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Pentagon review: What happens if 'nuclear football' is lost?

Questions about security procedures arose after Jan. 6, when Vice President Mike Pence was escorted to safety along with a military aide carrying the backup communications system.
Image: Mike Pence
Mike Pence walks off the House floor during a joint session of Congress to certify the 2020 Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington.Erin Schaff / Pool via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is taking a rare look at whether it is prepared to deal with the theft or compromise of the portable communications system nicknamed the “nuclear football,” which enables the president or a stand-in to order a nuclear attack.

In announcing the probe Tuesday, the Pentagon inspector general’s office did not disclose what precipitated it, but questions about security procedures arose in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Vice President Mike Pence was seen on security camera video being escorted to safety, along with a military aide carrying the backup “nuclear football,” as rioters entered the Capitol.

A backup system always accompanies the vice president so that he is able to communicate in the event the president cannot. The “football,” officially called the Presidential Emergency Satchel, enables communication with the office inside the Pentagon that transmits nuclear attack orders.

The inspector general’s office said its review began this month. It gave no timeline for completing it.

“The objective of this evaluation is to determine the extent that DoD processes and procedures are in place and adequate to alert DoD officials in the event that the Presidential Emergency Satchel is lost, stolen, or compromised,” Randolph R. Stone, an assistant inspector general, wrote in a July 19 letter to the director of the White House military office and the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. “This evaluation will also determine the adequacy of the procedures the DoD has developed to respond to such an event.”

Two Democrats who had asked the Pentagon inspector general to review the matter, Reps. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Jim Cooper of Tennessee, said in a joint statement that the Jan. 6 riot raised questions about whether the Pentagon was even aware that Pence’s “nuclear football” was potentially in danger of falling into the hand of insurrectionists.

“It is imperative that we fully understand the processes and procedures that are in place to protect the Presidential Emergency Satchel — especially when its custodians might be in danger — and we applaud the (inspector general) for accepting our request to initiate this evaluation,” they said.

Lynch and Cooper wrote the Pentagon inspector general’s office in March requesting a review.

“U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for U.S. strategic deterrence and nuclear operations, was reportedly unaware that Vice President Pence, his military aide, and the nuclear football were all potentially in danger and only came to understand the gravity of the incident several weeks later when security camera footage was played as a video exhibit during the Senate impeachment trial,” they wrote.