Presidential Nuclear Codes: Separating Fact from Fiction

Maria Keena (@kmoxmaria)

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – The question of Donald Trump’s temperament continues to dominate the presidential race. Hillary Clinton raised it again during Sunday’s debate.

KMOX wanted to know exactly what’s involved with the nuclear codes. We turned to Washington University’s History Department.

Senior lecturer Krister Knapp calls the nuclear codes a complex issue that dates back to the Cold War. President Truman determined only the Commander in Chief should have the codes.

“They created the Atomic Energy Commission with the Atomic Energy Act in 1946,” Knapp says. “And it would be the Atomic Energy Commission as an agency in the civilian-led government that would actually possess the nuclear weapons – not the United State military.”

Knapp says it got complicated with the Eisenhower Administration.

“As a former general and as someone who had been in the military, he understood that this was a very complex process of the actual launching of the weapons themselves,” Knapp says. “As opposed to who gives the authorization to use them. And that had to be done by the military.”

We asked Knapp if there have been times in our history when we came close launching, and Knapp said yes.

“The United States has been at Defcon 3 on a couple of different occasions, which is where all the armed forces are ready to go for what would have been World War III, including ramping up the nuclear weapons so that they were on high alert so that they could be fired. Cuban Missile Crisis is one, but also the Israeli-Arab conflict in 1973.”

There have been a few other times the U.S. and Russia started the sequence and it didn’t involve direct confrontation, but instead, mistaken weather balloons drifting into the other’s air-space.

Knapp emphasizes the chances of any president using nuclear weapons to attack a group like ISIS is unlikely, because it’s not a functioning state.

The Process

The process begins with the president and his “football,” or the black satchel he carries around at all times. It contains three things:

“It’s the codes themselves, the contingency plans and the communication device to send those codes,” Knapp says. “That’s the first step, but in order to get to any of those or all of those three things inside the satchel, the president has to be able to open the satchel, which is locked with an electronic lock.

“The only one that can open that is the president. He carries around a separate, different set of codes on a small card about the size of a credit card, known as famously “the biscuit.” This has his access, his identity code information.”

Only those sets of numbers – and only after they are entered in the right order – will the president then be able to open the satchel, Knapp says.

Throughout the Cold War and to this day, the U.S. doesn’t have a first-strike policy; it’s only a retaliatory policy.  If the president were to send the codes, there are a series of events that have to happen in order for nuclear weapons to be launched.

“There is no button that any president pushes, no switch, no toggle gear, no one thing that the president simply walks around with and can say, ‘Click, I’ve launched the nuclear weapons,'” Knapp says. “Once it is verified that it is the president and that these are the codes they’re sending, then the system kicks into gear, then NORAD transfers the call to the two-man team, working in teams of 10.”

After NORAD verifies the authenticity and the two-man teams step in, the other eight men out there, who are working in teams of two as well, see this data being processed, according to Knapp.

“If any mistakes are made in sending any of the data to the other eight men, then the system shuts down.

“There are also technical issues for protocol, so each of the nuclear weapons has an electronic lock on it. Once the codes are actually sent from the president to NORAD, and sent and reinterpreted by the men working on the launch sites, and then verified by the other eight men in the 10-men team, then they send the codes to the weapons.

“If they don’t do it correctly – and in the right order and the right time – the nuclear weapon shuts down,” he says.

These safeguards are to prevent infiltration, but it’s also to keep a president from acting rashly to any given situation. Knapp says it actually takes time and they’re often told that a president will only have a few seconds or a few minutes – which is incorrect.

Training Presidents

All presidents are suppose to go through a training program.

“A lot of presidents are famous for not wanting to participate in that training program very much. Nixon never went down and learned how to do it. Reagan was befuddled by the whole process and often said, ‘Now what to I do, do I push this button?'” Knapp says. “President Clinton lost his biscuit with the codes that allowed him to actually access the satchel for three months. He was suppose to carry it around on his person all the time, and he didn’t even have it.”

He says Democrats and Republicans alike, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, were famous for being “lackadaisical” about the entire process.

(TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed)

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