Kingston Reif, an expert on nuclear weapons policy at the nonpartisan Arms Control Association, told CNN that if protesters had attacked Pence’s detail and gotten their hands on the football, it would have been a “security breach of almost incomprehensible proportions,” allowing information such as pre-planned nuclear strike options to fall into the wrong hands or be shared with the world. The incident “ought to raise further questions about the rationale for the anachronism that is the football,” Reif added.
A letter written in March by Sean O’Donnell, Acting Inspector General for the DOD, also states that USSTRATCOM was “reportedly unaware that Vice President Pence, his military aide, and the nuclear football were all potentially in danger.” O’Donnell states that Strategic Command only came to understand the seriousness of the security breach several weeks after the Capitol insurrection when security camera footage was played during a Senate impeachment trial.
O’Donnell’s letter references another occasion on which the safety of the nuclear football was threatened. In 2017, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and a member of the U.S. Secret Service got into a physical altercation with Chinese security forces who blocked the individual carrying the football from following the President. You can read more about the bizarre dust-up in this past article of ours.
“These incidents raise grave national security concerns,” O’Donnell notes. In a separate incident, former President Donald Trump allowed guests at his Mar-A-Lago resort to pose for pictures with the nuclear football, raising questions about who could get close to the satchel.
While the Secret Service Presidential/Vice-Presidential details and counter-assault teams (CAT) could inflect lethal force to protect the football, even with their skill and dedication, an angry mob may not be adequately repelled by such a defense. In this case, things were happening so fast and the space was so crowded, it may not have been possible to put up much of a fight before control of the situation was lost. And it isn’t just about what’s in the case that matters, it is also the symbolic nature of it. It represents the reliability of America’s nuclear deterrent. Losing it would be a major blow to the perception of the deterrent and its ability to be used at a moment’s notice.
Many of these recent incidents have ignited debate over the nuclear football and, more broadly, the powers the United States President has in terms of ordering nuclear strikes. Some have argued that since the threat of nuclear war isn’t as pressing as it was during the Cold War, the President no longer needs to have such executive authority when it comes to ordering nuclear strikes. As others, like General Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, have noted, the system “is designed for speed and decisiveness” and “not designed to debate the decision.” Given the speed of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the U.S. would only have minutes to decide to respond to an incoming nuclear strike, making the football still somewhat of a terrifying necessity, at least without major reform to how these weapons are employed and by who.
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