Former JCS Chair Says Nuclear Launch Codes Went Missing For Months

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton says in a new book that a crucial part of the system of checks used to order a nuclear launch went missing for months during the Clinton Administration:

A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says in a new book that while Bill Clinton was in the White House, a key component of the president’s nuclear launch protocol went missing.

“The codes were actually missing for months. This is a big deal,” says General Hugh Shelton. “We dodged a silver bullet.”

In his book “Without Hesitation,” the retired Army general writes, “Even though movies may show the President wearing these codes around his neck, it’s pretty standard that they are safeguarded by one of his aides, but that aide sticks with him like glue.” He adds that President Clinton “assumed, I’m sure, that the aide had them like he was supposed to.”

What apparently was missing was a card with code numbers on it that allows the president to access a briefcase — called the “football” and kept by an aide always near the president — containing instructions for launching a nuclear attack.

Once a month, Defense Department officials conduct an in-person verification to make sure the president has the right codes. At least twice in a row, Shelton writes, a White House aide told the Pentagon checker that the president was in a meeting but gave a verbal assurance that the codes were with him.

Then one month around the year 2000, according to Shelton, when the time came to replace the codes with a new set, “the president’s aide said neither he nor the president had the codes — they had completely disappeared.”

The codes are only one part of  the system needed to order a launch so, even if someone had somehow gotten their hands on the codes they likely wouldn’t have been able to do anything with them. On the other hand, without the codes, it would have been difficult for President Clinton to order a launch if he wanted to:

Shelton says the president was given new codes within minutes when the previous codes could not be found, and the procedures have since been changed, so that the Pentagon aide who carries out the monthly check is required to wait at the White House until he or she can visually confirm the codes are in the possession of the president or an aide who is with him.

I would hope they’ve been changed.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. TG Chicago says:

    How odd that the Defense Department protocols would include regular in-person checkups, but that those checkups could be made without ever directly checking anything. If you’re going to bother with an in-person checkup, then do it right. If you’re just going to take someone’s say-so, then just call them up and ask them.

  2. Obviously it would seem that some of those protocols lapsed after the Cold War ended

  3. Robert Patterson in “Dereliction of Duty: Eyewitness Account of How Bill Clinton Compromised America’s National Security” (2004) mentioned the times he personally knew that President Clinton lost or misplaced his codes: