The Nuclear Football Is Now Following President Joe Biden Around

Joe Biden now has access to a special briefcase that enables whoever is President of the United States to order nuclear strikes from virtually any location at any time. Another one of these cases, colloquially known as the “nuclear football,” traveled with now-former President Donald Trump to Florida, where it would have remained just feet away, carried by a military aide, right until the moment when he was no longer Commander-In-Chief.

The Washington Post‘s Mike DeBonis spotted a football, of which there is more than one, entering the Capitol earlier this morning ahead of the inauguration. The ceremony officially began at around 11:15 AM, but Biden was not officially sworn in as the 46th President until later on in the event.

A US military aide, at left, carries a nuclear football to a US Marine Corps VH-3D Marine One helicopter, which then-President Donald Trump used to travel from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base on Jan. 20, 2021. The Trump boarded Air Force One and flew to Florida., C-SPAN capture

From the outside, the football, the aluminum Zero Halliburton briefcase, officially known as the President’s Emergency Satchel, looks like an unassuming large black bag. U.S. military aides assigned to the White House Military Office, which can be from any of the service branches and have a rank of O-4 or higher, rotate through the job of following the President around with the briefcase.

Typically, when a new President is sworn in, there is effectively a direct handoff, where the aide assigned to the outgoing President would turn over the satchel to the one assigned to the new Commander-In-Chief. However, Trump’s decision not to attend the inauguration would have required changes to those plans.

“There are at least three or four identical ‘footballs’: one follows the president, one follows the vice president, and one traditionally is set aside for the designated survivor at events like inaugurations and State of the Union addresses,” Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and an expert on American nuclear weapons programs, told CNN. “Donald Trump is president through 11:59:59 am on January 20.”

“If an aide with the football accompanies Trump on Air Force One to Florida, that aide will remove himself or herself from Trump’s presence at noon and return to Washington, DC, with the briefcase,” Schwartz continued. It’s not clear who specifically the aide carrying the satchel into the Capitol this morning was assigned to, at least initially, and whether they are the one following President Biden. Former Vice President Pence also attended the ceremony, who would have had the football in tow up until Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President. It’s also worth noting that President Biden would have needed little instruction on how to use the football as he dealt with the burden for eight years under the Obama Administration. Vice President Harris would need some instruction, a cursory version of which is rumored to occur either prior to or just after being sworn into office. 

The basic concept behind the football, various iterations of which have been used over the years, dates back to President Dwight Eisenhower’s Administration, but the current practice of having it close to the President at all times came about as a product of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Then-President John F. Kennedy and his advisors were concerned about the ability to launch a nuclear retaliatory strike in the event of a launch of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles from Cuba.

An older version of the football that is now part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s collection.                       , Smithsonian/Jamie Chung

If there is ever a need to actually use the satchel, whoever is President at the time first needs to authenticate their identity using regularly changing ‘Gold Codes’ found on a card known as the “biscuit” that they carry with them at all times. Once that is done, they can then communicate instructions for a nuclear strike to the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon and to Strategic Command

In the event that those entities are destroyed or otherwise unreachable, an extensive communications network can transmit the President’s orders to other command and control nodes, including to E-6B Mercury or E-4B airborne command post aircraft, which have the ability to transmit orders to launch nuclear strikes directly to all the arms of America’s nuclear triad. The E-6B can even directly initiate the launch of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (IBCM) from their silos down below.

When it comes to the nature of the actual strikes, the football also contains a “menu” of pre-planned nuclear response options for the President to select. The aide carrying the football is briefed on these plans and can be consulted to provide immediate advice. The Commander-In-Chief would also be in contact with other elements of the so-called National Command Authority (NCA), including the Secretary of Defense, and could consult with them, as well as others, about other potential options. 

However, the pre-planned options exist specifically because there might not be time to explore alternatives. For instance, after hostile ICBMs are launched, it takes time to detect and categorize them to confirm the nature of the threat. After all that, there could be as 15 minutes before the weapons reach their targets. You can read more about the specifics about the NCA and what the President has to go through to order a nuclear strike in these past War Zone pieces.

The topic of the football itself had popped up numerous times during President Trump’s tenure. In February 2017, Richard DeAgazio posted a picture of himself alongside a member of the U.S. military identified as “Rick,” later identified as the aide assigned to carry the satchel that day, while at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. DeAgazio, who was simply a guest at the resort, also appeared in the infamous images of the President and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviewing classified documents relating to a North Korean missile test in a Mar-a-Lago dining hall.

Richard DeAgazio, at right, and “Rick,” at left, at Mar-a-Lago in February 2017., via Facebook

In February 2018, a report emerged that there had been a physical altercation over the football during Trump’s visit to the Great Hall of the People in the Chinese capital Beijing the previous year. The actual chain of events, which took place on Nov. 9, 2017, remains murky and there is no indication that the satchel was ever in the possession of Chinese authorities.

The authority to use America’s nuclear weapons, which, at present, resides entirely with the President, had been a major topic of discussion during President Trump’s Administration. In the wake of the siege of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob earlier this month, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark Milley to discuss potential safeguards against an “unhinged” commander-in-chief ordering a nuclear strike. “The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy,” she wrote in a letter to her colleagues on Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress had raised similar concerns in 2017, at a time of great tension between the United States and North Korea, during which Trump had made various threats toward the northeast Asian country implying the use of nuclear weapons. “We are concerned that the President of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said during a hearing on nuclear command and control that year.

Beyond these issues raised by some in relation to the last administration, concerns over so much power being wielded by a single person have existed for decades. The outstanding question largely revolved around whether or not reasonable fail-safes against improper use could be implemented without negatively impacting the country’s deterrent posture. The United States also notably does not have a so-called “no first use” policy, meaning it reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to especially grave, but conventional attacks. There have also been calls for a change in this policy, as well, in recent years.

“I will follow any legal order that I’m given – I will not follow any illegal orders,” U.S. Navy Charles Richard, head of STRATCOM, had told reporters on Jan. 5, the day before the Capitol siege, when asked about potential nuclear strikes on Iran. “And if you go much further, if I were to say anything else, we’re starting to call in civilian control of the military, which I think is a prized American attribute.”

“Fundamentally, who has the authority to do that is a political question,” he continued. “If you ask me my best military advice, the system we have served us well, for 70 years. I don’t recommend any changes, but I’m prepared to execute whatever the political leadership of this nation would like to do.”

However the U.S. government’s policies regarding the employment of nuclear weapons might now change or not under the new Biden Administration, the nuclear football remains close to the Commander-In-Chief at all times. As such, it remains a symbol of continuity of government and, when a new president is inaugurated, a clear and present indication of the peaceful transfer of control over America’s most destructive weapons. 

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