Did Bill Clinton lose America's nuclear launch codes?

A top general says that the codes went missing under Clinton's watch — possibly for months on end

Bill Clinton
(Image credit: Getty)

It's the stuff of Harrison Ford thrillers, except it may have happened in real life. Here's a quick guide to an explosive allegation:

What happened?

A new memoir by General Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that in 2000, an aide to President Clinton once misplaced a crucial series of codes for accessing the country's nuclear arsenal and managed to hide the mistake for "months." Specifically, Shelton claims the aide lost the "biscuit" — a code name for the notecard used to open the black attache case, known as "the football." The suitcase holds "nuclear codes which the US president would use to authorise the launch of nuclear weapons," and Shelton says that losing them is "a big deal—a gargantuan deal." (Watch an ABC report about the controversy)

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How could something like that simply get lost?

Although the "movies may show the president wearing these codes around his neck, it's pretty standard that they are safeguarded by one of his aides," writes Shelton. "But that aide sticks with him like glue." There is also a military protocol for checking on the codes, but the Clinton aide seemed to talk his (or her) way around those standard inspections.

How was the situation resolved?

When it was time to replace the old codes with new ones, the aide finally confessed what happened, and the president was immediately issued a new "biscuit." Whether the aide suffered repercussions for misplacing the codes is not clear.

What would have happened if the codes had fallen into the wrong hands?

The world was probably not in imminent danger. Former Homeland Security advisor Fran Townsend tells CNN that, even if an unathorized person got ahold of the codes, "it is very unlikely that they could execute a launch, because the "biscuit" is "only one part of the launch protocol." Actually launching a nuclear strike involves a "multi-layered system" that includes the aforementioned "football."

Did Clinton know about the problem?

Probably not. The president "assumed, I'm sure," writes Shelton, "that the aide had them like he was supposed to."

Is this really the first anyone's heard of this?

Sort of. Seven years ago, Robert "Buzz" Patterson, who served as a military advisor to Clinton, wrote an anti-Clinton polemic "Derelection of Duty," which detailed his own experience with lost nuclear codes. Speaking to Accuracy in Media, Patterson recalls that, at one point, "I asked President Clinton to produce the codes so I could swap the codes out with new codes," and the president "confessed that he'd misplaced" them, thereby really violat[ing] military protocol." But in Patterson's version of events Clinton made his error in 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking. ("Maybe he lost them twice.," says a retired Air Force colonel who carried the "football" during the Clinton administration.)

Has this happened to other presidents?

According to ABC News, there's an "old story that Jimmy Carter left his biscuit in a suit that got sent to the dry cleaners" — mysteriously, "no one will confirm the story, but no one will deny it either."

What has the reaction been like?

"Shelton tells the story a bit oddly," says Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy. He "doesn't really explain what happened or who knew about" the lost codes. His account also raises some obvious questions — "what happened to that aide?"; "what would have happened if the president had decided to launch a nuclear strike?" — that he fails to answer. Ed Morrissey at Hot Air says that "admitting his error immediately and rectifying the situation sounds like classic Bill Clinton, doesn't it? And Max Read at Gawker says that an aide shouldn't be involved with such sensitive material in the first place: "Can't the president just keep [the codes] in his pocket, or something?"

Sources: Foreign Policy, ABC News, BBC, Hot Air, Telegraph, CNN, Times (U.K.)

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