Retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has published a memoir, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior (2010). Shelton appeared on ABC's This Week on Sunday, and among other things complained about the Obama Administration's deadline for beginning withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. (Joshua Miller, Fmr. Top General: Afghanistan Deadline May Be 'A Bridge too Far'ABC News undated; 10/25/2010 ?)
David Hoffman in What's MissingForeign Policy 10/22/2010 calls attention to a scary, strange - and scarcely credible - claim Shelton makes in his book:
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, says in his just-published memoir, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, that President Bill Clinton’s White House lost the "presidential authorization codes" for launching a nuclear strike, and they were missing "for months." Shelton writes, "This is a big deal—a gargantuan deal -- and we dodged a silver bullet.”
Shelton says the system "failed" and asks "how in the hell could we have lost the codes and not known it?"
Hoffman points out that the story hardly makes any sense. And on the face of it is unlikely in the extreme. This seems to be a case of the General playing by the famous Clinton Rules: you can say whatever you want, as long as you say it about the Clintons.
Shelton leaves the impression that President Clinton went for months without the ability to order a nuclear strike in an emergency. Grim as it is, that is still a key part of American defense strategy. But:
It doesn't add up.
The president does not possess the actual codes to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons. What the president does carry (or an aide) is a small laminated card which is used to authenticate the president's identity in the event of an emergency. The cards contain date-time groups and alphanumeric codes in columns and rows, according to Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute who has written several books on nuclear command and control. In an emergency, a president would use this laminated card to verify that he is the commander in chief making decisions.
Is this the "code" that the Pentagon checker was looking for, and was somehow lost? Well, if Clinton misplaced one, or an aide did, then it would not have been difficult to replace -- immediately, not months later. The Defense Department was the custodian of the system. [my emphasis]
Would a former JCS Chairman be unaware that the President doesn't have the actual codes? If the card was what was supposedly missing, why did he not say that?
In addition to the laminated card, the president is also accompanied by a military aide carrying the "football," the briefcase which contains war plans and decision guides for a president in the event of an alert. The football is carried everywhere a president goes. It is a symbol, and a potent one, of the nuclear age. Shelton knows about the football, and describes it earlier in his book. Is this what he means by the lost codes? The device is a critical link in our system of command and control, is handled by a military aide, and if it were missing, I am certain it would have been noticed -- immediately, not months later.
So, what was actually lost? Shelton may have a story to tell here, but so far, it does not hold together. [my emphasis]
As Hoffman notes, even if it were the card rather than the codes that were missing, it would be a big deal. But why is a JCS Chairman making the claim of such a significant problem in a way that doesn't hang together?
Hoffman uses the report to remind us that we still have a long way to go in minimize and ultimately eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons in the world:
There is one lesson to be taken away from this, relevant today. Both Russia and the United States still keep nuclear-armed missiles poised on launch-ready alert. The land-based U.S. missiles can be launched within four minutes of an order from the president. Keeping missiles on such high alert may have provided an extra edge for deterrence in a time of intense superpower confrontation, but it is not needed today, nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War. Both countries should find a way to de-alert those land-based missiles, building in some kind of pause, say hours or days before the missiles could be launched, giving a president some extra time to avoid a mistake, such as a launch based on a false alarm. In a crisis, finding the president's authenticator card ought to be the least of his concerns.