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The Guy Who Carried the Nuclear Football

The nuclear codes are one of the United States government’s most closely guarded secrets. The codes are carried in an emergency satchel — a briefcase that can only be accessed by those who have clearance. Since the days of President John F. Kennedy, a senior military aide has accompanied the president with this briefcase literally attached to them. It’s known as the “nuclear football.”

US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Buzz Patterson served in this sensitive role during the Clinton administration. Over the course of Patterson’s 20-year career in the Air Force, he served in combat contingencies in Grenada, Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia, the Persian Gulf, and Bosnia. But holding the nuclear football was the most prestigious assignment.

The White House asked me to interview for the position in the fall of 1995. I was one of six Air Force officers the Department of Defense recommended for the position,” Patterson recalled. “It’s not a position that you can apply for. The Pentagon makes recommendations, and there’s a very extensive background check involved.”

Patterson explained that the position requires the highest security clearance in our nation — the same clearance as the president. After a two-day interview process, he was selected and began his service as the military aide to President Bill Clinton in May 1996.

The person charged with carrying the nuclear football does a lot more than just walk around with the briefcase though.

“The military aide is also responsible for coordinating with all military personnel assigned to the White House. That includes Air Force One, Marine One, the White House Communications Agency, the White House Transportation Agency, and the White House Mess,” Patterson explained. “Support for the presidency requires a huge logistical footprint.”

At times, there are concerns about the safety and security of the military aide. Patterson experienced this himself in the Philippines while attending the Asian Pacific Economic Conference.

“When we were arriving to the hall for the opening evening event, the Philippine military and police intercepted me and the football, and escorted me away,” Patterson said.

As you might imagine, that didn’t go over very well.

Patterson continued, “As I walked into the Oval Office, I noticed the Washington Post’s headline. I knew about Monica, and I knew this would not be a happy day in the White House.”

“Obviously, that breaks protocol and separated me from the president,” Patterson continued. “Our Secret Service quickly jumped in, took over, and got me back to the president. It was all over Asian TV and a black eye for the Philippines.”

Patterson also shared details of what was one of his most challenging days on the job. President Clinton was on a secret trip to visit the troops in Bosnia for Christmas in 1997.

“We were onboard Air Force One, about halfway across the Atlantic when I realized that the weather in Europe was going to preclude us from landing,” Patterson said. The plan was to land in Italy and transfer to C-17 military cargo aircraft before completing the last leg of the trip, as Bosnia was an active combat zone at the time. But that plan wasn’t going to work due to the entire continent being covered in bad weather.

Patterson with former President Bill Clinton. Photo courtesy of Buzz Patterson.

 

“So, I got to work. We needed to divert Air Force One, and that’s a massive undertaking. I called the Pentagon and Air Mobility Command Headquarters, woke up several generals, and we diverted to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.” Patterson’s quick thinking under pressure paid off. “The whole base was alerted. We met the C-17s there and headed on to Bosnia. After visiting our troops in Sarajevo and Tuzla, we headed back to Air Force One in Italy and flew all night home — it was a crazy 36-hour experience.”

Most Americans might find the fact that a sitting president lost the codes a lot more stressful though.

“I was the first person on his schedule that day to brief him on the nuclear process and answer any questions he might have,” Patterson explained. “We did it every so often, just to keep him up to speed. It was about 7 AM ... the same morning that the Monica Lewinsky affair hit the national press.”

Patterson continued, “As I walked into the Oval Office, I noticed the Washington Post’s headline. I knew about Monica, and I knew this would not be a happy day in the White House.”

Despite the public revelation, he approached the president.

“I could see he was tired and obviously troubled that he’d been caught,” Patterson said. “I offered that I could come back later, and he agreed that was a good idea.”

It wasn’t long before Clinton admitted that he lost the codes.

“As I was leaving, I asked him if I could just confirm that he had the codes, as that was one of the reasons to brief him. He confessed that he didn’t and had no idea where they were or how long it had been since he’d seen them,” Patterson said.“I was floored — and so was the Pentagon. It had never happened before.”

Patterson explained that there was a period of time — days, weeks, or months — that the president didn’t have the ability to respond and authenticate himself to the Pentagon. “We had them replaced the next day, but not without much consternation and work,” he said.

All in a day’s work when you hold the keys to the nation’s nukes.

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