What’s Inside the President’s Nuclear Football

12 minute read
Jacobsen's new book is Nuclear War: A Scenario

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.

Read More: Here's What a Nuclear War Would Actually Look Like

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.”

Back in the U.S., Agnew contacted a project engineer at Sandia Laboratories named Don Cotter and asked “if we could insert an electronic ‘lock’ in the [bomb’s] firing circuit that could prevent just any passerby from arming the MK 7.” Cotter got to work. He put together a demonstration of a device, a lock and coded switch, that functioned as follows: “[a] 3-digit code would be entered, a switch was thrown, the green light extinguished, and the red light illuminated indicating the arming circuit was live.”

President Trump Speaks At CIA Headquarters
US President Donald Trump leaves the CIA headquarters after speaking to 300 people on January 21, 2017 in Langley, Virginia . Trump spoke with about 300 people in his first official visit with a government agency. In the background a military aid carries the 'football', with launch codes for nuclear weapons. Olivier Doulier-Getty Images

Agnew and Cotter went to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate this locking device—first to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, then to the president’s top science advisor and finally to the president himself. “We presented it to President Kennedy, who ordered it be done,” Agnew recalled. The military objected. The man in charge of nuclear weapons at the time, General Alfred D. Starbird, opposed the idea. Glen McDuff, who coauthored (with Agnew) the now declassified paper on the subject, summed up the general’s documented concerns. “How is a pilot, U.S. or foreign, somewhere around the world, going to get a code from the President of the United States to arm a nuclear weapon before being overrun by a massively superior number of Soviet troops?” For the U.S. military, the locking device issue opened Pandora’s box. “If gravity bombs were coded,” McDuff explains, “why not all nuclear weapons including missile warheads, atomic demolition munitions, torpedoes, all of them.” The president decided they needed to be.

The answer came in the creation of the Football, the president’s emergency satchel. But what about the nuclear war plans inside? And what about the Black Book? As surprising as this now seems, until 1960, several of the U.S. military branches had their own individual plans for nuclear war. What this meant was that the Army, Navy, and Air Force chiefs each had authority over a uniquely designated stockpile of nuclear weapons—including the delivery systems for those weapons and lists of targets to strike—for them to use at their own discretion in the event of nuclear war. When incoming Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara learned about these multiple, competing nuclear war plans, he ordered them integrated into a single plan. This is how the Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, got its name.

Starting in December 1960, for the first time in the nuclear age, the SIOP gave the president, not the military, control of America’s nuclear arsenal. This new locking device designed by Agnew and Cotter, called a Permissive Action Link, or PAL, became an integral part of this new system. Only with the invention of the Football would the order to launch nuclear weapons—and the ability to physically arm them—come from the president alone. “This is how the president got the Football,” writes Agnew.

Over the years, the name for the nuclear war plan has changed. What began as the Single Integrated Operational Plan is now the Operational Plan, or OPLAN. For the Nuclear Information Project, in consort with the Federation of American Scientists, project director Hans Kristensen and senior researcher Matt Korda have identified the current Operational Plan as OPLAN 8010-12. It consists of “‘a family of plans’ directed against four identified adversaries: Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran,” the authors write. The Operation Plan for nuclear war is a colossal and cumbersome set of documents, too large to be carried around in the Football. Parsed down to a more manageable size, the plans become nuclear strike options as delineated in the Black Book.

The number of individuals who have written out their first-hand impressions of the SIOP is extremely limited. John Rubel, an avionics expert who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Kennedy, wrote about the SIOP in his 2008 memoir, Doomsday Delayed. He liked it to a plan for “mass extermination.” Daniel Ellsberg reflected on the SIOP in his 2017 memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. “It depicted evil beyond any human project ever,” Ellsberg wrote. A plan that calls for “the destruction of most cities and people in the northern hemisphere.” 

As for the Black Book, few details exist on the public record. In 2015, U.S. Strategic Command battle watch commander Colonel Carolyn Bird shared with CNN previously unreported details. An identical Football resides inside the Stratcom nuclear bunker, viewers learned, locked in a safe beneath Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. “The [Black Book inside the] president’s football and our black book are duplicates,” Bird told CNN. “They contain the same information in the same way so that we are talking off the same documents when we are discussing nuclear options.”

In an interview with the History Channel, President Clinton’s former military aide, a colonel named Robert “Buzz” Patterson, likened the Black Book to a “Denny’s breakfast menu.” He made the analogy that choosing retaliatory targets from a predetermined nuclear strike list was as simple as deciding on a combination of food items at a restaurant. “It’s like picking one out of Column A and two out of Column B,” Patterson said.

Read More: America's Nuclear Missiles Need to be Modernized

Dr. Theodore Postol has seen the contents of the Black Book. His thoughts provide unsettling context to Patterson’s observations. From 1982 to 1984 Postol served as the assistant for weapons technology to the chief of naval operations. In this capacity, he worked on technical details regarding submarine launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs. “Nitty gritty features,” Postol generalizes. “Seeing the contents of the Black Book,” he recalls, “I was freaked out beyond belief.” Not for reasons he expected; as a weapons technologist Postol was familiar with the mass carnage involved. Instead of being confronted with a succinct summary of these horrifying facts—the targeting of cities, the death tolls in the millions—Postol found the contents of the Black Book to be an obfuscation of the facts. The nuclear launch plans, he says, “had been sterilized down to military terminology designed to remove you from the reality of what would be happening.” An attempt at sanitizing nuclear war into a seemingly more palatable event. “My first thought,” Postol remembers, was “how would a president understand what these attack options actually mean?” This censoring of grim truths about nuclear war extends to the public as well, Postal contends. “You don’t want your population to know you’re planning genocide.” 

What, if any, is the solution to this madness? Between the saber rattling and the secrecy, nuclear matters can present themselves as intractable. And yet, in reporting this story I witnessed a change in attitude from an unlikely source: the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a federal government organization that I’ve covered as a reporter for fifteen years.

“It’s the Oppenheimer effect,” Dr. Glen McDuff told me of this new attitude, “as in Oppenheimer the film.” Ever since the release of Christopher Nolan’s 2023 feature film, “the lab has been inundated with public curiosity about the bomb,” McDuff clarifies. “With requests about nuclear weapons.” And, he says, the lab has done its best to respond. The popularity of the film has renewed dialogue about the existential dangers nuclear weapons pose. And it led to the declassification (at this reporter’s behest) to one of the laboratory’s long-held secrets—the origin story of the Football.

Were the President of the United States to be called upon to open the Football, the situation that would follow would almost certainly spiral out of control. “The world could end in the next couple of hours,” former Stratcom commander General C. Robert Kehler (ret) says of nuclear war.

Nuclear war is the only scenario other than an asteroid strike that could end civilization in a matter hours. The soot from burning cities and forests will blot out the sun and cause a nuclear winter. State-of the art climate modeling predicts five billion humans will die. In the words of Nikita Khrushchev, “the survivors will envy the dead.”

And yet, threats abound. Vladimir Putin insists he is “not bluffing” about the possibility of using weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has test launched more than 100 missiles since January 2022, including nuclear-capable weapons that can hit the U.S. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warns the world, “Humanity is one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” The world balances on the razor’s edge. “This is madness,” Guterres says, “we must reverse course.” Change is possible. Help reverse course. “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev cautioned the world in a joint statement in 1985. Conversations between these two leaders led to the reduction in nuclear weapons from an all-time high of 70,481 warheads, to some 12,500 today. Dialogue matters. Join the conversation about nuclear weapons now, while we are all still able to have one.

This has been adapted from NUCLEAR WAR: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen with permission of Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.Copyright © 2024 by Anne M. Jacobsen

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.