29 October 2010

Whoops! -- the day Bill Clinton lost the nuclear codes

What happens if the president of the United States loses the codes that authorize him to order a nuclear attack? Apparently not much. When one of Bill Clinton's aides lost track of the codes in 2000, no one (except the aide) noticed for months. Not until the codes were due to be replaced did the Pentagon learn of the oversight. This was recently revealed in a memoir published by Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Actually the codes cannot in themselves be used to launch an attack. They are required to open the briefcase holding yet another set of codes needed to launch nuclear missiles. The briefcase is always accompanied by a military officer and kept close to the president.

It's a relief to know that the aide's incompetence couldn't have resulted in nuclear war. In fact it would have made it more difficult to start one. One can imagine a darkly humorous, Strangelovian scene with the military officer and the president desperately trying to pick the lock on the briefcase so they can fire the missiles.

That just one set of codes can't plunge the world over the edge is reassuring, but one wonders nonetheless just how many mistakes we are from nuclear Armageddon. And if an efficient country like the U.S. can fumble the codes, just thinking about what goes on in an unstable, disorganized nuclear power like Pakistan is the stuff of nightmares.

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