The responsibilities beholden to the President of the United States are probably the most important and the most stressful of any job out there. As leader of the free world, the president has the power to execute, veto or enforce laws created by Congress, issue executive orders and offer pardons and clemency for federal crimes (via The White House). And while the duties of the president carry varying degrees of importance, there’s no responsibility more important than the care of the codes to launch a nuclear missile strike.
To launch a nuke strike, the president has to authorize the military to carry out the mission (via Atomic Heritage). Known as “Gold Codes” and printed on a plastic card affectionately referred to as “the biscuit,” these codes are used to authorize the launching of nuclear missiles. Whenever the president leaves the White House, a briefcase goes with him. Called the “nuclear football” (via Business Insider), the briefcase contains everything the president needs to authorize a nuclear strike, but that action can only be accessed using the Gold Codes. Beginning with President Eisenhower, the nuclear football has followed every president, no matter his destination.
At all times, the biscuit is meant to be carried on the president’s person, or that of one of his personal aides. It was a good plan that was successfully carried out until the late ’90s.
Losing the biscuit
During his second term, President Bill Clinton “misplaced” the nuclear codes. While the details of the actual timeline of events is very vague, sometime between the years of 1998 and 2000, Bill Clinton misplaced his biscuit, upon which the nuclear codes were printed (via ABC News). According to General Hugh Shelton, who served as chairman of Clinton’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nuclear codes went missing for months. Lt. Col Robert Patterson’s job was to guard the nuclear football during Clinton’s Presidency. In his 2004 book “Dereliction of Duty: Eyewitness Account of How Bill Clinton Compromised America’s National Security,” Patterson recounted the story: “He thought he just placed them upstairs. We called upstairs, we started a search around the White House for the codes, and he finally confessed that he in fact misplaced them. He couldn’t recall when he had last seen them.”
According to an account by General Shelton, posted at The History Reader, the loss was discovered during a routine check on the codes’ status. While some debate the veracity of both General Shelton and Lt. Col Patterson’s stories, with some believing an aide to the President actually lost the codes, it remains a fact that the leader of the free world didn’t have access to the nuclear codes for months. Once it was discovered the codes were missing, new codes were issued immediately, the system was updated, and a new biscuit was created. For whatever reason, the story never broke in the media. In a presidency rife with scandal, this story stayed under the radar.
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