Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Shelton (last): Lost nuclear codes and sabotaging NoKo’s weapons exports

Finally, I’m ending my Week of General Shelton Posts with a couple of things in his memoirs that struck me as revelatory. Which is only to say that I hadn’t heard about them before, and for 17 years I covered this stuff full-time. First, he reports, a bit mysteriously, that late in the Clinton administration, ...

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Finally, I'm ending my Week of General Shelton Posts with a couple of things in his memoirs that struck me as revelatory. Which is only to say that I hadn't heard about them before, and for 17 years I covered this stuff full-time.

First, he reports, a bit mysteriously, that late in the Clinton administration, the president's authorization codes to use nuclear weapons strike were lost. He doesn't really explain what happened or who knew about it, except that the guy who was supposed to make sure once a month that an aide to the president had the codes kept getting the runaround, and putting up with it. It turned out that an aide to the president had misplaced the codes, and had no idea where they were. The situation only came to light when it was time to collect the old codes and replace them with new ones, and the aide apparently confessed. Shelton tells the story a bit oddly -- I had to read this section a few times. I am guessing that the story is about the nuclear "football" that a military aide carries. It made me wonder what happened to that aide. Also, what would have happened if the president had decided to launch a nuclear strike? (392-393)

Second, Shelton reports that when he was chief of the Special Operations Command before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1997, the CIA learned that a ship was coming out of North Korea carrying "an illegal weapon." (He isn't more specific, but I am guessing it is some sort of missile or missile-related technology.) And the ship was going to pass through the Panama Canal. So, he says, part of SEAL Team Six went in and was able to "'immobilize' in a special way without leaving a trace." (279) I was glad to hear this -- you always hope that this is the sort of thing Special Operators do, but obviously you never hear much about it. In fact, I was sort of surprised that Shelton felt able to disclose it. But keep it in mind the next time an Iranian missile launch mysteriously fails. Hmmm

Finally, I’m ending my Week of General Shelton Posts with a couple of things in his memoirs that struck me as revelatory. Which is only to say that I hadn’t heard about them before, and for 17 years I covered this stuff full-time.

First, he reports, a bit mysteriously, that late in the Clinton administration, the president’s authorization codes to use nuclear weapons strike were lost. He doesn’t really explain what happened or who knew about it, except that the guy who was supposed to make sure once a month that an aide to the president had the codes kept getting the runaround, and putting up with it. It turned out that an aide to the president had misplaced the codes, and had no idea where they were. The situation only came to light when it was time to collect the old codes and replace them with new ones, and the aide apparently confessed. Shelton tells the story a bit oddly — I had to read this section a few times. I am guessing that the story is about the nuclear "football" that a military aide carries. It made me wonder what happened to that aide. Also, what would have happened if the president had decided to launch a nuclear strike? (392-393)

Second, Shelton reports that when he was chief of the Special Operations Command before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1997, the CIA learned that a ship was coming out of North Korea carrying "an illegal weapon." (He isn’t more specific, but I am guessing it is some sort of missile or missile-related technology.) And the ship was going to pass through the Panama Canal. So, he says, part of SEAL Team Six went in and was able to "’immobilize’ in a special way without leaving a trace." (279) I was glad to hear this — you always hope that this is the sort of thing Special Operators do, but obviously you never hear much about it. In fact, I was sort of surprised that Shelton felt able to disclose it. But keep it in mind the next time an Iranian missile launch mysteriously fails. Hmmm

If you buy the book, I’d advise starting about halfway through. Every quotation I have used from the book this week has come after page 250.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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