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It's been reported that the nuclear football will be coming with President Obama during his historic visit to Hiroshima.

Could a president decide to give the nuclear football to the vice president instead? As well as being more diplomatic in this scenario, there could be other instances such as when the president is visiting a hostile nation where not carrying the nuclear football would be advisable. Even though the secretary of defense also has to authorize a nuclear strike, having the control codes in certain scenarios might be overly high risk.

  • 12
    as long as it's not a forward pass. – user1530 May 23 '16 at 14:31
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As far as I could tell, the President could decide to do whatever he wants with the "football" (in terms of where it is, anyway), but it would be useless if not near him and so would defeat the entire purpose. The football by itself is just a communications device and the relevant documentation for emergency options (nuclear and otherwise). It's less talked about, but the Vice President also has his own copy.1 The actual authentication codes (not launch codes!) to verify the President's identity are carried on a separate index card which the President carries with them. The Vice President also has codes, for the same purpose - they authenticate the VP to whoever's at the other end of the football's communication link, thereby allowing him to order a strike if he has the authority to do so (i.e. is Acting President).

The briefcase has been with Presidents in both Soviet Russia and the Vatican.2,3 It's also been left behind or misplaced on occasion, although never for long. The aide doesn't necessarily have to stand next to him at all times, but just be close by for ease-of-access. Presumably, when he's actually asleep on a trip, the aide carrying it is in the next room with the rest of his bodyguard detail. So it would be unheard of for Obama to order it out of his immediate vicinity, although he could likely instruct the aide to hang back somewhat to avoid being in photographs.

2

Actually, Yes, but the Hiroshima event wouldn't have qualified. The 25th Amendment allows for procedures for the President to declare himself temperarily unable to discharge the duties of the office by a letter to both the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate. In such an event the Vice President becomes the Acting President and has all the duties of the President while POTUS is relieved. There has to date been three terms of an Acting President in U.S. History: then Vice President George HW Bush, while serving as VPOTUS to Ronald Regan (July 13, 1985 from 1128 to 1922 EST), and Dick Cheney in two separate incidents under George W Bush(June 29, 2002, from 0709 to 0924 EST and again on July 21, 2007, from 0709 to 0924 EST.). In all cases, the President was scheuled for surgery that required his anesthetization to perform.

While the Constitution doesn't say it specifically, the reason for this part of the 25th Amendment is specifically for the transfer of the Football to the Vice President. By law, only the President may order a nuclear strike (The Secratary of Defense can confirm the order is from the President... he can't overrule the President once the order is made). This presented a problem in the situation where the President was aware he couldn't access the Football such as a surgery, because the Soviets (or anyone but lets be real about who was the bad guy during the era this Amendment was passed) would be able to launch a First Strike assault without fear of a Second Strike retaliation anytime the President was Scheduled for surgery... which would be public knowledge. As bad as the onset of Nuclear War would be, it was deemed that stopping a doctor who is elbow deep in Leader of the Free World to open the Football was not an ideal situation. So this specific mechanism was introduced in law to allow the President to temporarily step down and empower the Vice President to act in his stead... up to and including deploying nuclear strikes.

Similarly, the "Designated Survivor" in the Cabinet will also have a Football present during the event where they are designated the "Designated Survivor". This is different however in that the Designated Survivor is only named during major events when the entire Presidential Line of Sucession is present in a single event (this happens at least once a year, during the State of the Union) and is usually a low on the totem pole member of the succession line. Ordinarily, the Cabinet is not followed with the Football on a day to day basis.

While we're on the subject, Operation LOOKINGGLASS, which are a series of Planes that are purpose built for Nuclear Command and Control personnel and would be the aircraft of first choice to evacuate the President as opposed to the tradditional Air Force One planes under the best case scenario (The Air Force One planes can do in a pinch, but LOOKINGLASS is preferred). To prevent any foreign agents from getting the wrong idea and accidently starting a Nuclear War, the President is never allowed to fly in these aircraft unless its "Not a Drill". So during Drills, the part of the President will be played by a government worker who is definitely not the President, but will be treated as if he was for the duration of the drill. Normally his "acting" is scripted so any major decision is determined by the people writing the particular War Game scenario. Similarly, War Games will never use "Defcon" designations with a series of Code Words substitute in that are used in place for training only. For example, the highest DEFCON, DEFCON 1 is (in what has to be some black humor) COCKED PISTOL in any War Game scenario. And lest you think this is overly paranoid, an accidental Nuclear War was nearly started in 1983 exercise Able Archer 83 specifically because the Soviet Union thought that the training terms were just codes for the Real Defcon (at the time, they were under the impression that the U.S. would use a war game as cover for mobilization for a real attack. And Able Archer was designed to simulate an escalation to Nuclear War with the Soviets (specifically, the Soviets launched the First Strike in the scenario). To Soviet observers, it was way to close to what they thought the war would look like.). It wasn't helped that they almost started a nuclear war by accident months earlier... which was only stopped because a colonel didn't think it looked right... so they were on edge to begin with.).

  • Huh. I hadn’t actually considered the timing of the 25th before, but it totally makes sense that there was a need to clarify the order and timing of succession in the context of the Cold War and ordering a nuclear strike. – Bobson Sep 9 at 11:34
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The answer is no if we consider the biscuit/football as part of a system to launch nuclear weapons at the President's discretion/order. In this Atlantic article, theoretically (although Clinton did lose the biscuit) describes what you posit, but as a scenario if a president lost the id codes. Seemingly, this is a non-delegateable responsibility that a sitting president cannot or should not cede to an underling. The scenario violates the chain of command, and standard operating procedures.

So Al Gore gets "the call" because Clinton can't properly ID himself. Gore is confused, lives in Washington, knows the President is fine. He tells NORAD to hold while he tracks down the President, who can't verify his own identify anyway. Precious minutes (and I do mean precious, seconds count in the nuke business) are lost while civilian and military leadership sort things out.

And that says nothing of the fact that the President would be in gross violation of his duties by allowing the VP to execute an order that is lawfully the President's to make.

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