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Pentagon watchdog to review ‘nuclear football’ safety procedures after January 6 incident


By Barbara Starr and Ellie Kaufman, CNN

The Department of Defense inspector general is launching a review of the Pentagon’s and White House’s ability to keep the “nuclear football” secure during a crisis, following an incident on January 6 when rioters came within 100 feet of the backup “football.”

The inspector general will evaluate the policies and procedures around the Presidential Emergency Satchel, also known as the “nuclear football,” in the event that it is “lost, stolen, or compromised,” according to an announcement from the DoD IG’s office.

The “nuclear football” stays close to the president at all times. There is a backup “football” that stays close to the vice president in the event that the president is unable to carry out his nuclear launch responsibilities. The briefcase contains equipment and decision-making papers that the president or, in the event the president is not able to, the vice president needs to authenticate orders for and to launch a nuclear strike.

The review was largely precipitated by congressional concerns following the events of January 6 on Capitol Hill, when rioters came within 100 feet of then-Vice President Mike Pence and the military aide accompanying him carrying the backup “football,” according to several defense officials.

“We took into consideration a variety of factors, including but not limited to congressional interest, when deciding to initiate this project,” Department of Defense Inspector General spokesperson Dwrena Allen told CNN.

“I’m not aware that such an assessment has ever been done before,” Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, told CNN. “A violent domestic insurrection was almost certainly not part of the DOD and Secret Service threat matrix until six months ago, and it’s the only recent known event putting the ‘football’ in significant potential danger to provoke this level of concern.”

Footage of the rioters coming close to Pence and the military aide carrying the backup “football” was played during the Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in February and raised concerns among several members of Congress.

“As the rioters reached the top of the stairs, they were within 100 feet of where the vice president was sheltering with his family, and they were just feet away from one of the doors to this chamber,” Delegate Stacey Plaskett, one of the impeachment managers, explained at the trial. In one video, the crowd can be heard chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” as they stand in an open doorway of the Capitol.

The Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security Rep. Stephen Lynch and the Chairman of the Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Rep. Jim Cooper applauded the DoD IG’s decision to evaluate the procedures around the “football” after what happened on January 6, the two said in a joint statement.

“The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, was not only an unprecedented attack on our democracy, but it also put our national security in grave danger,” they said. “According to public reports, as Vice President Pence hurried away to safety with a military aide carrying his emergency satchel, or ‘nuclear football,’ Pentagon officials were unaware that the football was potentially seconds away from falling into the hands of a lawless mob.”

“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,” they added.

The military officer was able to maintain control of the backup “football” while he was with Pence at all times on January 6, a defense official said. When the rioters got close to Pence, Trump was at the White House. Even if the rioters had gotten hold of it, they could not have used any of the information because of the security controls on the system, the official said.

A previous incident had occurred with the president’s “football” in 2017, during Trump’s state visit to China. During that trip, a scuffle broke out between Chinese and US officials inside the Great Hall of the People. It included the military aide carrying the nuclear suitcase, though the satchel was never compromised.

While the “football” wasn’t compromised in either incident, both of them raise the question of whether the policies and procedures around the suitcase are effective and secure.

The inspector general’s evaluation will “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,” the announcement said.

It will also “determine the adequacy of the procedures the DoD has developed to respond to such an event,” according to the announcement. The evaluation will begin in July.

This story has been updated with reaction.

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CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.

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