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Flashback: Bill Clinton once lost the nuclear codes as president
Hayden Schiff / CCL
When President Donald Trump warned North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un from Twitter this week that, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”, he wasn’t lying. The U.S. is estimated to have some 6,800 extremely reliable and devastatingly accurate nuclear warheads that may be launched in a matter of moments to strike anywhere in the world.
However, all of this apocalyptic firepower does the world’s most technologically advanced nuclear power no good if the “nuclear button” won’t work or — heaven forbid — someone loses it. That is precisely the boneheaded mistake that occurred in early 2000 when President Bill Clinton did the unthinkable and lost the nuclear launch codes required to authorize a nuclear strike, leaving the U.S. open to complete annihilation.
Lost and found
Details of the atomic blunder were first exposed in a book by Gen. Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for three years during the Clinton presidency. According to Shelton, the commander-in-chief lost control of the critical key codes for more than a few hours, allowing months to pass before taking corrective action.
Rather than report the transgression and resume control, Clinton stalled concerned military officials and assured them that nothing was amiss. Years later, Shelton was still grappling with this oversight. “How the hell could we have lost the nuclear codes and not known it?” the four-star general wrote.
Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic described the complicated process required to initiate a nuclear launch in a 2010 article responding to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ allegations, citing a military official with knowledge of the procedure:
Let’s say that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) detects an inbound air warning; the NMCC immediately calls the Sit Room or the military aide, which plugs in the President, who then provides an alpha-numeric code to verify his identity. Once verified, the President can (to invoke ICBM language) execute or terminate sorties. The military aide–known as the Milaide–goes everywhere with the President. Even when the President travels in a hotel elevator, the Milaide (and the president’s doctor) accompany him.
When a Pentagon official made a routine visit to the White House in 2000 to verify the launch codes, an aide reported that Clinton “has them personally,” before disappearing to retrieve them. However, the staffer returned empty-handed, explaining that the president was “in an urgent meeting and could not be disturbed,” before assuring the inspector that Clinton took the codes “very seriously.”
The Pentagon returned one month later for the same purpose, only to be rebuffed once again. “Sorry, President Clinton is in a meeting but he takes the codes very seriously and has them on his person – all is great with the codes,” officials were assured.
It wasn’t until the codes needed to be replaced that the Pentagon learned that Clinton had no idea where the extremely sensitive launch codes were located. Shelton remembered the panic that descended upon the Pentagon after military leaders learned that the Clinton White House had compromised national security for so long. The general wrote:
“This is a big deal – a gargantuan deal – and we dodged a silver bullet. You may look at it and say ‘Well nothing happened’ and that’s true – but it could have.”
Policies were revised and new standards were implemented to prevent a similar scenario from reoccurring. Inspectors were given the authority to demand that the code be produced within a certain time frame so that a recklessly negligent president could never compromise America’s safety again.
Dodging a silver bullet
Clinton’s supersized faux pas occurred during a period of extreme risk for America. While North Korea’s nuclear program was just in its infancy, the fall of the Soviet Union shocked the world less than a decade earlier, and national security experts worried about the denuclearization of former Soviet states.
Although every former Soviet satellite officially returned their newfound nuclear arsenals to Moscow by 1994, U.S. energy officials were aware that after the dissolution of the communist empire, the virgin Russian government was in chaos and could not properly account for their nuclear arsenal. During the months that Clinton could not account for the launch codes, only 40 percent of 90 Russian facilities containing weapons-grade nuclear material were secured.
U.S. officials returned from Russia with stories of plutonium being stored in milk buckets or behind doors secured with a single padlock. In an unguarded building in the middle of a Moscow suburb, arms inspectors found 160 pounds of weapons-grade uranium stored inside a set of flimsy aluminum lockers, illustrating just how susceptible the world was at the time to an unauthorized transfer of nuclear material to a rogue regime.
Although there are redundancies in place that allow military officials to seek an alternative in the event that the president is detained during a nuclear emergency, Ambinder argued that doing so costs the military precious minutes.
“So Al Gore gets ‘the call’ because Clinton can’t properly ID himself,” Ambinder imagined. “Gore is confused, lives in Washington, knows the President is fine. He tells NORAD to hold while he tracks down the President, who can’t verify his own identify anyway. Precious minutes (and I do mean precious, seconds count in the nuke business) are lost while civilian and military leadership sort things out.”
During a period of great nuclear uncertainty, Clinton left America open and unresponsive to a nuclear attack. This is a gross violation of the president’s basic duty to protect America from the gravest threat humankind has ever known.
While the mainstream media have unanimously lapped up the brinkmanship theater on display from Kim Jong Un and President Trump, at least the current U.S. president respects the awesome responsibility of nuclear supremacy enough to ensure that it works.
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