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The nuclear football (also known as the atomic football, the president's emergency satchel, the button, the black box, or just the football) is a briefcase, the contents of which are to be used by the President of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers, such as the White House Situation Room. It functions as a mobile hub in the strategic defense system of the United States.
According to a Washington Post article, the president is always accompanied by a military aide carrying a "football" with launch codes for nuclear weapons. The football is a metallic Zero Halliburton briefcase carried in a black leather "jacket". The package weighs around 45 pounds (20 kilograms). A small antenna protrudes from the bag near the handle.
There are four things in the Football. The Black Book containing the retaliatory options, a book listing classified site locations, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Alert System, and a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes. The Black Book was about 9 by 12 inches and had 75 loose-leaf pages printed in black and red. The book with classified site locations was about the same size as the Black Book, and was black. It contained information on sites around the country where the president could be taken in an emergency.
If the president (who is commander-in-chief) decided to order the use of nuclear weapons, he or she would be taken aside by the "carrier" and the briefcase opened. A command signal, or "watch" alert, would then be issued to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president would then review the attack options with the aide and decide on a plan, which could range from a single cruise missile to multiple ICBM launches. These are preset war plans developed under OPLAN 8010 (formerly the Single Integrated Operational Plan). Then, using whatever communications technology the satchel contains, the aide would presumably make contact with the National Military Command Center or, in a retaliatory strike situation, multiple airborne command posts (who likely fly Boeing E-4B) and/or nuclear armed submarines.
Before the order can be processed by the military, the president must be positively identified using a special code issued on a plastic card, nicknamed the "biscuit". The United States has a two-man rule in place, and while only the president can order the release of nuclear weapons, the order must be confirmed by the Secretary of Defense (there is a hierarchy of succession in the event that the president is killed in an attack). Once all the codes have been verified, the military would issue attack orders to the proper units. These orders are given and then re-verified for authenticity.
The football is carried by one of the rotating presidential military aides, whose work schedule is described by a top-secret rota (one from each of the five service branches). The aide is occasionally physically attached to the briefcase via a security cable around the wrist. This person is a commissioned officer in the U.S. military, pay-grade O-4 or above, who has undergone the nation's most rigorous background check (Yankee White). These armed officers are required to keep the football readily accessible to the president at all times. Consequently, an aide, football in hand, is always either standing or walking near the president or riding in Air Force One, Marine One, or the presidential motorcade with the president.
The football dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but its current usage came about in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, when John F. Kennedy was concerned that a Soviet commander in Cuba might launch missiles without authorization from Moscow.
An Associated Press article stated that the nickname "football" was derived from an attack plan codenamed "Dropkick". The nickname has led to some confusion as to the nature—and even the shape—of the device, as the jacket appears large enough to contain an actual football. In the graphic novel series Watchmen, Richard Nixon, fictionally depicted as still being president in 1985, was depicted with a literal "nuclear football"—a metal device shaped like a football—handcuffed to his wrist in an emergency. While it is never explicitly stated what the object is, it is implied that the device either contains the same materials as the real-life nuclear football or is an electronic activation source for the nuclear option.
During their presidencies, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan preferred to keep the launch codes in their jacket pockets. Future Congressman John Kline served as a colonel in the United States Marine Corps and carried the football for Presidents Carter and Reagan.
The football was separated from Ronald Reagan immediately after the 1981 assassination attempt against him. Reagan, like his predecessor Carter, preferred to carry the card in his pocket. He was separated from it when his clothing was cut off by the emergency room trauma team. It was later discovered unsecured lying in one of his shoes on the emergency room floor. This led to an urban legend that Reagan carried the code in his sock. Reagan was separated from the rest of the football as well because the officer who carried it was left behind as the motorcade sped away with the wounded president. On occasion the president has left his aide carrying the football behind. This happened to Nixon in 1973; after Nixon presented Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev with a Lincoln Continental at Camp David, Brezhnev unexpectedly drove with Nixon off the retreat onto a highway while leaving Nixon's Secret Service personnel behind, separating Nixon from the football (and his security detail) for nearly 30 minutes. Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and, most recently, Bill Clinton have also been separated from the football. In none of these cases was the integrity of the football breached.
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- Hacking Nuclear Command and Control, pg. 10.
- The Football—GlobalSecurity.org article
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