Start the clip at about 5:04.

General Turgidson: Mr. President, about thirty-five minutes ago, General Jack Ripper, the commanding General of Burpleson Air Force Base, issued an order to the 34 B-52′s of his wing which were airborne at the time as part of a special exercise we were holding called Operation Dropkick. Now, it appears that the order called for the planes to attack their targets inside Russia. The planes are fully armed with nuclear weapons with an average load of 40 megatons each. Now the central display of Russia will indicate the position of the planes. The triangles are their primary targets, the squares are their secondary targets. The aircraft will begin penetrating Russian radar cover within 25 minutes.

President Muffley: General Turgidson, I find this very difficult to understand. I was under the impression that I was the only one in authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.

General Turgidson: That’s right sir. You are the only person authorized to do so. And although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964

This moment in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is like many others the film — it is darkly humorous, but also accurate.  The authority to launch a nuclear weapons is not the same as the capability to do so.

That is an important distinction to keep in mind, when reading about this story that Bill Clinton — or, rather, a Clinton aide — misplaced the President’s laminated card (the “biscuit”) containing the codes to authorize the use of nuclear weapons.

The story has been revived by the memoir of General Hugh Shelton, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for much of the Clinton Administration.  In Shelton’s telling,  President Clinton’s nuclear authorization “codes were actually missing for months.” Shelton describes this as “a big deal — a gargantuan deal” — “we would be unable to launch a retaliatory strike” with nuclear weapons.  He further describes the employment of nuclear weapons without the codes as “impossible” and a “deal-breaker.”

Although Shelton claims this “has never been released,” the story actually tracks with  a similar claim in Robert “Buzz” Patterson’s Dereliction of Duty.  Patterson, who was one of Clinton’s military aides for a time (the guy who carries the President’s Emergency Satchel, more colorfully known as “The Football”) wrote a book so scurrilous in its accusations about Bill Clinton that no one took it seriously. (Among other reasons to be skeptical, Patterson claims he was in the oval office at 7:00 am on January 21, 1998.  The Clinton schedules don’t have a meeting before 9:00 am, though they’ve been heavily sanitized. He also makes minor mistakes, like promoting Bruce Lindsey from Deputy to White House Counsel.)

There are some important differences between Shelton and Patterson’s account.  Shelton places the event “around the year 2000″ rather than January 1998.  Shelton also blames the President’s “aide” — presumably the military aide — noting “even though the movies may show the President wearing these codes around his neck. its pretty standard that they are safeguarded by one of his aides, but that aide sticks with him like glue…” It’s possible Patterson heard the story second hand, or Shelton has the date wrong and is pinning the blame on him.

In either case, however, the story seems to suggests that the entire US nuclear arsenal suffers from the possibility of a single point failure, in the form of a small laminated card that, according to lore, has been routinely misplaced by the occupant of the Oval Office.  Such stories involve Carter sending it to cleaners with his suit, and being misplaced in the hospital as doctors worked to save President Reagan after the 1981 attempt on his life.  The problem with a lot of these stories is that much of what we know about the authorization process comes from pretty sensationalistic accounts — starting with Bill Gully’s 1980 book Breaking Cover, through memoirs by Ivian Smith and Patterson. (Bruce Blair’s The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War is a welcome exception to this trend.)

Shelton’s account, however, is somewhat simplistic. The important point is that it would not be impossible for a group of senior US officials to order a nuclear strike without the President — although they would, of course, be exceeding their authority.  And the scope of such a conspiracy is virtually unthinkable.  And, of course, any disruption of the normal comand-and-control procedures would be very unwelcome in a crisis.

Well, who am I to tell the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he’s not quite right?  Tom Ricks and David Hoffman have both pointed out reasons to be skeptical of Shelton’s account.  There is at least some reason to think that Shelton might be conflating the President’s authority to use nuclear weapons, with STRATCOM’s ability to do so.

The first hint, of course, is that a new set of codes had been delivered to the President.  This isn’t like an ATM pin number that the President makes up (Chelsea’s birthday!).  This is an alphanumeric code generated automatically, by the National Security Agency.  The President gets the code delivered to him.  There are procedures to replace codes that have been compromised.

The second hint comes from a description of the procedure for launching a nuclear weapon on a Trident ballistic missile submarine bu Douglas Waller in his excellent Big Red: Three Months on Board a Trident Nuclear Submarine:

The supersecret National Security Agency, whose spy satellites and ground antennas vacuum phone calls all over the world, produces the [Sealed Authenticator System] SAS codes.  Agency machines stamp the same computer-generated code of randomly arranged letters and numbers on two plastic cards.  The machine then seals each card in a shiny metal foil.  The code cards are nicknamed “SAS cookies” because they look like wafer bars wrapped in tinfoil.  The machine was specially built to do all the stamping and sealing itself, so no human eyes ever see the numbers and letters printed on the cards.

One of the sealed cards is placed aboard the Trident.  Its twin, with the identical arrangement of numbers and letters, is kept by the Strategic Command.  When STRATCOM’s generals drafted the emergency action message to launch nuclear weapons, they would break open the sealed card and print its authentication code in the order.  At the other end, the Trident captain could break open the card he had and compare the alphanumeric code on it with the arrangement of numbers and letters in the message.  If the two codes matched, the captain could be certain that he had a valid launch order.

There are several interesting things about this account: First, the authentication code that a Trident submarine commander receives from STRATCOM is not the same one that comes from the President.  Which makes sense, because otherwise a local commander could compromise the entire authorization system just by opening his package of cookies.  Second, authentication is not automated — it is done by a pair of human beings, with their eyes and their brains.  This makes sense — if the code were programmed into a computer system, it would be vulnerable to hacking.

Which brings us back to the distinction between authorization and ability.  The codes are used to demonstrate down the chain of command that the use of nuclear weapons has been authorized.  But the judgment is a human one, by those who are (in aggregate) capable of acting on those orders.  Of course, there are coded control devices that unlock weapons systems, but those codes are not held by the President.

The reason for this should be obvious — the system is designed to avoid precisely the sort of single-point failure that Shelton describes.

Shelton has a readable account of command and control of nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t really jibe with more wonkish debates.  As the Cold War ended, for example, the George H. W. Bush Administration looked at command and control arrangements very carefully, through the Failsafe and Risk Reduction (FARR) Advisory Committee, chaired by the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

The FARR Committee  — the final report is now partially declassified — was aware that efforts to improve surety must not interfere with authorized uses.   So, for example, the FARR Committee noted that the National Command and Control System “is enjoined to meet the dual requirements of assuring the authorized use of nuclear weapons while assuring against their unauthorized or inadvertent use.  National guidance mandates an appropriate balance between these sometimes competing objectives.” Emphasis in the original.

The kinds of discussions in the FARR Committee suggest that the balance still favors assuring authorized use.  For example, a major recommendation of the FARR committee was to have STRATCOM hold the combination for the safe aboard the Trident, which had previously been available to a Trident commander.  This shifted the balance a bit from assuring that a submarine commander could always use nuclear weapons, even if communications were disrupted, in favor of never permitting an unauthorized use.  But overall this is a far cry from having the President alone know the code to each and every safe aboard a Trident submarine.

Shelton is right, however, that without the Presidential authorization code, it would be very hard to convince the next layer down the chain of command that the order to employ nuclear weapons had been lawfully given.  But that is because people down the chain of command would object — ultimately, this system relies on the reliability of personnel.  Again, as the FARR Committee observed: “Loyal and capable personnel compose the most important layer in the system of positive measures.”

Hence, the dark but accurate humor in Kubrick’s observation that it’s beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority. This is a system based on human beings.  Human beings are fallible.  Which, in an odd way, was precisely the moral of the tale as told by General Shelton:

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.