Did President Clinton or One of His Aides Lose the Nuclear Codes?

Posted on October 21, 2010
By Gen. Hugh Shelton

Media outlets have reported an account from Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, about the president’s aide losing the nuclear codes (the biscuit).

They’ve also reported statements from Ret. Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Patterson, saying that it was Clinton who lost the codes.

It’s possible that it was the same incident. Patterson’s account spans a short period of time, whereas my guys were put off for months, so I talk about that period within the book. End of the day, it is the aide’s responsibility to make sure the President has the biscuit.


So what happened, and how in the hell could we have lost the codes and not known it?

Even in our post-Cold War environment, the safeguards that go into insuring the integrity of our nuclear command and control systems are mindboggling, and it’s all designed so that only our National Command Authority—the President and the Secretary of Defense or their duly deputized alternates or successors—have the ability to launch a nuclear strike, be it offensive or defensive.

The number of redundancies is staggering, and the entire operation is the ultimate responsibility of the Chairman.  Besides the NMCC from which the DDO transmits the emergency action message that initiates the missile launch process, there are backup sites, and backups for the backups—some underground, others airborne.  There’s “Looking Glass”, the E6-B (modified 707) command and control backup to USSTRATCOM’s Global Operations Center, which used to remain aloft 24/7, but still remains on constant “strip alert”—with crews ready at a moment’s notice to sprint to the cockpit and take off; and TACAMO, an E-6 airborne system capable of retransmitting emergency action messages completely encrypted on virtually any frequency.

The reason I mention the multitude of redundancy is because they are all dependent on one vital element without which there can be no launch; it’s the one piece of the puzzle that is in essence the nuclear “deal-breaker”, and that’s the Presidential authorization codes.  Without those, it doesn’t matter if we’ve got a thousand missiles verified inbound to the United States, we would be unable to launch a retaliatory strike.  If our survival depended on launching a preemptive strike, without the President having those authorization codes, such a strike would be impossible.  That’s how crucial it is to maintain the integrity of those nuclear authorization codes—which are to remain within very close proximity to the President at all times.   In the case of a change in administration, the incoming President actually receives the codes shortly before he assumes office.  Prior to his inauguration, he is already briefed and has already received his set of codes, so there is never even a one second lapse after the inauguration.  I get into all this in great detail in Without Hesitation.

Even though movies may show the President wearing these codes around his neck, it’s pretty standard that they are safeguarded by one of his aides, but that aide sticks with him like glue—and it’s a position of extreme responsibility.

Shelton and Clinton in the Oval Office

Shelton and Clinton in the Oval Office

There’s an entire department within the Department of Defense that handles all elements of the nuclear process, including creating the codes, safeguarding them, keeping them current, and making sure they are where they’re supposed to be. That last part of the process is done by an individual whose responsibility it is to go to the White House every thirty days and physically view the codes to ensure that they are the correct, most current set; then, every four months he replaces them with an entirely new set.

At one point around the year 2000, this individual came back from the White House and reported that the President’s aide said neither he nor the President had the codes—they had completely disappeared. Within minutes we issued replacement codes and implemented them throughout the system. But then an investigation was launched to determine what had happened and how long the codes had been missing.

Turns out that the individual whose job it was to verify the codes had gone to the White House as he was supposed to, approached the aides, and asked to see the codes for verification. The aide told him, “No problem, President Clinton has them personally, but if you’ll wait here, I’ll be right back with them.” He came back a minute later and said that the President was in an urgent meeting and could not be disturbed, but he assured him that the President took the codes very seriously and kept them close at hand. The guy was not thrilled, but he wasn’t going to barge into the President’s meeting, so he said, “Okay, we’ll just check them next month.” But the following month, that individual was off, and it was another code checker who went in, and he heard the same thing: “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.” This comedy of errors went on, without President Clinton’s knowledge I’m sure, until it was finally time to collect the current set and replace them with the new edition. At this point we learned that the aide had no idea where the old ones were, because they had been missing for months. The President never did have them, but he assumed, I’m sure, that the aide had them like he was supposed to.

When I heard this, I flew up the escalator to the SecDef’s office and told him, “You are not going to believe this . . .” We were both terrified that we might open up The Washington Post the next day to find the front-page headline, “President Loses Key to Nukes—Launches Impossible!” It was exactly the type of event in Washington that provides the opposing party ammunition for attacking the other and diverts attention from other, more pressing items of governance. Both Secretary Cohen and I were determined to fix the error immediately (in truth it had already been “fixed” by issuing the current edition of codes) but, more important, also to fix the system that had allowed this to happen.

Fortunately, that story never broke. We learned a great lesson and changed the whole process, so that now they do have to physically see the codes, like they should have before. If the President is tied up in a meeting with another head of state and can’t be disturbed at the moment, that’s no problem—the checker’s new instructions are to wait until he can physically see the codes—no exceptions allowed. You do whatever you can and think you have an infallible system, but somehow someone always seems to find a way to screw it up.

GEN. HUGH SHELTON served two terms as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Shelton was the chief architect of the military response to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

As one of the nation’s elite Special Forces soldiers, Shelton served twice in Vietnam, commanding a Green Beret unit and then an airborne infantry company. He was awarded a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for a wound suffered when a booby trap drove a poisoned stake through his leg.  Shelton rose up the ranks and was assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne Division as they invaded Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, then led the 20,000 American troops tasked with restoring Haiti’s deposed President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power. Promoted to 4-star General, he became Commander in Chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (including Delta Force, Navy SEALS and other top secret Special Mission Units). He is a Congressional Gold Medal recipient and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Shelton’s memoir Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior (with Ron Levinson and Malcolm McConnell) chronicles the general’s incredible journey from a small farming community in North Carolina to the highest level of American military and political power at the Pentagon and White House.