War Stories

How Close Did the Capitol Rioters Get to the Nuclear “Football”?

The video of Mike Pence shown during the impeachment revealed something startling about the nuclear chain of command.

Photo illustration by Slate. Capitol security footage via NBC News.

Among the many startling videos shown at Wednesday’s impeachment trial documenting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, there was one clip that was so brief, subtle, and beside the immediate point that the House managers didn’t highlight it—but it was nevertheless hugely enlightening. It revealed that, like the president, the vice president is routinely escorted by a military aide who carries a satchel containing the codes that allow him to launch a nuclear attack.

The pertinent clip shows Vice President Mike Pence and his family being rushed out of the Capitol to escape the rioters, who, it turns out, were determined to kill him for certifying the Electoral College votes and thus betraying Donald Trump. Following Pence was an Air Force officer carrying two bags, one of which looked a lot like the nuclear satchel, also known as the Football or the Black Bag.

Two questions emerge from this footage: Did Pence have the authority to launch nuclear weapons? (Simple answer: No, not unless the president was disabled.) More shuddering, what would have happened if the mob had caught up with Pence, as they apparently came close to doing, and seized the Football? Could they have unleashed mischief or catastrophe? That’s more complicated.

Advertisement

First, though, a confession: On Wednesday night, when a few observant souls on Twitter wondered whether the satchel was in fact the nuclear satchel, I dismissed the theory, expressing doubt that vice presidents had one. To make sure, I emailed a few former senior officials who had handled nuclear matters, who replied that if the vice president had his own Football, that would be news to them.

But now, after further research and talking with other former officials who were in (or close to) the nuclear chain of command, I have learned—to my surprise, since I’ve been studying nuclear issues for a few decades—that the vice president does move with his own Football.

This practice began with President Jimmy Carter, who, for all his moral loathing of nuclear weapons, immersed himself more deeply in nuclear war plans than any other president. He was the first president to play himself in an official nuclear war simulation (before and since, the president has been played by a Cabinet secretary). He was also the first to bring the vice president into every nuclear exercise and drill. He told me, in an interview for my book The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, that, given the topic’s enormity, he was appalled when he learned that no previous president had bothered to do either.

Advertisement

According to a history of the Football compiled by the National Security Archive, President Dwight Eisenhower also briefly gave Vice President Richard Nixon a satchel while either of the two was traveling. This was after Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, which raised fears that if he died in office and Nixon was out of town, no one would have the authority to respond quickly to a Soviet attack.

This was the impulse behind the original decision to design the Football and to keep it close to the president at all times. If the Soviets launched a missile attack, the president would have 30 minutes to decide whether and how to retaliate. There would be no time to rush some officer down to the White House to help out. It was also the impulse behind the decision, later on, to keep a backup Football close to the vice president too—in case the president was incapacitated.

President John Kennedy did not share a backup satchel with Vice President Lyndon Johnson. (The first time LBJ saw one was in Dallas, just after JFK was assassinated.) Nor did Nixon give a Football to Vice President Spiro Agnew. But I’m told by four former officials who have had access to classified material on the topic or who witnessed the practice themselves that vice presidents now have the Football nearby routinely.

Advertisement

During some administrations, a military aide with a Football accompanied the vice president only on out-of-town trips. But a former White House official told me that a military aide with a satchel was always close to Joe Biden when he was Barack Obama’s vice president. Presumably (though nobody has told me this), a military aide carries a satchel close to Kamala Harris too.

(By the way, during the rioting, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was rushed out of the Capitol to a secure location, while Pence was still locked inside. Pelosi is No. 3 in the chain of succession for commander in chief. Does she have a backup Football stored someplace as well? Given the logic of nuclear command and control, why wouldn’t she?)

So back to our original questions: Could a vice president use the football to launch nukes independently? And what is the significance that Pence and his Football-toting military aide barely escaped the rioting mob on Jan. 6?

As for the prospect of a rogue veep, there’s probably nothing to worry about. It’s worth noting what’s in the satchel. Contrary to popular culture, there is no “button” to push, nor is there an indented surface that matches the president’s (or vice president’s) palm. What’s actually in the satchel—which is said to weigh 45 pounds—is a card (sometimes called the “biscuit”) citing phone numbers to call and a passcode that authenticates the identity of the caller, some encrypted communication gear to make the call, and a book describing all of the preapproved nuclear attack options and how the president would go about ordering each one. This book used to be a rather heavy tome called the SIOP Execution Handbook (the SIOP, standing for Single Integrated Operational Plan, is the nuclear war plan) or, at various times, the Gold Book or the Black Book. When Carter first leafed through the book, he told the officers who supplied it, “I’m pretty smart, and I don’t understand any of this.” So the operations division of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff condensed the complicated book into a stack of laminated cards (“like a menu at Wendy’s,” as one officer described them) inscribed in very clear language.

Advertisement

To launch a nuclear attack, the president (or the vice president) would transmit the coded message to a one-star general and his staff in the National Military Command Center, located on the Pentagon’s ground floor, who would in turn pass the order on to the missile and bomber crews, who would launch the attack. That’s it. There is no red button, but there are also no other officials involved in the chain of command. (Other officials are supposed to consult and confer, but they don’t have the ultimate say.)

If the vice president ordered an attack (something that the officer carrying the Football would have to allow), the officers in the Pentagon would know whether the authentication code belonged to the president or the vice president. They would also know whether the president was still alive and in command. If he was, they would know that the vice president’s order was not legitimate.

What about the mob? What could they do, had they grabbed the Football? First, it’s very unlikely that they could have grabbed it. The Secret Service agents around Pence would almost certainly meet any such attempt with deadly force. There would have been a dozen or more dead rioters scattered on the bloodied floor near the staircase where Pence, his family, and his entourage had gathered. If the mob’s survivors kept mauling and overpowering Pence and the others, they might not have thought to grab the Football, which is locked in a metal case tucked inside an ordinary-looking satchel. Even if they had grabbed the satchel, bashed the lock, and opened the case, they wouldn’t have known what to do with the stuff inside. Had they figured it out, the officers in the Pentagon would have known the signals were coming from an unauthorized source.

Advertisement

Could the mob have taken the Football and sold it to the Russians or some other adversary? It would be worth millions of dollars. Despite the militias’ self-image as “patriots,” it’s not out of the question. According to a U.S. District Court affidavit, Riley June Williams, the Pennsylvania woman accused of breaching the Capitol and stealing Pelosi’s laptop on Jan. 6, intended to give the computer “to a friend in Russia, who then planned to sell the device to SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.”

Whatever might have happened if the mob had caught up with Pence, we all escaped a disaster scene, almost certainly a bloodbath, and possibly a national security compromise by a much closer margin than we have known.

The event might also spark some questions about whether the Football should be retired. First, does it need to be so enormous and thus so conspicuous a target in some future terrorist attack? As John Pike, president of GlobalSecurity.org, a national-security research firm, told me in an email, “surely Moore’s law has shrunk the size of the electronics” needed to transmit secure encrypted messages.

Second, is the Football needed, period? In a since-declassified 1997 phone call between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton, Yeltsin proposed that they both “get rid of the nuclear Football.” (The Russians had, and still have, one too.) Clinton resisted, noting its “symbolic value,” clearly denoting civilian authority over the ultimate weapon. But not every president has cared so much about the symbolism. According to the National Security Archive history, Lyndon Johnson didn’t want a military aide, or anyone else, following him around everywhere. So the Pentagon compromised by ensuring that the White House Communications Agency remained in constant touch with the president—and arrangements were made so that the location of the vice president and the House Speaker could be known at all times as well. Even with the Football, these arrangements—which have since been expanded to include several Cabinet secretaries—remain in place today.

The nuclear bomb may be out of mind for many people in the post–Cold War era, but it is never out of sight—and its loaded trigger is constantly a mere few steps away from the one person with sole authority to destroy the planet.


Update Consent

Already a subscriber? Sign in here.

Already a member? Sign in here.

Subscribe Now