Nuclear codes: A president's awesome power

A White House military aide carries a briefcase containing emergency codes.

Story highlights

  • The president's 'emergency satchel' is often dubbed the 'nuclear football'
  • Mark Hertling: U.S. president must be able to stay cool under pressure

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of U.S. Army, Europe and 7th Army. He is the author of "Growing Physician Leaders." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)The military aides who carry it call it "the football." The more accurate name is the "president's emergency response satchel." But no matter what it is called, the contents of this small metal briefcase contained within a black leather satchel is always within a few feet of the president of the United States.

The contents of the case allow the commander in chief to issue orders authorizing a nuclear attack anywhere in the world. So it's no surprise that the issue of judgment keeps coming up -- there have been a number of public comments and exchanges recently over who is best prepared to handle the enormous responsibility associated with the potential use of nuclear weapons against an enemy.
    Mark Hertling
    It's a responsibility that has weighed on the shoulders of U.S. presidents since the Cold War, when, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy had the foresight to ask some very difficult questions regarding a nuclear response.
    Kennedy wanted clarification on the things he could do, and was specifically concerned as to what his actions might be if he were away from the White House and received information that might require him to launch an immediate preemptory strike. What should he do if he received information that led him to conclude that he should launch an immediate strike? And would the Emergency Action System allow the president to do so from anywhere in the world, without first consulting the secretary of defense? If he called the War Room in the Pentagon to order such a strike, what would he say? And how would the person receiving the order verify the authenticity of the president so there would be no delay in launch?
    As part of the answer to those questions, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had his team design the emergency response satchel.
    The briefcase contains four items: a top secret book (unsurprisingly called a "black book," due to its color) containing response options; a listing of classified site locations all over the United States where the president might go during or after a nuclear attack (President George W. Bush made use of this list during the 9/11 terrorist attacks); a booklet describing the elements of the Emergency Alert System; and a card with authentication codes.
    That bag -- carried by the military aide -- has been within feet of the commander in chief ever since for any situation where the president believes the use of nuclear weapons is warranted. If that is the case, he is able to order the military aide to open the briefcase and issue an alert to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While that is occurring, the president reviews options from the nuclear triad -- submarine launched missiles, aircraft with atomic weapons, or land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) -- and then decides on a course of action.
    The aide then connects the president with the National Military Command Center (NMCC) -- in the Pentagon or an airborne command and control element -- and positively identifies himself with a special code issued on a plastic card. Most presidents have kept that card -- called the "biscuit" -- in their possession at all times.
    Should this happen, the code on the president's card would be confirmed by either the secretary of defense, or the watch officer (a general or admiral on duty) at the NMCC, and the president could then order a strike. The president always has the authority to order an attack, with his options ranging from the launch of one missile to extensive, massive strikes from one or several elements of the triad: bombers, submarines, missiles.
    The five military aides to the president, representing each of the services and alternating 24/7 shifts by his side or sleeping in the basement of the White House, are extensively trained on ensuring their commander in chief has the ability to immediately execute this function if required. They are required to always be within minutes of their boss, including riding in the same elevator as the president. They train with communication checks and practice drills, employing various scenarios, before and during every trip. In short, they are prepared to help him execute his responsibilities.
    The military execution is necessarily precise and practiced -- it has to be when the stakes are this high. While stationed in the Pentagon, I have been involved in drills related to these events, and I have also seen the extremely high quality of the officers who are selected to be the aide to the president. There is in my mind no question regarding the effective and efficient ability of communicating, authenticating and transferring the orders that would begin a nuclear exchange.
    As a former soldier, I know the requirements of strategic leadership and the seriousness of the extremely tough decisions the president and military face. I also know the person who works in the Oval Office must have the right temperament and judgment, demeanor and character, experience and intellect to make the right call regarding the nuclear codes, not to mention the many other crises and issues that face the president on a daily basis.
    Ultimately, the U.S. president should be cool under pressure, be able to keep a clear mind under the most intense circumstances; he or she must take a calm approach when presented with conflicting elements of information, have steady hand based on a seriousness of purpose, and must be willing to listen to subject matter experts and top advisers to help make the right decisions. Once these decisions are made, if the "buttons" or pushed or the "triggers" are pulled, it's hard to turn back.
    With all this in mind, I will cast my vote based on who I believe best lives up to these weighty requirements. I have confidence that when the American people consider these factors, they will make the right call, too.