Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Top general says Bill Clinton lost code for nuclear launch

U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks during a 1998 press conference at the White House in Washington with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

William Philpott/AFP

The U.S. government's procedures for launching nuclear missiles are supposed to be airtight: the codes for unleashing the atomic might of the world's largest superpower are kept locked in a briefcase carried by an aide who accompanies the president at all times.

The codes for opening the briefcase, in turn, are inscribed on a plastic card carried by the president.

So what if that precious piece of plastic - nicknamed "the biscuit" in the bizarre jargon of the Secret Service - goes missing?

Story continues below advertisement

That's exactly what happened in 2000, during the administration of president Bill Clinton, writes General Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

According to the Daily Telegraph and several other media outlets around the world, General Shelton's new memoir, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, reveals that no one could find the codes for several months in 2000. An aide finally admitted they had been lost.

"The codes were actually missing for months," he wrote. "That's a big deal - a gargantuan deal."

Perhaps more surprisingly, it may not have been the first time Mr. Clinton misplaced the free world's most important set of numbers.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Patterson, one of the people tasked with toting the briefcase during Mr. Clinton's presidency, wrote in his own book seven years ago that the forgetful POTUS misplaced the card - which he apparently kept in his pants pockets with his credit cards - on two occasions.

The first time, he left it in the White House when he went to play a round of golf; the second time, in early 1998, aides turned the White House upside-down, and searched the president's clothes without finding them.

To be fair, Mr. Clinton may have had other things on his mind - the morning he lost the second codes was apparently the one on which the press broke a story about a former intern named Monica Lewinsky.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.