Bill Clinton once lost the nuclear codes for months, and a 'comedy of errors' kept anyone from finding out

The process the president has to go through to launch the US's nuclear weapons isn't as simple as pressing a button, but the key component of that process — the codes needed to authorize the launch — are never far from the president.

At least they're never supposed to be.

According to Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1997 to September 2001, the number of redundancies in the nuclear-launch process "is staggering." All of steps are "dependent on one vital element without which there can be no launch," he wrote in his 2010 autobiography, "Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior."

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How to survive a nuclear attack
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How to survive a nuclear attack

What should you do in the event of a nearby nuclear attack? Click through to learn more. 

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Seek shelter immediately, towards the center of a building or -- preferably -- a basement. Aim for the same type of shelter you would utilize in the event of a tornado. 

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The next three slides are examples of nuclear shelters that exist around the world. 

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The entrance of Shelter Co.'s nuclear shelter model room, which is placed in the basement of the company's CEO Seiichiro Nishimoto's house, is pictured in Osaka, Japan April 26, 2017. (Photo via REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)
A fallout shelter sign hangs on the Mount Rona Baptist Church, on August 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. In the early 60's Washington was at the center of civil defense preparations in case of a nuclear blast, with over one thousand dedicated public fallout shelters in schools, churches and government buildings. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
A 'shelter' sign is displayed at the entrance to a subway station in Seoul on July 6, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. According to the metropolitan government, South Korea's city subway stations serve a dual purpose with over 3,300 designated as shelters in case of aerial bombardment including any threat from North Korea. The U.S. said that it will use military force if needed to stop North Korea's nuclear missile program after North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday into Japanese waters. The latest launch have drawn strong criticism from the U.S. as experts believe the ICBM has the range to reach the U.S. states of Alaska and Hawaii and perhaps the U.S. Pacific Northwest. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Dense materials, including dirt or thick walls, provide the best defense to fallout radiation.

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If possible, take a warm shower -- but do not use conditioner, as it can bond to nuclear particles. 

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Do not seek shelter in a car, as they won't provide adequate protection, and you should not attempt to outrun nuclear fallout. 

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The nuclear fallout zone shrinks quickly after an attack, but the less dangerous "hot zone" still grows. 

(Image via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Once you are sheltered, do not leave. Listen to a radio or other announcements. 

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That element, the president's authorization codes, is supposed to remain in close proximity to the president at all times, carried by one of five military aides, representing each branch of the military. The codes are on a card called the "biscuit" carried within the "football," a briefcase that is officially known as the "president's emergency satchel."

However, around 2000, according to Shelton, a member of the department within the Pentagon that is responsible for all pieces of the nuclear process was dispatched to the White House to physically look at the codes and ensure they were correct — a procedure required to happen every 30 days. (The set of codes was to be replaced entirely every four months.)

That official was told by a presidential aide that President Bill Clinton did have the codes, but was in an important meeting and could not be disturbed.

The aide assured the official that Clinton took the codes seriously and had them close by. The official was dismayed, but he accepted the excuse and left.

When the next inspection took place the following month, that official was on vacation, according to Shelton, and another official was dispatched to the White House. The new official was met with the same excuse — the president is very busy, but takes the codes very seriously and has them on hand.

"This comedy of errors went on, without President Clinton's knowledge I'm sure, until it was finally time to collect the current set and replace them with the new edition," Shelton writes.

"At this point we learned that the aide had no idea where the old ones were, because they had been missing for months," he added. "The President never did have them, but he assumed, I'm sure, that the aide had them like he was supposed to."

Shelton and then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen were alarmed. While the problem of missing codes had been resolved by changing the codes, they quickly acted to change the process itself, mandating that the Defense Department official visiting the White House physically see the codes — waiting there until they can do so if necessary.

Shelton and Cohen feared the saga would reach the press and become an embarrassing story. But word of the missing codes never made it out, and Shelton's recounting of it in his 2010 book was, to his knowledge, the first time it had been shared publicly.

"This is a big deal — a gargantuan deal — and we dodged a silver bullet," Shelton writes, adding: "You do whatever you can and think you have an infallible system, but somehow someone always seems to find a way to screw it up."

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