What’s Inside the President’s Nuclear Football

Everywhere the U.S. president goes there’s an aide with a briefcase that can start a nuclear war that could destroy most of the earth.

Annie Jacobsen at Time: Nuclear threats have reemerged on the world stage. Frequently, Vladimir Putin warns the West that Russia is ready for nuclear war. “Weapons exits in order to use them,” Putin says. North Korea accuses the U.S. of having, “a sinister intention to provoke a nuclear war.” Entwined with the rising rhetoric, one physical object stands alone—the president’s emergency satchel, also known as the nuclear Football.

This bulging leather briefcase remains with the president at all times, carried by a military aide, and never more than an arm’s length away. It’s an iconic reminder of preeminent power and national mystery. A “nominally secret command-and-control system used to assure presidential control of nuclear use decisions,” historian William Burr says of the Football. Items located inside the president’s emergency satchel confirm his identity and connect him, as commander in chief, to the National Military Command Center, a nuclear bunker located beneath the Pentagon.

Also inside the Football is the Black Book. This cryptic set of documents, parsed down from a much larger operational plan for nuclear war, provides the commander in chief with nuclear launch options should policy dictate the president needs to act. This includes which targets to strike, which delivery systems to use, and the timing of action. “It’s called the Black Book because it involves so much death,” says Dr. Glen McDuff, a nuclear weapons engineer who served as the classified museum historian at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The Football is with the president at all times. The first publicly-released photograph of the Football is from May 1963, at the Kennedy Family Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. It can be seen swinging from the military aide’s hand as he walks directly behind the president. The Football accompanied President Regan to the Red Square in Moscow, in 1988. When President George H.W. Bush was photographed out on jog, his military aide—also in running shorts and sneakers—can be seen just a few steps behind, carrying the iconic briefcase in her left hand.

The Football is always within a few feet of the president of the U.S. Once, when President Clinton was visiting Syria, President Hafez al-Assad’s handlers tried to prevent Clinton’s military aide from riding in an elevator with him. “We could not let that happen, and did not let that happen,” former Secret Service director Lewis Merletti says. Merletti was the special agent in charge of President Clinton’s detail at that time. “The Football must always be with the president,” he asserts. “There are no exceptions.” How the Football came to be has long been shrouded in mystery. “Its origins remain highly classified,” journalist Michael Dobbs wrote in Smithsonian Magazine in 2014. And then, just a few months ago, Los Alamos National Laboratory finally declassified the Football’s origin story. It goes like this.

One day in December 1959, a small group of officials from the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy visited a NATO base in Europe to examine joint-custody nuclear bomb protocols. The NATO pilots stationed there flew Republic F84F jets, the first U.S. Air Force fighter-bomber aircraft designed to carry nuclear bombs. Operation Reflex Action was in effect, air crews were trained and ready to strike predetermined targets in the Soviet Union in less than fifteen minutes from the call to nuclear war. One of the men on this visit was Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos scientist with a unique history.

Agnew was one of the three physicists assigned to fly on the Hiroshima bombing mission as a scientific observer. He carried a movie camera with him and took the only existing film footage of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. Now, in 1959, Agnew was at Los Alamos overseeing thermonuclear bomb tests; he later became the lab’s director. During the trip to the NATO base, Agnew noticed something that made him wary. “I observed four F84F aircraft . . . sitting on the end of a runway, each was carrying two MK 7 [nuclear] gravity bombs,” he wrote in a document declassified in 2023. What this meant was that “custody of the MK 7s was under the watchful eye of one very young U.S. Army private armed with a M1 rifle with 8 rounds of ammunition.” Agnew told his colleagues: “The only safeguard against unauthorized use of an atomic bomb was this single G.I. surrounded by a large number of foreign troops on foreign territory with thousands of Soviet troops just miles away.”

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