mishap.
‘Nothing going wrong’
Carter accidentally left his “biscuit” in a suit that he sent to the dry cleaner, the FBI took possession of Ronald Reagan’s card after agents seized his clothes at the hospital following an attempt on his life, and Clinton is said to have lost his card. It was missing for months before anyone knew.
Like the “biscuit,” the “football” has also been fumbled quite a few times.
During Gerald Ford’s presidency, the “football” was mistakenly left on Air Force One, and Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton all found themselves separated from the aide carrying the briefcase at one point or another.
None of these incidents “tremendously imperiled presidential command and control,” Schwartz told Insider, “but they do point out the fact that when you have one person in charge of all this, it does put a premium on everything working and nothing going wrong.”
During the Trump administration, there were at least two incidents involving the “nuclear football.”
Chinese security officials attempted to prevent the military aide carrying the satchel from following the president into the Great Hall of the People, setting off a series of events that ultimately led to a physical altercation between the Secret Service and Chinese security personnel, Axios reported at the time. Beijing apologized for the unpleasant exchange.
Just a few days after Biden took office, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote in an op-ed published by USA Today that “no president should have unilateral power to use nuclear weapons.”
The debate over the president’s authority to order the use of nuclear weapons has come and gone many times. It is unclear what decisions, if any, Biden will make on nuclear policy, but for the time being at least, wherever the president goes, the “nuclear football” will follow.