Why a mysterious black briefcase follows the US President everywhere

Nuclear footballJamie Chung/Smithsonian InstituteA retired ‘Football’ display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The so-called nuclear “Football”is a black leather briefcase comprised of top-secret items capable of allowing the US President to authorise a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centres such as the Situation Room in the White House.

Officially referred to as the “president’s emergency satchel,” the unsophisticated-looking portable Football is hand-carried by one of five military aides and is always within reach of the commander in chief, just in case.

According to Bill Gulley, a former Director of the White House Military Office, the ubiquitous Football does not contain a doomsday red button keypad but rather, these four items:

  • A 75-paged Black Book of retaliatory nuclear strike options printed in black and red ink
  • Another black book with a list of classified sites to shelter the president
  • A manila folder containing 10-pages of instructions on how to operate the Emergency Broadcast System
  • An index card with authentication codes

Furthermore, sometimes an antenna can be seen poking out of the briefcase — suggesting that their may be communications equipment also inside.

Football with antennaGetty/Amanda Macias/Business InsiderA member of the U.S. military carries the ‘football,’ the case in his left hand, as he walks behind U.S. President George W. Bush toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House August 2, 2005

The nickname Football stems from “Dropkick,” a code name given to a secret nuclear war plan, according to former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. Initiating a Dropkick would require one of these Footballs, the Smithsonian Magazine explains.

The military aides selected to carry the briefcase are trained to administer the president for a nuclear attack within minutes.

“You’re always kind of on edge,” recalls then-Air Force major Robert Patterson, who toted the Football for President Bill Clinton.

“I opened it up constantly just to refresh myself, to always be aware of what was in it, all the potential decisions the president could possibly make,” Patterson told the Associated Press.

Nuclear footballCliff Owen/APA military aide carries the ‘Football’, a leather briefcase stocked with the classified nuclear war plans, in his right hand as he walks up the stairs of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, in Md. Wednesday, April 7, 2010.

The ubiquitous Football is always in the same aeroplane, helicopter, car, and elevator alongside the president. When the president is at home, the Football is stored in a secure location inside the White House, the AP reports.

According to Patterson, some aides chased after Clinton while he jogged around the White House compound — all the while lugging the approximately 45-pound briefcase.

The lethal luggage first appeared during Kennedy’s administration, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. It became immediately clear to top national security officers that the president needed unlimited access to nuclear war plans after he reportedly posed the following questions during a National Security Council meeting:

Fifty three years later, the regularly-updated Football represents the incredible military might and tremendous responsibility that follows the President’s everywhere.

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