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Former military aide who carried ‘nuclear football’ says briefcase is vulnerable to compromise

Ronald Kessler is a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and the New York Times bestselling author of ‘The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents’ and ‘The Secrets of the FBI

The president’s so-called ‘nuclear football’ and its codes for unleashing a nuclear strike are far more vulnerable to compromise by foreign foes, terrorists, or extortionists than Americans realize, John Stufflebeem, a former military aide who carried the briefcase, has revealed. 

The retired Navy vice admiral, who was the military aide to President George H. W. Bush and later oversaw the top secret program himself, says that he has long been concerned about the lack of a fail-safe mechanisms to guard against a hostile takeover of the system for launching a nuclear attack.

Speaking to DailyMail.com in an exclusive interview, Stufflebeem cited the questions raised about government security procedures in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol

As rioters entered the Capitol, Vice President Mike Pence could be seen on security camera video being escorted to safety, along with a military aide carrying a black satchel which is the vice president’s nuclear football.

The Pentagon announced it will conduct a review into the nuclear  football safeguards in light of the January 6 riot. Footage showed Vice President Mike Pence being escorted to safety, along with a military aide carrying the VP’s nuclear football

Retired military officer John Stufflebeem tells DailyMail.com the president's 'nuclear football' is far more vulnerable to compromise than Americans realize. Pictured: A military aide carries the briefcase behind President Trump in 2017

Retired military officer John Stufflebeem tells DailyMail.com the president’s ‘nuclear football’ is far more vulnerable to compromise than Americans realize. Pictured: A military aide carries the briefcase behind President Trump in 2017 

The nuclear football, also known as the president's emergency satchel, contains codes for unleashing a nuclear strike. It is always carried by rotating presidential military aide that follows the president where ever he goes

The nuclear football, also known as the president’s emergency satchel, contains codes for unleashing a nuclear strike. It is always carried by rotating presidential military aide that follows the president where ever he goes

John Stufflebeem, a retired Navy vice admiral who carried the football for President George H. W. Bush, (left) says that he has long been concerned about the lack of a fail-safe mechanisms for guarding the briefcase

Stufflebeem later oversaw the top secret program himself when he was deputy director for global operations assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff

John Stufflebeem, a retired Navy vice admiral who carried the football for President George H. W. Bush, (left) says that he has long been concerned about the lack of a fail-safe mechanisms for guarding the briefcase 

After requests from Reps. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Jim Cooper of Tennessee, both Democrats, the Pentagon’s inspector general announced this month that he is reviewing security procedures surrounding the brief case.

‘This is and has been a gaping hole in the security chain,’ said Stufflebeem, who oversaw the top secret program when he was deputy director for global operations assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

‘Aides are authorized to carry concealed weapons to defend the football, and the Secret Service always includes us in the inner security perimeter of the principal allowing us to carry weapons, but the nuclear football remains vulnerable to being captured.’

Because what is called the Sealed Authentication System is so highly classified, nearly all the information that has appeared in the press about it has been wrong. 

Contrary to the lore, the football itself does not operate like an ATM, with the president or vice president inserting the authenticator card and punching in launch codes to authorize a strike. 

Senate Democrats have aired footage of Capitol rioters coming within 100ft of Mike Pence and his family during the massive security breach

Senate Democrats have aired footage of Capitol rioters coming within 100ft of Mike Pence and his family during the massive security breach 

Instead, along with written options, the nuclear football, a leather-covered titanium business case that weighs 40 pounds, contains a variety of secure phone capabilities and options for launching nuclear strikes that the president or vice president may authorize. 

In the event of a devastating threatened attack on the US, the president or vice president as his backup would confirm his identity to the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon over a secure phone by reading codes from the Sealed Authenticator System card – also known as the ‘biscuit’ – that he is supposed to carry with him at all times. 

Military leaders and White House national security advisors would then brief the president or vice president on the nature of the threat and the options for retaliating.

If the president or vice president wanted to consult the written options, he could do so.

If he then chooses a retaliatory option or options, his command would be read back to him. Once he confirms, the command center would use the military’s launch authorization codes to release nuclear missiles.

‘As part of the conference call, the president is told how many seconds or minutes remain if the president would wish to respond, before he might not be able to do so because nuclear weapons will hit the White House or his current location,’ Stufflebeem explained. 

‘When I saw the mob going after Pence and the military aide, it reminded me of a longtime question I’ve had,’ he said. 

Stufflebeem revealed the system does not take into account the prospect of the carrier being separated from the president or vice president. President Ronald Reagan's authenticator card fell on the floor of the emergency room after his assassination attempt in 1981

Stufflebeem revealed the system does not take into account the prospect of the carrier being separated from the president or vice president. President Ronald Reagan’s authenticator card fell on the floor of the emergency room after his assassination attempt in 1981

Major Michelle D. Johnson is seen jogging behind President George H. W. Bush in Branson, Missouri (Photograph P34802-17, George H. B. Bush Presidential Library)

Major Michelle D. Johnson is seen jogging behind President George H. W. Bush, in Branson, Missouri in 1992

Football carrier Major Darren W. McDew stands behind President Bill Clinton in 1998

Football carrier Major Darren W. McDew stands behind President Bill Clinton in 1998

‘If the military aide who is carrying the football is separated from the principal, can the football be compromised or can the entire nuclear arsenal be accessed? 

‘The way it has been designed, it could be if a marauder obtained the card and used it to pose as the president or vice president.’

How the president authorizes an attack using the nuclear football

The nuclear football, a leather-covered titanium business case that weighs 40 pounds, contains a variety of secure phone capabilities and options for launching nuclear strikes that the president or vice president may authorize.

In the event of a devastating threatened attack on the US, the president or vice president as his backup would confirm his identity to the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon over a secure phone by reading codes from the Sealed Authenticator System card – also known as the ‘biscuit’ – that he is supposed to carry with him at all times. 

Military leaders and White House national security advisors would then brief the president or vice president on the nature of the threat and the options for retaliating.

If the president or vice president wanted to consult the written options, he could do so. 

If he then chooses a retaliatory option or options, his command would be read back to him. 

Once he confirms, the command center would use the military’s launch authorization codes to release nuclear missiles.

During the conference call, the president is also told how many seconds or minutes remain in case he needs to respond before the strike.

While the uninitiated may think that the command center at the Pentagon would realize that the voice of a person calling in to launch a strike was not that of the president or vice president, in fact the command center’s instructions are to disregard the discrepancy, Stufflebeem said. 

‘The system is not and cannot be dependent on voice recognition, so it isn’t part of any checklist the command center has.

‘Can the military aide be separated from the president or vice president? We know that is possible,’ he added.

Stufflebeem cited the fact that when President Reagan was shot during an assassination attempt in 1981, his authenticator card fell to the floor of the emergency room at George Washington Hospital Center as his clothes were being cut off him. 

FBI agents later recovered the card, Thomas J. Baker, who headed the criminal division of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, told me.

Further, as revealed in my book ‘The First Family Detail,’ when Joe Biden returned to his home in Wilmington as vice president – often several times a week – he would instruct the Secret Service to keep the vehicle carrying the military aide with the nuclear football along with the White House doctor at least a mile behind his motorcade. 

The reason was he wanted to project an image as ‘regular Joe’ without a huge retinue. 

But if President Obama had been taken out, even with no traffic the military aide would not have had time to rush to Biden with the football so he could order a counterstrike, Stufflebeem said. 

Despite Congress’ oversight role, no one in Congress has moved to interview the Secret Service agents who were on Biden’s vice presidential detail to confirm Biden’s instructions separating himself from the nuclear football.

Every second counts. By the time the command center would establish communication with the president or vice president through the nuclear football, nuclear missiles from a submarine could have already wiped out New York City.

While the country’s ballistic missile defense system could counteract other incoming missiles, a retaliatory strike is essential to disable the enemy’s military capability and prevent further strikes. 

That, in turn, depends on the president and vice president discharging their most important responsibility by making sure the military aide with the football is near them at all times.

Stufflebeem asks whether White House staff or the Secret Service should have more control over the football. But in the case of Vice President Biden’s irresponsibility, despite the obvious danger to the country, no one in Secret Service management blew the whistle on him.

‘We drive the vehicle with the military aide,’ a Secret Service agent says. ‘If the president goes down and we can’t locate the military aide to take military action, that’s on us. 

President John F. Kennedy walks alongside a military aide carrying the football after landing in Washington

President John F. Kennedy walks alongside a military aide carrying the football after landing in Washington 

President Richard Nixon speaking with senior Air Force officers, with football carrier Lt. Commander T. Stephen Todd in the immediate background in 1974

President Richard Nixon speaking with senior Air Force officers, with football carrier Lt. Commander T. Stephen Todd in the immediate background in 1974

Naval Lt. Commander T. Stephen Todd carries the briefcase as President Gerald Ford leaves the White House in 1975

Naval Lt. Commander T. Stephen Todd carries the briefcase as President Gerald Ford leaves the White House in 1975 

‘We don’t have the backbone to say, “Mr. Vice President, we can’t separate the control vehicle with the military aide and the doctor from you,” a Secret Service agent told me when Biden was vice president.

As for White House staff, they are more likely to try to keep the military aide with the football away from the president or vice president because they think the optics are bad, Stufflebeem says. 

As it is, only the military aide, who rotates from the Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army, and Coast Guard, has a copy of the authenticator card in case the president or vice president loses his. 

That in fact happened at one point during President Clinton’s second term. 

In his book ‘Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior,’ retired general Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that in Clinton’s last year in office, his required codes for launching a nuclear strike went missing for months.

Perhaps because of his aversion to the military, President Jimmy Carter refused to let the military aide with the nuclear football stay in a nearby trailer when he was visiting his home in Plains, Georgia, according to Bill Gulley, who was in charge of operations as director of the White House Military Office under Carter.

‘Carter did not want the nuclear football at Plains,’ a former Secret Service agent said. ‘There was no place to stay in Plains. The military wanted a trailer there. 

‘He didn’t want that. So the military aide had to stay in Americus’ – a town that is a 17-minute drive from Carter’s home.

‘If I sat on the other side of the ocean and I wanted to deny us command and control of our nuclear capability, all I would have to do is create a diversion like an attack on the principal that would force the aide to be separated from the president or vice president and capture or kill the aide until the compromise was recognized and the card could be made obsolete,’ Stufflebeem said. 

Moreover, since the military aide carries a copy of the authenticator card, a rogue military aide could use the card to launch a nuclear strike, Stufflebeem said. 

‘A compromise could take place to stop retaliation by another power or to try to extort money or political power. 

‘Or a renegade or foreign power could create a nuclear launch to create Armageddon.’


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